Thursday, April 5, 2012

Systems Should be Designed with Biology in Mind

It has not escaped my notice that a new election year has come; which brings to mind politics and government in general.  The world political systems are a mess; that much I think we can all agree on.  From there the schools of thought begin to differ.  Briefly, as I (and others) see it, there are two schools of thought about how governments should be run at least in American politics; to care or to be fair; also known as the left and the right.  Another source of contention, of course, is the fight between the 'haves' and 'have nots'.  This debate can be seen in the U.S. between the outraged wall street protesters who demand we tax the upper 1%, and those who invoke the Boston tea party and oppose any new taxes.  Once again in history, each side has been misdirected to point their fingers at the other.  However, there is no individual that we can hold accountable for the national debt, nor can we hold one group culpable for our economic instability; instead I posit that it is the system that has failed.  Below, I discuss an idea that may fix it. 

Our governmental system resembles, in many ways, a malignancy; one which we have failed to remove.  The problem with tumors is that they integrate themselves within the system and usurp the systems own processes to survive. Additionally, tumors evade detection by mimicking the system to look as if it is a part of us.  Curiously, governmental agencies act in a similar fashion.  But wait, you might say, isn't government the brains of our operation, isn't it a part of us, sending signals to the rest of the body via an interconnected network of wires?  To be sure, one could make the nervous system analogy, but unlike a brain; our government does not seem to have a goal in mind, does not seem to be organized strategically to produce success of our body as a whole, and does not take accountability for its mistakes; much more like a tumor than a nervous system if you ask me.  Furthermore, a tumor is not a disease from the outside, easily identifiable, instead, it is us; only deranged and mutated.  It seems to me that a defense against this malign threat can only be accomplished if we visualize the system as it really is; as a part of a biological proliferative machine.  This perspective on the structure of human built systems does not just apply to the governmental system that I use as an example above, but to any institution that human's devise; indeed to any system that biology devised.  And this knowledge can be used to our advantage, in order to turn this tumorous growth into a machine of efficiency and productivity.   I call this perspective, biologically inspired organization (BIO), and below I will detail two organizational structures that have predicted success in biology for 3.8 billion years and will undoubtedly work in human built systems as well.

The Cell; An Example of Classical Modular Architecture:

Biological systems are based on a modular architecture (And similar to human-built physical modular architecture it is really cool also).  Many recognize the structural unit of life as the cell, capable of working independently as they do in single celled organisms, or taking cues from other cells as they do in multi-cellular organisms (see Putting the Reductionist Together Again).  Interestingly this is different from the classical corporate hierarchy, in which decisions are made at the Chief Executive Level and must then trickle down to the minions who execute the commands.  This structure has many disadvantages, including the corruption of signals coming from the top and an excess of energy required to perform even basic functions at the bottom.  Interestingly, our U.S. government adopted this structure in 1913 when it modified the constitution to allow for federal income tax, which had previously been attempted but deemed unconstitutional years before.  This corresponds to the increasing national debt (it had been going down until the end of the the 1800's) and I dare say an increase in corruption and decrease in efficiency in government globally (distance yourself from the effects to distance yourself from accountability).  The problem with a top down organization architecture is that it often fails to predict the needs at the local level, it also implements blanket policies that may work for some but not all of the subsystems in the organization.  Furthermore, ill conceived notions, once made, affect everyone and not just an experimental few.  In contrast to this, a bottom-up architecture; based on a modular design (discussed from a business perspective in the book Design Rules, Vol. 1) can withstand insults to one module without damaging the system as a whole.  Additionally, organization within each module could be varied slightly at the local level and therefore competition of ideas can occur between groups, which can help to define a more economical and efficient method of future action.  The internal architecture of the module, or 'cell', would be designed by the group itself and failed modules could be dissolved easily, without the requirement of radical redesign of the entire system hierarchy.  Duplication of these modules, the equivalent of creating tissue in biology, would allow flexibility and scalability within the system.

Building a Better Organ:

The cellular building blocks of system design would come together to form modes.  These 'organs' would have a more complex function then each module alone, but would rely upon the simpler 'cellular' model for their derived complexity.  Like cells that form organs within a body, higher order function would emerge from the simpler cellular building blocks. Functional unity would be orchestrated by stereotyped interconnections between cells within an organ.  Like a true biological organ these structures would not be homogenous; i.e. the cells contained within one organ are not of just one tissue type but of many, that work in unison to perform the organ's function.  The scale of this structuring is not important to the system design.  Divisions within a business could be considered cells while the business itself could be the organ.  Or each business within a corporation could be considered cells while the corporation could be the organ.  This is essentially a scale-free model.  In a scale-free system there would never be organizations that are too big to fail (see auto industry, banks), or policies that only work if the system is big enough (see social security, national healthcare).  Many organs could come together with a common goal, and they could also come apart or re-associate with other organs as needed; they would be designed to fit in different systems as needed.  What I am suggesting is not revolutionary thinking, it is merely a way to return accountability to system design.  We form groups, i.e. organizations, businesses, corporations, and governments, which not surprisingly abide by the same rules as the biological systems that created them. BIO, therefore, is not an invention but the perception of our evolution. The behaviors that human groups elicit mimic biology (and biology mimics chemistry and chemistry mimics physics, but always with emergent properties due to increasing complexity).  In order to maximize the success of our human made systems they must abide by the maxims described within biology; i.e. stability, energy efficiency, and proliferative capacity.  If they can accomplish these and many other traits they will succeed.

Tragically, the tumor is also an element of BIO, and it has metastasized in our society, and now it will be increasingly hard to remove without removing good tissue as well.  Furthermore, we have nothing more than a rudimentary immune system to protect against internal threats to our existence; a national guard, a police department, but nothing to combat the scale or insidiousness of the threat.  I won't belabor the cancer analogy; although once postulated, it is hard to see the problem any other way.  It is possible to envision our society with a brain; in control of the United States as an organism with function and goals, but today, society is more like a bipolar and neurotic drifter, unable to make up its mind, nor driven to succeed in any given task and as such has squandered its responsibility to its parts.  I feel that an examination of corporations and nations from a biological perspective will allow us to better design systems in the future.  The BIO design that I suggest is a system that can adapt more flexibly to changes in the economy, i.e. the environment of the system, and can be scaled up or down depending on the needs of the time.  Simple cells and conglomerate organs make up the BIO.  However, as long as we live in a system without the proper defense mechanisms; corruption will encroach and, as the tumor analogy does suggests, may spread through our society and be hard to excise.  By understanding the fundamental rules by which all systems are governed, we can adopt a system that utilizes them to our advantage.  

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