There is a poignant lack of possibilities in the narrative structures in the political-economic stories we tell ourselves. Our current cultural stories are a curious mix of hierarchical stories around government and corporations – presidents and CEOS are managing those below them, and non-hierarchical stories about the market – money and property self-organizes society to function best. What is dearly missing from our government and corporation stories are the non-hiearchical narrative stories for self-organization, emergence and the ontologies that make this emergence possible. And what is maddenlingly suppressed by our capitalistic memes are the narratives that allow for people to care about each other and self-organize into gift-based and commons-based economies
The ontologies for these new self-organizing systems do exist. In chemistry, biology and physics new ontologies have been entering into the discourse over the last 50 years- those of autocatalysis, self-organized criticality, phase transitions in dissipative systems, universality, iteration of simple rules leading to complexity, autopoiesis, strange attractors, feedback loops, fractals, cellular automata, fitness landscapes, coupling parameters, lock-in, multiple equilibria, increasing returns, path dependence, and the edge of chaos. New ontologies are also entering into the meme field from quite a different direction, that of the world of facilitation – Open Space Technology, Dynamic Facilitation, Theory U, Appreciative Inquiry, World Cafe, Bohmian Dialogue, Non-violent communication, Future Search, Wisdom councils, and Restorative Circles. This world brings its attendant concepts that shift the discourse from that of leader, follower, plan, incentives, obediance, loyalty, to those of hosting, space holding, vulnerability, emotional safety, sacred space, listening, empathy, presence, authenticity, diversity, synthesizing multiple viewpoints, and collective intelligence. There are also new ontologies ariving from the world of psychological and sociological research – the developmental theories of Robert Kegan, Susan Cook-Greuter, Jane Loevinger, Lawerence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Clare Graves, Don Beck, Ken Wilber look at how people and social systems become more caring, empathic, altruistic, and ethical as they mature.
These psycho-social insights around caring and morals have to be combined with the new ontologies around complex dynamics systems. Otherwise you get work similar to that arising from the school of thoughts based around the Santa Fe Institute of Complexity. Work that I generally find refreshing original and insightful, work from people like Brian Arthur, Kenneth Arrow and Stuart Kauffman on new forms of non-equilibrium and multiple equilibium emergence arising from our economics systems that are not expected from traditional neoclassical equilibrium theories of emergence (like single state equilibrium models of supply and demand). But their work is mired in an axiomatic basis that assumes people are selfish and work to maximize self-interest.
One way psycho-social insights can be integrated in, is to let the agents in a complex adaptive system exhibit different types of behavior depending on their psychosocial development e.g. a crude way in game theory would be to have agents maximizing self-interested fitness functions at lower levels of development, and have agents work to increase their self and the other players’ fitness functions at higher levels of development. These games can be used to model sharing economies and the commons. And be examined to see how different types of emergence correspond to different levels of psychosocial development in the agent populace. Different sets of stable states will appear for different levels, corresponding to a wide variety of possible behaviors in our sharing economies and the commons.
The integration of different ontologies is not simple nor linear : e.g. How can we map non-hierarchical government models and different types of facilitation into dynamical systems models? When the different ontologies, the different maps come together though there can be a deep aha : the decision-making in non-hierarchical government can be mapped onto the search for the best solution in a fitness landscape ; different facilitation methods can be mapped onto different types of trajectories through this fitness landscape. These interdisciplinary mappings, this new story opens up new vistas for understanding : in the above example this new interdisciplinary map can give us guidance for which facilitation method to use in which situation in non-hierarchical governance, because we can see which trajectories through the fitness landscape is most likely to yield the best and most efficient solutions. We then have new insights into what facilitation techniques to use in what situations for worker coops, for transition town meetings, for open source software governance etc. We can understand better why in some situations non-hierarchical decision-making can lead to endless loops with nothing happening, why in some cases it can descend into chaos, and what tweaks to our facilitation methods we may want to make to get out of those situations. We can also grok better why sometimes a facilitation technique like Open Space Technology can make a process so much more efficient that an organization project process which usually takes months ends up taking only a few days. This kind of theoretical basis can help pave the way for governments, businesses and non-profits to switch to more non-hiearchical forms.
There are a panoply of stories that one can tell about any given situation. How do we tell which ones correspond to reality and which to fantasy? In the hard sciences, in physics, chemistry and biology the story is tested by experiment. The experiment can falsify the story. The scientific path is strewn with discarded theories, including many that were at one time what the majority of people believed. This scientific approach has been emulated by psychology and the behavioral sciences. It has however been slow to be taken up by economics and politics. But progress is on the way. The amount of papers published in experimental economics and experimental political science is increasing. And some of those papers challenge the neoclassical economists orthodoxies. Experiments in economics show that increasing the amount of money someone can earn does not necessarily increase performance, it may in fact decrease it. Experiments demonstrate that people do not always behave to maximize self-interest, they will also act altruistically. Elinor Ostrom won the Swedish Banks Nobel memorial prize in 2009 for her work showing that a social system with a commons does not necessarily dynamically evolve to the equilibrium state known as the tragedy of the commons, it can in fact evolve under certain conditions (by varying the parameter of how much they interact with each other) to a state where people respect the commons, and partake of it in a way which leaves enough for everyone else. John Kagel ran an interesting game theory experiment where the propensity of participants to gift or not depended on whether the game theory payoff tables were made available. The reason for this may be that the presence of a payoff table sets the context for the story the participants were telling themselves. Without it they created another story about the game, one which allowed for the possibility of gifting.
Economic experiments in the future could map out more fully the workings of a gift economy where people gift each other services. For instance in a gift circle (where people share what they need and then help each other with those needs) the different types of stable states the system can evolve to could be tested for. The flow of people into a gift circle could be varied (thus creating a nonequilibrium flux) to see how that affects the types of stable states the system evolves to. Economic experiments can also map out the influence of narrative context for economic behavior, how does what story participants are told about what is happening affect the stable points and attractor states of the system? Political science experiments in the future could compare how different hierarchical and non-hierarchical structures affect the efficiency of a collective to work together. So for instance a group can be given a problem that they must work together to accomplish. Different groups are instructed to use different facilitation methods or to use command-and-control hierarchical methods. The success rates different organizational methodologies for solving the problem could then be analysed. The different types of paths each faciltation method took through the problem fitness landscape could be studied.
Complex system models could also come up with mathematical predictions for how these economic and political experiments would behave. Mathematical predictions that come true make a story much more believable. For the most part the mathematization has not happened yet. The socio-econo-political realm is known for being messy, a lot messier than the hard sciences. However dissipative systems offer the possibility that the messy dimensions of a social system dynamical decay, leaving beautiful numbers. In addition it may also be that the underlying complex systems structure may show through even if there is no decay of noise. In the Ostrom commons experiment above we may find that as we change the interactivity parameter of the participants there may be a phase transition in the type of commons behavior. As people interact with each other more, there reaches a point where people are connected enough that information is able to pass through a larger part of the system through one-on-one.interactions. In random graph theory Erdos has shown that as nodes in a graph get more and more connected, there reaches a point when the majority of the nodes are connected. This is the percolation point at which a new attractor state for the commons may occur. This kind of arising of new types of behavior is related to Stuart Kauffmans work on emergence and the edge of chaos which has to deal with topics like how molecules interacting with each other when they reach a certain level of interactivity can autocatalyse to produce life. This is also related to in physics of how varying the coupling parameter in a system will lead to different phases of behavior.
If this type of phase transition behavior occurs for commons outside the experimental lab, then this provides a new way of governance for the commons. For instance in a town which is implementing a commons-based bicycle program can instead of designing the rules for how the bicycles are used top down, can instead facilitate the town-folk in dialogue processes. If enough of the townfolk are part of the processes to so that interactivity degree is passed the percolation point, the group may emerge better ways of self-governing how they use the bicycles.
In traditional political economic discussions, where we have a hierarchical government with a self-organizing market, the debate is about how we can shift the parameters of interest rates, money supply, market incentives so that the society settles into the best attractor states. In these new paradigm discussions, where we have non-hierarchical governance, and a sharing & commons based economy, the talk is instead about a parameter that is quite different, a parameter that at first seems like it should not have that important bearing on the political economy, seems like it would not cause large scale changes in societal behavior. Its a variable however that complex adaptive systems shows us can cause phase transitions. This variable is how much and what type of interactivity the populace engages in. Its a parameter that depends on what type of facilitation processes the populace comes to dialogue with each other, what type of network connections exist. The political economic discussion is thus about how to vary this parameter to guide the populace so that the society settles into the best attractor states.
The new stories, the new theories will combine autocatalysis, phase transitions, complex dynamical systems, with holding space, emotional vulnerability, empathy, facilitation and diversity of opinions, with circles, horizontal social architectures, agile project management, open source methodologies, peer-to-peer networks, and flat organizational developmental strategies.
Its a curious thing. Our stories guide us to write our reality. And because we then see our reality through these stories we think that is all that is possible. We collectively create these self-imposed constraints on reality. When we write new stories, our collective reality becomes different, we interact in new ways, we build new things, a whole new world becomes possible. These new ontologies mentioned above, as they become translated, fitted, tinkered, and molded to work with our political economy by practitioners versatile and conversant in multiple fields and daring enough to think outside the box will in the future craft a new story that will bring about a new friendlier, more participatory world our governments, businesses, organizations, and markets can play in.
“Complex adaptive systems and the future of facilitation”
“Collaborative rationality” a review of “Planning with complexity”, a book about complex adaptive systems applied to facilitation and planning