Thursday, September 24, 2009


This book is subtitled “Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple.”

To me the use of the word complexity in the title and most of book is misleading. Most of the time the author is writing about what I would call complicated systems. Complicated systems do not have the distinctive characteristics of complex systems such as emergence or randomness. Furthermore, a complex system cannot be made simple. Humans are quite often fooled by complexity and make assumptions that result in simple solutions, often with disastrous consequences. However, dealing with complicated systems is still daunting. And, I really liked his many examples and his analysis that many of the complicated systems we deal with are results of our own design.

However, the book is still an interesting read, and he does offer some insights into how to change complicated systems into simpler ones.

One of the sticky points for me in using better design to make products less complicated is that would require much more complete knowledge of what customers want. And, as most markets are complex, achieving that degree of certainty will be impossible. A real conundrum.

Simplexity, Jeffrey Kluger, Hyperion, 2008, 150p

The Tao of Chaos

“Tao is a concept found in Taoism, Confucianism, and more generally in ancient Chinese philosophy. While the character itself translates as 'way', 'path', or 'route', or sometimes more loosely as 'doctrine' or 'principle', it is used philosophically to signify the fundamental or true nature of the world. The concept of Tao differs from Western ontology, however; it is an active and holistic conception of the world, rather than a static, atomistic one.” - Wikipedia

Katya Walter has written an interesting and insightful book linking the concepts of chaos to the double helix of genetics to the I Ching of ancient Chinese culture. Along the way she provides some of the best explanations of chaos and fractals I've read.

She begins her journey with a section called Beyond Linear Limits that I'm going to quote from extensively:

“Late one Saturday afternoon in Austin, Texas, I faced a showdown between my left and right brains. Shoot-out time. It was June 8, 1985, and it happened at the East-West Center when Diana Latham urged me to try the I Ching, just once. So reluctantly, I did ... with a lackadaisical and dubious query. But the response bowled me over! It was devastatingly appropriate-and poetic. Sheer chance, of course.

But when I tried it again later out of curiosity, it worked again. Moreover, the old Chinese oracle's answer again touched some deep chord in me that logic alone didn't reach. A response to wisdom, a welcoming hosanna of "Yes, that's it!"

I was confronted with the notion that this absurd old oracle might actually work, odd as that seemed to my logical mind. Irrational. So strange in fact that I ignored it for awhile. I could not admit the possibility ... so it chewed just underneath. After all, I was modern savvy, educated past superstition. A Ph.D. teaching at the University of Texas. Wasn't I? Logic shot the I Ching..down. Didn't it?

But I couldn't quite dismiss it. How in heaven's name could that abstract and ancient oracle mesh in such an amazing way with the events in my own modernday life? Rationality said, "Impossible Chance! Gullibility!"

But the simple fact remained: it had told me apt wisdom, pointed and calm, like a grandparent whispering in my ear. So I decided to explore in rational terms if such a thing might possibly be.”

Later in that section, she goes on to explain the I Ching:

“But I have slowly learned that the I Ching reveals the pattern. Not the specifics of an event, but its underlying pattern. It works through the dynamics of chaos theory, which can predict a trend without specifying its exact details. Discovering this huge hidden intelligence that rests deep in the weave of nature, even learning to communicate with it, can be disconcerting, frightening .. , until it becomes wonderful.

The discovery reveals a deeper truth beyond the limits of what we call normal reality. It exhibits an underlying coherent pattern in the dynamic chaos of nature itself. More eerily, it exhibits a tappable caring that's nestled in the very fabric of spacetine-mattergy, This huge pattern knits the Cosmos together in physics and metaphysics. It unites the objective and the subjective, the quantitative and qualitative, the alpha and omega. Its vast dynamic shapes us, body and soul.

But even now, despite extensive experience, I still understand why people fear such a possibility lurking beyond the sensory reality. What is this strange domain of power? It sounds rather like superstitious enslavement to some bogey of the imagination…and that is worthy of fear.

Fear is a reasonable response, It sees the psychic loss in giving oneself up to superstition and voodoo rites, in relinquishing personal power to brutal gods with canny, greedy priests, to wizards, healers, or gurus only too willing to manipulate their followers if given a chance, It fears an abandonment into destructive and orgiastic fantasy, a letting-go of choices, a precipitous lapsing away from logic to become lost in the enchantment of the deep. The descent looks too dangerous into the primal power of raw archetypes. It seems the epitome of romantic release to Dionysius, where one fears and yet follows a blind pull into the passionate unknown.

In here is an emotional powerhouse. In here, people "lose control" and argue or rape or fall blindly in love or seek the grail. They kill others in holy war or devote the rest of a short lifetime to the cure of AIDS or become inspired to paint a masterpiece. Moments or years later, a person can say bemusedly, "I don't know what came over me," or "Something possessed me," or "I felt driven!" or "The devil made me do it," or "I followed my bliss and it has blessed me."

This mysterious domain is not logical. It has it own reasons that reason does not know. To quote a bewildered Woody Allen, "The heart wants what it wants." But a passionate vision can so easily lead to bitter disillusion, to mob violence, to some idiosyncratic utopia where a demagogue-religious or social or political-holds sway and demands blind faith of spellbound followers who do battle for the cause. Some cause. It can idealize a saint or a demagogue to follow, fix upon some vile enemy to conquer, so that half of its huge polarized energy is projected away into the outer world to become wooed or defeated, driving us without free will.

Yet there is also fear of no passion. Cool Apollonian logic can survey this universe with a despairing sense that it is caught in some limitless, endless, mindless design that also leaves no room for free will. Sartre showed us the architecture of this existential prison with no exit from a godless hell of cold linear logic. It locks us into a gray, chilly, basement whose flat expanse of pointless concrete data cannot conceal the futile bones buried beneath. Here is dead-end living,

Both extremes - passionate romantic or cool logician - reveal a paucity of perspective in the West for more than 2,500 years. It has split us into romantic versus classic, liberal versus conservative, left versus right, heart versus head. But it is possible to encompass both poles within a larger, transcendental third stance. This paradigm is cradled in chaos theory, that amazing new science of the 20th century. It reveals the I Ching is a model of chaos patterning in microcosm. It even connects science to spirit.”

She tells of the loss of spiritual depth in our society to the rise of drugs. “ …habituating drugs can only offer a road away from, not to. The escape into addiction is triggered by our search for psychic release from the data-mad mire of ordinary life.”

Walters discusses the difficulty of comprehending the Tao.

“Laotse opens his Tao Te Ching this way: 'The Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao.'”

And, she summarizes her way through this enigma. “By discovering that the I Ching is merely a spiritual version of DNA, and both of them are merely subprograms of a deeper, even universal order called complementary chaos. For the scientific mind, this allows the security of an explanation. For the mystical soul, it opens an endless vista on wordless beauty charged with transcendent connection.”

In an article written by Katya Walter reprinted in Future Positive in 2004, she explained the concept of patterned chaos:

“My book Tao of Chaos discusses in detail the ability of both DNA and the I Ching to combine fractal analog and binary functions. It is based on modern chaos theory, which can predict a trend without specifying its exact details. Chaos patterning is determined because it can predict an overall pattern, but also chaotic because it cannot specify any exact point of its next manifestation. The mathematician can determine its general form but not the exact contents. Patterned chaos has its own special signature:

• Order in the midst of apparent disorder.
• Cycling that repeats with continual slight variation.
• Scaling that fits one level into another like nesting boxes
• Universal applicability. “

This an extremely import concept for it allows her to connect patterned chaos to fractal geometry.

Patterned chaos is also linking many disciplines together.

“The universal import of this odd new science is even tending to heal the ever-dividing rift of disciplines that fragmented the past centuries into splinter groups specializing ever more narrowly in describing more and more about less and less. But now cardiac specialists stockbrokers, psychologists, and turbulence physicists can all meet in joint conference on chaos patterning. A recent conference held in Florida sponsored papers on chaos patterns in physiology, biophysics, gestalt psychology, chemical systems, mathematics, physics, communication theory and linguistics. Such unity within diversity was unheard of not so long ago. Here indeed is interdisciplinary reunion. Patterned chaos can find shared meaning in areas as wide-ranging as plasma physics, genetic coding, perceptual psychology, coffee prices, weather reports, the body's living ductwork of blood vessels, airways, and nerve impulses.”

The author then spends several chapters relating patterned chaos to fractal geometry, which provides much needed insight into the application of the new geometry to the science of chaos.

One of the other powerful concepts in this book is the concept of complementary chaos (or co-chaos, sometimes cochaos).

We are all probably familiar with digital doubling: 20 = 1, 21 = 2, 22 = 4, 23 = 8, etc. Fewer people are probably less familiar with analog doubling in an example like the logistic map. The logistic map is the result of repeated application of the rather simple looking logistic function:

xn+1 = rxn(1-xn),

where n is the iteration number and r is a constant. Repeated application of this equation produces the complicated graph below (Wikipedia)

You can observe the digital doubling effect by looking at the branches: 1, 2, 4 and 8. But, beyond that, the logistic map becomes “random”. At eight branches, called period 3, the state of the logistics map is very close to wild fluctuations.

Complementary chaos results from the counterpoise of two period 3 systems. Walters uses this model to draw analogies with the double helix genetic code and the I Ching.

I am not in any position to verify these assertions. But the theory offers a tantalizing hint of a unification of East and West, and the unification of several sciences in the Western tradition.

In any case, I'll close with the advice of Buddha:

"Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence." - Buddha

The Tao of Chaos
Katya Walter
Kairos Center, 1994, 287 p

You can find more information about Katya Walter and her work on her web site, The Double Bubble Universe

Complexity: A Guided Tour

This is an excellent book to study if you are just beginning to read about complexity and are interested in the application of the science of complexity to artificial and real life. Melanie Mitchell is well qualified to teach us about this field as she has been connected with Santa Fe Institute since 1989, five years after it was founded. The book is well written, easy to read and follows impeccable logic.

The book begins with a quote from Douglas Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach, “Reductionism is the most natural thing in the world to grasp. It's simply the belief that 'a whole can be understood completely if you understand its parts, and the nature of their sum.' No one her left brain could reject reductionism.” In complexity reductionism doesn't apply. You can't understand a complex system as a sum of its parts. It can only be understood as a gestalt.

“How is it that those systems in nature we call complex and adaptive-brains, insect colonies, the immune system, cells, the global economy, biological evolution-produce such complex and adaptive behavior from underlying, simple rules? How can interdependent yet self-interested organisms come together to cooperate on solving problems that affect their survival as a whole? And are there any general principles or laws that apply to such phenomena? Can life, intelligence, and adaptation be seen as mechanistic and computational? If so, could we build truly intelligent and living machines? And if we could, would we want to?

I have learned that as the lines between disciplines begin to blur, the content of scientific discourse also gets fuzzier. People in the field of complex systems talk about many vague and imprecise notions such as spontaneous order, self-organization, and emergence (as well as "complexity" itself).”

The author describes the following properties of complex adaptive systems:

“When looked at in detail, these various systems are quite different, but viewed at an abstract level they have some intriguing properties in common:

Complex collective behavior

Signaling and information processing: All these systems produce and use information and signals from both their internal and external environments.

Adaptation: All these systems adapt-that is, change their behavior to improve their chances of survival or success-through learning or evolutionary processes.”

She follows this with two versions of a definition of a complex system:

1. “A system in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex behavior, sophisticated information processing, and adaption via learning or evolution”
2. “A system that exhibits nontrivial emergent and self organizing behavior”

She adds the comment that some people apply these concepts only to adaptive complex systems, but that she does not. Which is unfortunate because her definition limits complexity essentially to living systems, leaving out many non adaptive complex systems generally accepted as examples of complexity. But, her book is limited to a train of thought that leads to artificial and real life, and she stays almost consistent with that view.

She also reports that there are no agreed measurements of complexity.

With this review of the development and state of complexity science in general, the author then launches into the logical development of the history and state of artificial life:

• Life and evolution in computers
• Computation writ large
• Network thinking
• The past and future of the sciences of complexity

“…how did life originate in the first place? And what exactly constitutes being alive? As you can imagine, both questions are highly contentious in the scientific world, and no one yet has definitive answers. Although I do not address the first question here, there has been some fascinating research on it in the complex systems community.

The second question-what is life, exactly?-has been on the minds of people probably for as long as "people" have existed. There is still no good agreement among either scientists or the general public on the definition of life. Questions such as "When does life begin?" or "What form could life take on other planets?" are still the subject of lively, and sometimes vitriolic, debate.

The idea of creating artificial life is also very old, going back at least two millennia to legends of the Golem and of Ovid's Pygmalion, continuing in the nineteenth-century story of Frankenstein's monster, all the way to the present era of movies such as Blade Runner and The Matrix, and computer games such as "Sim Life."

These works of fiction both presage and celebrate anew, technological version of the "What is life?" question: Is it possible for computers or robots to be considered "alive"? This question links the previously separate topics of computation and of life and evolution.”

This book is not an easy read, but it's worth the effort. The author has done an outstanding job of writing about the science of complexity in a way that facilitates understanding.

Complexity: A Guided Tour, Melanie Mitchell, Oxford University Press, 2009, 349 p

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Cost Conundrum in Health Care

Atul Gawande, New Yorker, writes in What a Texas town can teach us about health care:

"It is spring in McAllen, Texas. The morning sun is warm. The streets are lined with palm trees and pickup trucks. McAllen is in Hidalgo County, which has the lowest household income in the country, but it’s a border town, and a thriving foreign-trade zone has kept the unemployment rate below ten per cent. McAllen calls itself the Square Dance Capital of the World. “Lonesome Dove” was set around here.

McAllen has another distinction, too: it is one of the most expensive health-care markets in the country. Only Miami—which has much higher labor and living costs—spends more per person on health care. In 2006, Medicare spent fifteen thousand dollars per enrollee here, almost twice the national average. The income per capita is twelve thousand dollars. In other words, Medicare spends three thousand dollars more per person here than the average person earns.

The explosive trend in American medical costs seems to have occurred here in an especially intense form. Our country’s health care is by far the most expensive in the world. In Washington, the aim of health-care reform is not just to extend medical coverage to everybody but also to bring costs under control. Spending on doctors, hospitals, drugs, and the like now consumes more than one of every six dollars we earn. The financial burden has damaged the global competitiveness of American businesses and bankrupted millions of families, even those with insurance. It’s also devouring our government. “The greatest threat to America’s fiscal health is not Social Security,” President Barack Obama said in a March speech at the White House. “It’s not the investments that we’ve made to rescue our economy during this crisis. By a wide margin, the biggest threat to our nation’s balance sheet is the skyrocketing cost of health care. It’s not even close".”


This is an excellent article and worth reading in it's entirety. I think that the key point of the article is that the cost of health care, in aggregate, is not related to income, but in the business model used to deliver that health care. In McAllen, Texas, the author reports, “In 2006, Medicare spent fifteen thousand dollars per enrollee here, almost twice the national average. The income per capita is twelve thousand dollars. In other words, Medicare spends three thousand dollars more per person here than the average person earns.” On the other hand, “ Rochester, Minnesota, where the Mayo Clinic dominates the scene, has fantastically high levels of technological capability and quality, but its Medicare spending is in the lowest fifteen per cent of the country—$6,688 per enrollee in 2006, which is eight thousand dollars less than the figure for McAllen.”

The difference between these two examples is that in McAllen, the doctors, labs, hospitals, etc. are all run as businesses, and the Mayo Clinic is run as a service and the doctors collaborate and are paid salaries.

I've been a small voice against the rationalization of the business paradigm to shareholder economic value added and its adoption in other industries (such as health care and education, since 2003 (The Evils of EVA and the Myth of Shareholder Value and Its Relation...). Now we have discovered that can be disastrous even when applied in the financial industry. Healthcare should not be run as a business. Nor should government run it.

Outside of mainstream business, society is learning that openness, decentralization and collaboration are required to tackle large problems and some of these concepts are being applied successfully in business (Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm and Wikinomics). We haven't learned that yet in healthcare.

Furthermore, as reported in the Cost Conundrum, the amount of Medicare spending is inversely related to the quality of health care. “Two economists working at Dartmouth, Katherine Baicker and Amitabh Chandra, found that the more money Medicare spent per person in a given state the lower that state’s quality ranking tended to be. In fact, the four states with the highest levels of spending—Louisiana, Texas, California, and Florida—were near the bottom of the national rankings on the quality of patient care.”

In order to get a sense of the problem, let's look at a few statistics about healthcare in the US.

The United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics reports:

* As the largest industry in 2006, health care provided 14 million jobs—13.6 million jobs for wage and salary workers and about 438,000 jobs for the self-employed.
* 7 of the 20 fastest growing occupations are health care related.
* Health care will generate 3 million new wage and salary jobs between 2006 and 2016, more than any other industry.
* Most workers have jobs that require less than 4 years of college education, but health diagnosing and treating practitioners are among the most educated workers.

According to

“Escalating health care costs continue to remain an issue of great concern for many employers and providers of health care services. Here are some of the latest statistics concerning health care:

* Preventable illness makes up approximately 80% of the burden of illness and 90% of all healthcare costs.
* Preventable illnesses account for eight of the nine leading categories of death.
* The United States spends more on health care than any other industrialized nation in the world and yet, in many respects, it's citizens are not the healthiest. (2)
* More than one-quarter of children without health insurance coverage had no usual source of health care in 1997, compared with 4 percent of children with health insurance. (4)
* Uninsured children were nearly three times as likely as those with health insurance to be without a recent doctor's visit in 1997. (4)
* The US healthcare system is the most expensive of systems, outstripping by over half again the health care expenditures of any other country. (2)
* In 1997, health care costs in the US totaled in excess of $1 trillion. (2)
* Health care costs in the United States exceed 14% of the gross domestic product. (2)
* The average cost of health care per person in the United States approximated $3,925 in 1997. (3)
* Lifetime medical costs average approximately $225,000 per person. (1)
* Some 18 percent of lifetime costs for medical care--over $40,000--is estimated to be incurred in the last year of life. (1)
* Despite expenditures in excess of $1 trillion, the number of people without health insurance continues to increase reaching 43.4 million--16.1% of our population--in 1997. (2)
* The Health Care Financing Administration's analysts recently projected that, beginning in 1998, national health spending would again begin to grow faster than the rest of the economy. (2)
* By 2002, the HCFA projected that national health expenditures would total $2.1 trillion--an estimated 16.6 percent of the gross domestic product. (2)”

In a study done 2008, the US lagged behind 18 other nations in halting preventable deaths, according to

“The U.S. today finds itself last on a new list of countries seeking to curb preventable deaths in people younger than 75.

Not only does the U.S. have the worst spot on that list, its rate of improvement is also slower than the other 18 industrialized nations included in the study.”

“...the slow decline in U.S. preventable deaths 'has coincided with an increase in the uninsured population,'”

Some of the preventable diseases can be prevented by vaccines. WebMD reports, “Diseases easily preventable by adult vaccines kill more Americans each year than car wrecks, breast cancer, or AIDS.
Yet relatively few in the U.S. know much about these diseases -- and far too few adults get vaccinated, find surveys by the CDC and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID).

'It may surprise you to learn that over 50,000 adults die each year of diseases that are potentially vaccine preventable,' NFID president-elect William Schaffner, MD, said at a news conference held to announce the survey results.”

Other preventable diseases include most cardiovascular problems and diabetes. Obesity is an epidemic.

Watch the short video.

The CDC reports:

“CDC addresses six critical types of adolescent health behavior that research shows contribute to the leading causes of death and disability among adults and youth. Other important issues that affect children and adolescents are also addressed:

1.Alcohol & Drug Use
Alcohol is used by more young people in the United States than tobacco or illicit drugs, and is a factor in approximately 41% of all deaths from motor vehicle crashes.

2.Injury & Violence (including suicide)
Injury and violence is the leading cause of death among youth aged 10-24 years: motor vehicle crashes (30% of all deaths), all other unintentional injuries (15%), homicide (15%), and suicide (12%).

3.Tobacco Use
Each day in the United States, approximately 4,000 adolescents aged 12-17 try their first cigarette. Each year cigarette smoking accounts for approximately 1 of every 5 deaths, or about 438,000 people. Cigarette smoking results in 5.5 million years of potential life lost in the United States annually.

Healthy eating is associated with reduced risk for many diseases, including the three leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, and stroke. In 2007, only 21.4% of high school students reported eating fruits and vegetables five or more times daily (when fried potatoes and potato chips are excluded) during the past 7 days.

5.Physical Activity
Participation in physical activity declines as children get older. Overall, in 2007, 35% of 9-12 graders had participated in at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity.

6.Sexual Risk Behaviors
Each year, there are approximately 19 million new STD infections in the United States, and almost half of them are among youth aged 15 to 24. In 2007, 39% of currently sexually active high school students did not use a condom during last sexual intercourse.

These behaviors usually are established during childhood, persist into adulthood, are inter-related, and are preventable. In addition to causing serious health problems, these behaviors also contribute to the educational and social problems that confront the nation, including failure to complete high school, unemployment, and crime.”

The CDC also reports that chronic diseases are largely preventable:

“Chronic diseases are noncommunicable illnesses that are prolonged in duration, do not resolve spontaneously, and are rarely cured completely. Examples of chronic diseases include heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and arthritis.

* Chronic diseases cause 7 in 10 deaths each year in the United States.
* About 133 million Americans—nearly 1 in 2 adults—live with at least one chronic illness.
* More than 75% of health care costs are due to chronic conditions.
* Approximately one-fourth of persons living with a chronic illness experience significant limitations in daily activities.
* The percentage of U.S. children and adolescents with a chronic health condition has increased from 1.8% in the 1960s to more than 7% in 2004.

Although chronic diseases are more common among older adults, they affect people of all ages and are now recognized as a leading health concern of the nation. Growing evidence indicates that a comprehensive approach to prevention can save tremendous costs and needless suffering:

* Heart disease and stroke are the first and third leading causes of death, accounting for more than 30% of all U.S. deaths each year.
* Cancer, the second leading cause of death, claims more than half a million lives each year.
* Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure, nontraumatic lower extremity amputations, and new cases of blindness each year among U.S. adults aged 20–74 years.
* Arthritis, the most common cause of disability, limits activity for 19 million U.S. adults.
* Obesity has become a major health concern for people of all ages. 1 in every 3 adults and nearly 1 in every 5 young people aged 6–19 are obese.

Chronic diseases are the most common and costly of all health problems, but they are also the most preventable. Four common, health-damaging, but modifiable behaviors—tobacco use, insufficient physical activity, poor eating habits, and excessive alcohol use—are responsible for much of the illness, disability, and premature death related to chronic diseases.”

In effect, like Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip drawn for Earth Day in 1971, to a large extend in heathcare, we are causing a lot of our healthcare problems by our lifestyle and choices.

These selected statistics are not to all inclusive. They were selected to indicate the scope of the problem of healthcare. The healthcare system is one of the large systems in the US that we have to interact with and depend upon. It is a complex system and interaction with it is complicated.

I don't know a solution to the problem, but what I do no that any attempt to “fix” healthcare in this country will fail without addressing the complete system. Most of the solutions talked about in the media and by the politicians focus only on the financial part of the system.

As you can see from the statistics, the major elements of healthcare costs are preventable diseases, the business paradigm applied through out the system, and our lifestyle.

Some major elements of preventable disease are vaccinations, tobacco, and obesity. The combination of these three elements alone touch upon all elements of the existing healthcare system as well as many business interests outside the healthcare industry. And, don't forget all the jobs that would be lost in the healthcare industry if we were to reduce costs by 90%.

Contrary to what John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods has written , the Declaration of Independence does indeed speak to the people's right to health:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ...” I contend that you cannot have life, liberty or happiness without your health.

The Preamble to our Constitution : We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The definition of welfare is health, happiness, prosperity, well-being.

We do have a right to health and should hold our governments accountable to assure that all people have equal access to that right.

1. Fries, J.; Koop, C.E.; Beadle, C.E.; et al. "Reducing health care costs by reducing the need and demand for medical services." The New England Journal of Medicine, 329: 321-325 (July 29), 1993.
2. Iglehart, J.K. "The American health care system--expenditures." The New England Journal of Medicine, 340(1): (January 7), 1999.
3. Kuttner, R. "The American health care system--employer sponsored health coverage. The New England Journal of Medicine, 340(3): (January 21), 1999.

4. Center for Disease Control (CDC) - CDC RELEASES NEW REPORT ON U.S. HEALTH STATISTICS (July 26), 2000.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Limits of An Innovation Commons

In 1979 I saw a lecture by Phillip Morrison, an MIT professor, on PBS entitled "Termites to Telescopes". The implications of that lecture have haunted me ever since. Morrison described how African termites build very large and complex mounds for their nests.

Communication among termites is not completely understood. Since they live and work in darkness, they are blind, as we know the term. Smell and touch seem to be the preferred form of communication. Termites build nests from a material that they make with body chemicals and cellulose, wood fiber. Big termite nests, like those found in Africa or Australia, can be several feet high and last decades. A nest may contain millions of individuals. Termites require carefully controlled humidity and temperature conditions inside the nest. The structure and material provide this function. Function and form are in consonance.

Construction of a nest follows a simple procedure. At some point for reasons unknown, and by mechanisms unknown, upon sensing a "signal" of some sort, termite workers start producing the pellets of material they use to construct nests. The termites begin to pile these pellets, each working individually, cementing them together with an adhesive they produce.

At some later time, sensing another "signal," the workers "look" around them. If they see a pile of pellets larger than theirs in the immediate vicinity, they abandon their project and go work on the higher pile. Through this process they select those piles they will work on.

A little while later, sensing still another "signal," the workers "look" around to see if there is a pile of nearly the same height within a specified distance of the pile they are working upon. If not, they abandon their pile and search for two piles that are close together. Again, after time has elapsed, termite workers begin to form the arch at the top. This process is repeated many times until an interlocking web of randomly constructed arches is completed.

In this process there are no high-performing termites. The entire process can be written in the form of a set of simple logical instructions - a program. There is no plan. Randomness plays an important role. The instructions and the responses seem to be genetically programmed into the termite worker. Signals do not seem to be given by anyone. Environmental conditions dictate the start of the process. When it is time to build a nest, a nest is built. The processes can be defined logically, analytically. Time may even play a role in the behavior changes once the building has begun. No one has a vision of the outcome. Everyone follows the rules and the result is functionally correct, but not elegant.

I wonder what a city landscape would look like if it was populated with buildings that all looked like this. To me, it would look like an artist version of an alien planet.

The question that haunts me in this age of peer to peer collaborations, with dependence upon emergent behavior from a large group of individuals, is the results may be functional, but will they be beautiful? Or, is beauty as a concept simply going to disappear? Or will we see functionality as beauty?

Morrison was interested in another question, "Could the termites eventually build a telescope?"
Even though termites can construct arches, could they ever build a cathedral?
More to the point, could we, if we operated in like manner?

What are the limits of free, open collaborative systems? It's hard to image any of modern civilizations greatest projects being completed in this manner.

Open Space Technology

What is an Open Space Technology meeting?

Open Space Technology has been defined as:

* a simple, powerful way to catalyze effective working conversations and truly inviting organizations -- to thrive in times of swirling change.
* a methodological tool that enables self-organizing groups of all sizes to deal with hugely complex issues in a very short period of time.
* a powerful group process that supports positive transformation in organizations, increases productivity, inspires creative solutions, improves communication and enhances collaboration.
* the most effective process for organizations and communities to identify critical issues, voice to their passions and concerns, learn from each other, and, when appropriate, take collective responsibility for finding solutions.

The goal of an Open Space Technology meeting is to create time and space for people to engage deeply and creatively around issues of concern to them. The agenda is set by people with the power and desire to see it through, and typically, Open Space meetings result in transformative experiences for the individuals and groups involved.

What is Open Space Technology best used for?

Open Space Technology is useful in almost any context including strategic direction setting, envisioning the future, conflict resolution, morale building, consultation with stakeholders, community planning, collaboration and deep learning about issues and perspectives.

When is Open Space Technology the best meeting format to use?

Any situation in which there is:

* A real issue of concern
* Diversity of players
* Complexity of elements
* Presence of passion (including conflict)
* A need for a quick decision

Open Space will work under all of these circumstances. It is only inappropriate when the outcome of the meeting is predetermined or if sponsors are not prepared to change as a result of the meeting.

What outcomes can I expect from an Open Space Technology Meeting?

Open Space Technology meetings can produce the following deliverables:

* Every single issue that anybody cares about enough to raise will be "on the table".
* All issues will receive as much discussion as people care to give them.
* All discussion will be captured in a book, and made available to the participants.
* All issues will be prioritized.
* Related issues will be converged.
* Responsibility will be taken for next step actions.

In meetings of one and a half or two and a half days duration, all of these deliverables will be achieved with deep conversation and commitment to action. Meetings of a shorter duration will have many of these positive effects, but typically in meetings of a day or less, there is more emphasis on conversation and less on action.

How does an Open Space Technology meeting work?

Open Space operates under four principles and one law. The four principles are:

* Whoever comes are the right people
* Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
* When it starts is the right time
* When it's over it's over

The Law is known as the Law of Two Feet:

"If you find yourself in a situation where you are not contributing or learning, move somewhere where you can."

The four principles and the law work to create a powerful event motivated by the passion and bounded by the responsibility of the participants.

From Chris Corrigan, Consulting in Organizational and Community Development, web site.

Oliver Markley brought Open Space to my attention. I have to read and study it before I can apply it to an Innovation Commons, but this web site summarized the process so well that I wanted to pass it along quickly.

There is also a Wiki.

Democratic Innovation

Jeff de Cagna writes in his blog, "Associations today face a potent and relentless adversary: profound change. Yes, it’s true, we’ve always faced change in our organizations, but not like this. The very nature of change itself is changing. Change today is more constant than episodic, more complex than clear, more non-linear than cyclical and it is occurring at a greatly accelerated pace. We find that in this environment many of the tried-and-true heuristics of association management are remarkably ineffectual and, sometimes, counterproductive. Unfortunately, far too many association leaders continue to struggle with the politics of incrementalism, cost-cutting and risk avoidance as they try to come up with fresh answers about what to do next.

In face of such harsh and unforgiving realities, staff and volunteer association leaders must respond in a way that is just as forceful and unyielding. But that response cannot come in the form of tips, tools or techniques for "managing change" or "doing more with less." That is just so much tinkering around the margins. Instead, what we need is a new ideology, a different system of beliefs that challenges us to rediscover the "plausible promise" of our organizations and to act confidently and decisively to make them relevant, renewable and resilient for the 21st Century.
For me, that ideology is what I call "innovation democracy." It is grounded in the fundamental conviction that, at their core, both innovation and associations are about freedom. Associations are about the freedom to collaborate, to serve and to act collectively on behalf of a worthwhile vision of what the world can be. And that is where innovation comes in. Innovation is about the freedom to imagine what is possible, to create it and, in so doing, make an enduring contribution to the world in which you live. In my view, one that is largely contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy of the association world, innovation and associations are intimately, if opaquely, connected."

He goes on to elaborate six principles of democratic innovation:

* Strategy is a coherent portfolio of experiments developed across the association
* Technology supports the social architecture of association innovation
* Association culture remains vibrant by emphasizing variety, transparency and inclusion.
* Curiosity, inquiry and discovery shape the association's intellectual property.
* A high "return on engagement' in the association drives financial investment.
* Association leaders create leaders by distributing responsibility for innovation.

Governing Common Pool Resources

Howard Rheingold, in his great book, Smart Mobs, writes about the governance of common pool resources (CPR), "In 1990, sociologist Elinor Ostrom argued that external authorities might not be necessary in governing what she called common pool resources (CPRs)." Ostrom made a series of studies of the ways in which people cooperated in the management of commons throughout the world. "In comparing the communities, Ostrom found that groups that are able to organize and govern their behavior successfully are marked by the following design principles:

* Group boundaries are cleanly defined
* Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions
* Most individuals affected by theses rules can participate in modifying the rules.
* The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
* A system for monitoring members' behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
* A graduated system of sanctions is used.
* Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
* For CPRs that are parts of larger systems, appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

..."Ostrom provided an ample and specific agenda for future research; "All efforts to organize collective actions, whether by an external ruler, an entrepreneur, or a set of principles who wish to gain collective benefits, must address a common set of problems. These have to do with coping with free-riding, solving commitment problems, arranging for the supply of institutions, and monitoring individual compliance with sets of rules."

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution
Howard Rheingold
Basic Books, 2002

Inventing the Innovation Commons

"The Internet is both the result of and the enabling infrastructure for new ways of organizing collective action via communication technology. This new social contract enables the creation and maintenance of public goods, a commons for knowledge resources."

"Before the word "hacker" was misappropriated to describe people who break into computer systems, the term was coined (in the early 1960s) to describe people who create computer systems. The first people to call themselves hackers were loyal to an informal social contract called "the hacker ethic." As Steven Levy described it, this ethic include these principles:

* Access to computers should be unlimited and total.
* Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative
* All information should be free.
* Mistrust authority - promote decentralization."

Howard Rheingold
Smart Mobs
Basic Books, 2002

Law, Custom and the Commons

Law, Custom, and the Commons
by Randy T. Simmons

Dr. Simmons heads the political science department of Utah State University and is a senior associate of PERC (Political Economy Research Center) in Bozeman, Montana.

"Free and unregulated access to scarce resources has long been recognized as a serious problem. Two thousand years ago Aristotle wrote: What belongs in common to the most people is accorded the least care: they take thought for their own things above all.

More recently, the biologist and human ecologist Garrett Hardin argued: Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society which believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Fortunately, however, there are ways to avoid such ruin.

Hardin used an example of a pasture to illustrate how the commons can produce tragedy. As long as grazing on the commonly owned pasture is below carrying capacity, each herdsman may add another cow without harming any cows—they all still have enough to eat. But once carrying capacity is reached, adding the additional cow has negative consequences for all users of the common pasture.

The rational herdsman faced with adding the extra cow calculates his share of the benefits of an additional cow. It is 100 percent. He also calculates his share of the cost. It is 1/n herdsmen; that is, it is the cost divided by the number of herdsmen. So he adds another cow. And another . . . as do all the other herdsmen. Each may care for what is common but can do nothing about it, since one person exercising restraint only assures himself a smaller herd, not a stable, preserved commons.

Thus, the commons is a trap—an individual acting in his self-interest makes himself, along with everyone else, worse off in the long run. Yet acting in the group interest cannot stop the inevitable ruin.

If the commons inevitably leads to tragedy, humans should have killed themselves off thousands of years ago. Instead, people developed ways of making individuals responsible for their own actions.

Responsibility is created by moving people out of a system of open access and creating rights of access and use. Creating such use-rights, therefore, means that a resource is no longer everybody’s property. But use-rights are meaningless unless they are protected or enforced with some degree of legal or customary agreement. The most effective system of responsibility is private property rights because owners are responsible for their own costs and benefits. If you degrade your own property, you suffer the consequences because your wealth is reduced.

If, instead, you improve the property, your wealth is increased. You capture the benefits of your actions and pay the costs of them as well. The only exception is when you create costs to others by what you do on your own property, such as damming a stream or polluting the air. Legal institutions not only protect people’s rights to do what they want with their property but also protect the rights of others (third parties) to be free from harm caused by others. "

Complete document found at

Tragedy of the Electronic Commons

"When two attorneys enraged millions of Internet users by publishing identical advertisements on six thousand unique network discussions known as "newsgroups," they were attacking a tradition of cooperation. Now the same attorneys are flogging a book and trying to convince readers of op-ed articles that they have been the victims of elitist attacks by Internet intellectuals who oppose honest business on the Net. Citizens on and off the Internet need to understand exactly how these hucksters are trying to deceive us, before we lose a precious resource.

For many people, these thousands of newsgroups have constituted a worldwide, multimillion member, collective thinktank, available twenty-four hours a day to answer any question from the trivial to the scholarly. If you have a question about sports statistics, scientific knowledge, technical lore -- anything -- someone has the answer. This magical knowledge-multiplying quality comes from the voluntary effort of many people who freely contribute expertise. That power of a large group of people to act as a thinktank for each other is vulnerable to misuse. A small number of malefactors can mess up a good thing for a large number of cooperative citizens."

Later in the blog...

"The lawyers' actions conveyed the message that their personal commercial ambitions were more important than the value of the commons. And that is the message they have been preaching -- get yours while you can, and ignore the protests of those who value the online culture of information-sharing. If these carpetbaggers prove successful, will others follow? How far can a network of cooperative agreements be pushed by the self-interest of individuals before it loses its value? When a flood of irrelevant announcements swamps newsgroups and mailing lists, what will happen to the support networks for cancer patients and Alzheimers' caregivers?"

The Tragedy of the Electronic Commons, Howard Rheingold

The Power of Passion in a Networked World

We are moving to a more responsive, interactive, collaborative world, which is already disrupting conventional business models and releasing energies and new ways of doing things that create new solutions and opportunities. Personal interest, energy, passions, ideas and opinions - and little or no direct personal financial gain - are fuelling everything from Linux software to distributed computing in support of big science projects, to Wikipedia to blogs to indexed photo collections to and scientific publishing would appear to be next in line.
But, companies too can benefit from similar passion, if they respond effectively; as Lego found out recently. A group of its adult fans hacked into one of their design tools, but instead of shutting them out, the company welcomed them in: to collaborate and discuss options and ideas. Lego managed their boundaries and privacy flexibly to create committed pro-sumers. (see Hacking's a snap in Legoland;

Tim O'Reilly described the changes at the recent Web 2.0 conference "Web 2.0" stands for the idea that the Internet is evolving from a collection of static pages into a vehicle for software services, especially those that foster self-publishing, participation, and collaboration" (see Web 2.0 has arrived; Technology as one of the best illustrations is the difference between the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia. Other characteristics and indicative products of this new world can be found at What Is Web 2.0 (

Collaborative science projects using distributed desktop PC downtime to create sufficient computing power to support big projects, such as the project looking for life in outer space were an early example, back in 2000 (see Home computers add grunt to scientific discovery; (ABC)These were hotly followed by the development of Wikipedia in 2001 - which still has only one full time employee, but over 770,000 essays in English, nearly half a million contributors, 2 billion hits per month and is funded by donations.

Sheila Moorcroft, Research Director, Shaping Tomorrow

Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm

by Yochai Benkler

For decades our understanding of economic production has been that individuals order their productive activities in one of two ways: either as employees in firms, following the directions of managers, or as individuals in markets, following price signals. This dichotomy was first identified in the early work of Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, and was developed most explicitly in the work of neo-institutional economist Oliver Williamson. In the past three or four years, public attention has focused on a fifteen-year-old social-economic phenomenon in the software development world. This phenomenon, called free software or open source software, involves thousands or even tens of thousands of programmers contributing to large and small scale project, where the central organizing principle is that the software remains free of most constraints on copying and use common to proprietary materials. No one "owns" the software in the traditional sense of being able to command how it is used or developed, or to control its disposition. The result is the emergence of a vibrant, innovative and productive collaboration, whose participants are not organized in firms and do not choose their projects in response to price signals.

In this paper I explain that while free software is highly visible, it is in fact only one example of a much broader social-economic phenomenon. I suggest that we are seeing is the broad and deep emergence of a new, third mode of production in the digitally networked environment. I call this mode "commons-based peer-production," to distinguish it from the property- and contract-based models of firms and markets. Its central characteristic is that groups of individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals, rather than either market prices or managerial commands.

The paper also explains why this mode has systematic advantages over markets and managerial hierarchies when the object of production is information or culture, and where the capital investment necessary for production-computers and communications capabilities-is widely distributed instead of concentrated. In particular, this mode of production is better than firms and markets for two reasons. First, it is better at identifying and assigning human capital to information and cultural production processes. In this regard, peer-production has an advantage in what I call "information opportunity cost." That is, it loses less information about who the best person for a given job might be than do either of the other two organizational modes. Second, there are substantial increasing returns to allow very larger clusters of potential contributors to interact with very large clusters of information resources in search of new projects and collaboration enterprises. Removing property and contract as the organizing principles of collaboration substantially reduces transaction costs involved in allowing these large clusters of potential contributors to review and select which resources to work on, for which projects, and with which collaborators. This results in allocation gains, that increase more than proportionately with the increase in the number of individuals and resources that are part of the system. The article concludes with an overview of how these models use a variety of technological and social strategies to overcome the collective action problems usually solved in managerial and market-based systems by property and contract.



In the emergence of food sharing, "the Inuit knows that the best place for him to store his surplus is in someone else's stomach."

There is a tension between self-interest and collective action. Yet, symbiosis and cooperation have been observed at every level from cell to ecosystem. There are some genetic reasons why this is so. It was that stream of thought that originated my interest in the subject of an innovation commons (Creating an Innovation Commons).

When we get to the level of human interaction, factors other than genetics play a vital role. Game theory is a tool that has helped us understand how and why we cooperate.

Howard Rheingold treats the subject in Smart Mobs. He writes, "Game theory is based on several assumptions; that the players are in conflict, that they must take action, that the results of the actions will determine which player wins according to definite rules, and that all players (this is the kicker) are expected to always act rationally by choosing the strategy that will maximize their gain regardless of the consequences to others. These are the kind of rules that don't fit real life with predictive precision, but they do attract economists, because they map onto behavior of observable phenomena like markets, arms races, cartels, and traffic."

The game that has attracted a lot of attention is Prisoner's Dilemma. Moreover, it is of interest to us because it has something to say about cooperation.

Basically, Prisoner's Dilemma story is this:

Two are charged with the same crime and are being held separately by the police. The prisoners cannot communicate with each other. The prisoner who testifies against his/her partner will go free, and the partner will be sentenced to three years in jail. If both prisoners decide to testify against each other, they each will get a two-year sentence. And, if neither testifies, they will both get a one-year sentence.

Clearly if they both pursue their common interest, collectively they serve the shortest amount of time, 2 years. The other solutions are 3, 3 and 4 years collectively. However, if one decides to purse their self-interest, i.e. think only of them self, they could go free. But, if both act in what they perceive to be their own self-interest, they maximize their loss, individually and collectively.

The game became really interesting, on both a practical and theoretical level, when they began to model the Interactive Prisoner's Dilemma. The game is not played just once, but many times. In this case, history matters. What happened the time before, or all the times before, does influence the present game. Also, the future impacts the present. How might the other player react in the future to my actions now? In Rheingold's words, "'Reputation' is another way of looking at this 'shadow of the future.'"

This is a game simulation ideal for computers. In a now famous experiment Robert Axelrod proposed a "Computer Prisoner's Dilemma Tournament" wherein various strategies of playing the game, represented by computer programs, would play against each other. "He ran fourteen entries against each other and against a random rule over and over. 'To my considerable surprise,' Axelrod reported, "the winner was the simplest of all the programs submitted, TIT FOR TAT. TIT FOR TAT is merely the strategy of starting with cooperation and thereafter doing what the other player did on the previous move.'"

Axelrod repeated the experiment with professors of evolutionary biology, physics and computer science. He made them all aware of the results of the first experiment. The results were the same.

These results raised the question of how a cooperative strategy could gain a foothold in a predominant uncooperative environment. Axelrod's experiments showed that, "Within a pool of entirely uncooperative strategies, cooperative strategies evolve from small clusters of individuals who reciprocate cooperation, even if the cooperative strategies have only a small proportion of their interactions with each other. Clusters of cooperatives amass points for themselves faster than defectors can. Strategies based on reciprocity can survive against a variety of strategies, and 'cooperation, once established on the basis of reciprocity, can protect itself from invasion by less cooperative strategies. Thus the gear wheels of social evolution have a ratchet.'"

"Cooperatives can thrive amid populations of defectors if they learn how to recognize one another and interact with one another," he concludes. "Cooperators who clump together can out compete noncooperative strategies by creating public good that benefit themselves but not the defectors...Reciprocity, cooperation, reputation, social grooming and social dilemmas all appear to be fundamental pieces of the smart mob puzzle."

If it is the best strategy for an Inuit to store his surplus of food, a scarce resource, in the stomach of another, surely it is better to store knowledge, an abundant resource, in the minds of others. The food gets used up. The knowledge generates new knowledge.


1. Smart Mobs, Howard Rheingold, Basic Books, 2002, pages 38 - 46
2. Game Theory - Wikipedia, (9 pages)
3. Game Theory, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (40 pages)
4. Prisoner's Dilemma,, an iterated prisoner's dilemma game and simulation

A Tuft of Flowers

I went to turn the grass after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be as he had been,---alone.

"As all must be," I said within my heart,
"Whether they work together or apart."

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a 'wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o'er night,
Some resting flower of yesterday's delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flowers lay withering on the ground,

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook.

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a ready brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to known them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And felt spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him I worked as with his aid,
And, weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

"Men work together," I told him from the heart,
"Whether they work together or apart."

Robert Frost
The Tuft of Flowers
American Poetry, A. B. de Mille, Allyn & Bacon (1923)

I often pick up one of my books and open it randomly looking for insight or inspiration. I let my intuition choose the book. I open the book randomly (although some would say that the page I open it to is also chosen by my intuition). The other day I picked a book of poetry that had been one of my mother's. It was published in 1923 when my mother would have been 11.

The poem I found was one by Frost that I had no recollection of ever having read before. The application of the main message of the poem to the innovation commons is obvious. Whether we work together or apart, at the same time, or asynchronously, we all work together. The innovation commons is just trying to find clues as to how to make what is a fundamental truth practical.

There are other clues within the poem.

The first workman was skilled at his job. The cut was even and clean, so much so that the speaker listened for the sound of the whetstone used to sharpen the blade.

The speaker is on a hero's journey or quest described by Joseph Campbell. A messenger appears - the butterfly. The speaker is attentive and gets the message. However, as is often the case in life, attention is not paid to the messenger, and the message is lost. Intuition again?

The first workman practices non-attachment. He is completely aware as he works and discovers a patch of beauty. He leaves the beauty not for anyone else, or to draw attention to his role in the discovery of beauty, but just because they are beautiful and he wishes them to flourish.

Likewise in an innovation commons, participants must not become so attached to their creations that they hold them back, but rather let them go so that can flourish.

Remember the bumper sticker "Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Beauty"? Practical types criticized it. I would rephrase this motto to "Practice intuitive acts of kindness and sagacious beauty."

I often discover tufts of beauty in my work - thoughts, ideas, constructs or insights left by someone who has worked the field before me. The discovery provides me with great joy. I feel connected with a fellow worker. And, I try to share how the new ideas are integrated into my thinking.

We work together,
Whether we work together or apart.

The Hothouse Effect

Barton Kunstler wrote a book, The Hothouse Effect: Intensify Creativity in Your Organization Using Secrets from History's Most Innovative Communities.and an article by the author "The Hothouse Effect: A Model for Change in Higher Education", On the Horizon, V 13 # 3, 2005. In his book he identifies 36 causative factors for innovative communities. In the article he selects nine factors for elaboration:

1. Values are "lived" throughout the environment, rather than being imposed from above
2. Members continually challenge and re-create the fundamental assumptions of their disciplines
3. The group's mission aspires to universal, even cosmic, application
4. Group members work closely with experts across disciplines and departments, and utilize many fields of knowledge when seeking solutions
5. Practitioners use sensory and body-centered techniques to stimulate creativity
6. Inquiry into fundamental principles of perception and learning are central to the group's work
7. Surroundings are saturated with information and materials intended to stimulate idea development
8. The community experiences sudden and rapid engagement with a much larger and more complex "meta-system" early in the hothouse cycle and is exhilarated by the subsequent possibilities without being overwhelmed by the larger system
9. The community strives to create beauty in one form or another

This is worth more study

Social Forms

Quote to think about:

"The first of all moral obligations is to think clearly. Societies are not like the weather, merely given, since human beings are responsible for their form. Social forms are constructs of the human spirit."

Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

The Goose and the Commons

The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the commons,
But lets the greater felon loose
That steals the commons from the Goose.
Anonymous folksong, 1764

The Wisdom of Crowds

From Publishers Weekly
While our culture generally trusts experts and distrusts the wisdom of the masses, New Yorker business columnist Surowiecki argues that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them." To support this almost counterintuitive proposition, Surowiecki explores problems involving cognition (we're all trying to identify a correct answer), coordination (we need to synchronize our individual activities with others) and cooperation (we have to act together despite our self-interest). His rubric, then, covers a range of problems, including driving in traffic, competing on TV game shows, maximizing stock market performance, voting for political candidates, navigating busy sidewalks, tracking SARS and designing Internet search engines like Google. If four basic conditions are met, a crowd's "collective intelligence" will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, Surowiecki says, even if members of the crowd don't know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally. "Wise crowds" need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people's errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are "smarter" than if a single expert had been in charge. Surowiecki's style is pleasantly informal, a tactical disguise for what might otherwise be rather dense material. He offers a great introduction to applied behavioral economics and game theory.

A Failure to Collaborate

Little Red Hen found a grain of wheat.

"Who will plant this?" she asked.

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the goose.

"Not I," said the rat.

"Then I will," said Little Red Hen.

So she buried the wheat in the ground. After a while it grew up yellow and ripe.

"The wheat is ripe now," said Little Red Hen. "Who will cut and thresh it?"

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the goose.

"Not I," said the rat.

"Then I will," said Little Red Hen.

So she cut it with her bill and threshed it with her wings.

Then she asked, "Who will take this wheat to the mill?"

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the goose.

"Not I," said the rat.

"Then I will," said Little Red Hen.

So she took the wheat to the mill, where it was ground.

Then she carried the flour home.

"Who will make me some bread from this flour?" she asked.

"Not I," said the cat.

"Not I," said the goose.

"Not I," said the rat.

"Then I will," said Little Red Hen.

So she made and baked the bread.

Then she said, "Now we shall see who will eat this bread."

"We will," said cat, goose, and rat.

"I am quite sure you would," said Little Red Hen, "if you could get it."

Then she called her chicks, and they ate up all the bread.

There was none left at all for the cat, or the goose, or the rat.

Innovation Commons

Serendipity, Abundance and the Relentless Pusuite of Innovation

The Federal Idea

"Different cultures give a different prominence to the idea of the individual, but one can sense a growing feeling of impotence, everywhere, in the face of institutions and government, local and global. Democracy used to mean that the people had the power, but now that translates into the people have the vote, which is not the same thing.

The vote is an expression of last resort, a useful reminder to our rulers of the source of their bread and butter, but hardly a way for individuals to influence what is going on around them. Moreover, in the institutions of everyday life, particularly those of business, the only people with the vote are those outside, the financiers or the governors. Those who work in them are effectively disenfranchised. Democracy has its limits.

If we want to reconcile our humanity with our economics, we have to find a way to give more influence to what is personal and local, so that we can each feel that we have a chance to make a difference, that we matter. We have no hope of charting a way through those paradoxes unless we feel able to take some personal responsibility for events. A formal democracy will not be enough. We have to find another way, by changing the structure of our institutions to give more power to the small and to the local. We have to do that, with all the untidiness which it entails, while looking for efficiency, and the benefits of coordination and control. But more is needed than good intentions to empower the individual to do what we want him or her to do. The structures and the systems have to change to reflect a new balance of power. That means federalism.

Federalism is an old idea, but its time may have come again because it matches paradox with paradox. Federalism seeks to be both big in some things and small in others, to be centralized in some respects and decentralized in others. It aims to be local in its appeal and in many of its decisions, but national or even global in its scope. It endeavors to maximize independence, provided that there is a necessary interdependence; to encourage difference, but within limits; it needs to maintain a strong center, but one devoted to the service of the parts; it can, and should, be led from that center but has to be managed by the parts. There is room in federalism for the small to influence the mighty, and for individuals to flex their muscles.

We think of federalism as applying to countries-the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Canada. Her politicians might not admit it, but the United Kingdom is really a federation of its separate regions, as is Spain, and, increasingly, even France, as its regions gain more autonomy. The concept, however, goes beyond countries. Every organization of any size can be thought of in federal terms. Hospitals, schools, local government, and most charities are, if we look at them with federal spectacles, made for federalism, local and separate activities bonded in one whole, served by a common center. All businesses of any size have federal propensities, and a need to be all the things which federalism offers.

Why has such a good idea not been so obviously popular? Few businesses are consciously federal, nor does history provide many, if any, examples of a monarch or a central power voluntarily moving to a federalist structure. The hard truth is that we are always reluctant to give up power unless we have to, and federalism is an exercise in the balancing of power. The federal idea is an example of the second curve, but one which too few institutions or societies develop until they are forced to. It is a very different, and very uncomfortable, way of thinking about organizations. It is messy, untidy, and always a little out of control. Its only justification is that there is no real alternative in a complicated world. No one person, or group, or executive, is so all-wise and so all-sensitive to be able to balance the paradoxes on their own, or run the place from the center, even if people were prepared to allow them to. We have to allow space for the small and the local.

Federalism relies on a set of Chinese contracts between its various parts and operates through doughnuts of varying size and shape, which leave, of necessity and of right, considerable space for local decisions. The goals of the parts have to adjust to the requirements of the whole, and vice versa. No one in a federal organization can have everything exactly as they want it. Therefore, it is an excellent example of putting the preaching of this book into practice, with all its difficulties as well as opportunities.

Let us be clear, federalism is not the easiest of concepts to make work, or to understand. Yugoslavia is hardly an advertisement for the concept, nor is Canada. California is creaking under an excess of federalism from within and without. IBM proclaims its conversion to the idea, but may not be its most successful exponent in the years ahead. A federal Europe frightens many, and not just in Britain. Nevertheless, we have to persevere because it is the best way to return some sense of meaning to our larger institutions, a way of connecting their purposes with their people.

Much of the confusion and difficulty arises from a misunderstanding of what federalism is. A confederation, for example, is not the same thing as a federation. A confederation is an alliance of interested parties who agree to do some things together. It is a mechanism for mutual advantage. There is no reason for sacrifice or trade-offs or compromise unless it is very obviously in one's own interest. A confederation is not an organization that is going anywhere, because there is no mechanism or will to decide what that anywhere might be. The Confederation of Independent States, which replaced the Soviet Union, will never be an effective body. The British Commonwealth, another confederation, is a thing of sentiment and language, not a real organization. These are not the stuff of federalism
Confederations adapt when they have to, usually too late. They do not lead, nor do they build. They are organizations of expediency, not of common purpose. The British would like Europe to remain an economic confederation, a common market. Many in the rest of Europe want a more federal state, one with a greater common purpose, within which sacrifices and compromises are acceptable, one in which the rich are readier to help the poorer, one with common standards and common aspirations.

What is true of Europe is also true of organizations.

Alliances, joint ventures, and networks are the tools of confederations, arrangements of mutual convenience, inevitably fragile as the conveniences change. Organizations with a clear purpose will want to be federal, not confederal. The distinction is important.

The key concepts in federalism are twin citizenship and subsidiarity. They are old ideas, re-invented for today's world."

From: The Age of Paradox, Charles Handy, Harvard Business School Press, 1995

Ten Steps to Take Advantage of the Public's Yearning for Community

“Ten steps for political, business, and religious leaders who want to take advantage of the public’s yearning for community:

1. Clearly define your purpose. It’s what galvanizes your community.

2. Give your staff the clear sense that they’re vital to achieving a common purpose.

3. Build your organization from the bottom up, not the top down. Technology makes grassroots organizing easier than ever.

4. Give your customers/voters/worshipers a say in how the product/campaign/church is marketed. Recognize that the consumer has more control than ever.

5. Tap into existing networks when possible. Create networks where none exist.

6. Be true to your purpose. Authenticity, accountability, and trust are the keys to building a bond or a brand.

7. Join the online community of bloggers to catch the first whiff of a crisis and to make sure your message is heard in the cyberspace community.

8. Wherever possible, make your enterprise a Third Place, a community outside home and work for people in search of connection.

9. Donate time and money to community causes. Customers are inclined to support civic-minded companies such as Home Depot, according to Bridgeland, the former head of UDSA Freedom Corps.

10. Identify the community’s leaders (Navigators) and get them on your side. Better still, use the Internet and other tools to create products that draw people together in online communities.”

Applebee’s America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community
Douglas Sosnik, Matthew Dowd and Ron Fournier
Simon & Schuster (2006)

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Simpler Way

A Simpler Way
Margaret Wheatley & Myron Kellner-Rogers
Berrett-Koehler, 1996

This is a beautiful book with beautiful pictures and mental images. It is a hopeful book, and it is a profound book. Its mission is no less than to change our paradigm from competition to collaboration in how we perceive, think and act in all that we do. The authors' opening line is "We want life to be less arduous and more delightful. We want to be able to think differently about how to organize human activities."

They question the "survival of the fittest" paradigm for evolution and our mechanistic view of the world. "The mechanistic image of the world is a very deep image, planted at subterranean depths in most of us. But it doesn't help us any longer."

The authors pose the question, "How could we organizes human endeavor if we developed different understandings of how life organizes itself?" They have six beliefs about human organizations and the world in which they come into form:

"The universe is a living, creative, experimenting experience of discovering what's possible at all levels of scale from microbe to cosmos.

Life's natural tendency is to organize. Life organizes into greater levels of complexity to support more diversity and greater sustainability.

Life organizes around a self. Organizing is always an act of creating an identity.

Life self-organizes. Networks, patterns, and structures emerge without external imposition or direction. Organization wants to happen.

People are intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, and meaning seeking.

Organizations are living systems. They too are intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, meaning-seeking."

They argue that life has a natural and spontaneous tendency towards organization. "Whatever chaos is present at the start, when elements combine, systems of organization appear. Life is attracted to order - order gained through wandering explorations into new relationships and new possibilities."

The central part of the book is organized around a poem by A. R. Ammons:

"I look for the way
things will turn
out spiraling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in

so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility
how a thing will

not the shape on paper - though
that, too - but the
uninterfering means on paper:

not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours."

The authors write, "Life is creative. It plays itself into existence, seeking new relationships, new capacities, new traits. Life is an experiment to discover what's possible."

They believe Darwinism has led us to believe that life wasn't supposed to happen, that it was an accident, and that life has to fight to continue to exist. In their view, "Life is about invention, not survival. We are here to create, not defend."

They point out that all of us are trying to describe our reality to others. But reality outside of us, in an absolute sense, evades us. "We peer out through our senses, describing our experiences of what we think reality to be. We choose images to convey our expereince. We create metaphors to connect what we see. We explore new ways of understanding what seems to be happening and what we think it means."

Peering out at the world, they describe seven principles of life's process of creating:

"Everything is in a constant process of discovery and creating. Everything is changing all the time: individuals, systems, environments, the rules, the processes of evolutions. Even change changes. Every organism reinterprets the rules, creates exceptions for itself, creates new rules.

Life uses messes to get well-ordered solutions. Life doesn't seem to share our desires for efficiency or neatness. It uses redundancy, fuzziness, dense webs of relationships, unending trials and errors to find what works.

Life is intent on finding what works, not what's 'right'. It is the ability to keep finding solutions that is important; any one solution is temporary. There are no permanently right answers. The capacity to keep changing, to find what works now, is what keeps any organism alive.

Life creates more possibilities as it engages with opportunities. There are no 'windows of opportunity', narrow openings in the fabric of space-time that soon disappear forever. Possibilities beget more possibilities; they are infinite.

Life is attracted to order. It experiments until it discovers how to form a system that can support diverse members. Individuals search out a wide range of possible relationships to discover whether they can organize into life-sustaining system. These explorations continue until a system is discovered. The system then provides stability for its members, so that individuals are less buffeted by change.

Life organizes around identity. Every living thing acts to develop and preserve itself. Identity is the filter that every organism or system uses to make sense of the world. New information, new relationships, changing environments - all are interpreted through a sense of self. This tendency toward self-creation is so strong that it creates a seeming paradox. An organism will change to maintain its identity.

Everything participates in the creation and evolution of its neighbors. There are no unaffected outsiders. No one system dictates conditions to another. All participate together in creating the conditions of their interdependence."

"There is no ideal design for anything, just interesting combinations that arise as a living thing explores it space of possibilities", Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers write, a combination of words that could be used to describe how an organization innovates.

Their assertion is that "life tinkers itself into existence". "It tinkers toward order - toward systems that are more complex and effective...Almost always what begins in randomness ends in stability...generates systems that sustain diverse individuals." But they conclude, "Life seeks order in a disorderly way."

"All this messy playfulness creates relationships that make more available...," they write. "Who we become together will always be different that who we were alone. Our range of creative expression increases as we join with others. New relationships create new capacities."

"Life invites us to create not only the forms but even the process of discovery," they conclude. "The environment is invented by our presence in it. We do not parachute into a sea of turbulence, to sink or swim. We and our environments become one system, each influencing the other, each co-determining the other." Living systems they believe create more possibilities and more freedom for individuals.

In this systems behaviors emerge. "Science writer Kevin Kelly describes these systems as a 'messy cascade of interdependent events ...What emerges from the collective is not a series of critical individual actions but a multitude of simultaneous actions whose collective pattern is far more important'."

One of the important features of viable living systems is simultaneity. "Simultaneity reduces the impact of any one error. More errors matter less if the actors are not linked together sequentially. The space for experimentation increases as we involve more minds in the experiment, as long as they can operate independently. What links people together is their focus on a needed solution. But in discovering what works, they are not waiting for one another to act."

They very carefully describe the discipline of play required for success. "Playful tinkering requires consciousness. If we are not mindful, if our attention slips, then we can't notice what's available or discover what's possible. Staying present is the discipline of play. Great concentration and focus are required." As a result, "Playful enterprises are alert. They are open to information, always seeking more, yearning for surprises."

Over and over again they stress the role that diversity plays in creation. "Parallel process requires both diversity and freedom. There is more than one workable solution, and these solutions arise from many different forms of self-expression...Life is not driving us toward one solution. The world is interested in pluralism. Only in this way can it discover more about itself...The world's desire for diversity compels us to change."

Systems offer the possibility for more stability. But in a curious paradox, that stability for the system depends upon its member's ability to change. "When individuals fail to experiment or when a system refuses their offers of new ideas, then the system becomes moribund. Without constant, interior change, it sinks into the death grip of equilibrium. It no longer participates in coevolution. The system becomes vulnerable; its destruction is self-imposed...This broad paradox of stability and freedom is the stage on which coevolution dances. Life leaps forward when it can share its learnings. The dense web of systems allow information to travel in all directions, speeding recovery and adaptation."

If systems of life are self-organizing then we don't have to design how they will organize. We live in a universe where we get order for free. "If order is for free, we don't have to be the organizers. We don't have to design the world. We don't have to structure its existence."

And, in a prescription for systems that has a lot to do with an innovation commons, "As we organize, we need to keep inquiring into the quality of our relationships. How much access do we have to one another? How much trust exists among us? Who else needs to be in the room?"

"Stability is found in freedom - not in conformity and compliance. We may have thought that our organization's survival was guaranteed by finding the right form and insisting that everyone fit into it. But sameness is not stability. It is individual freedom that creates stable systems. It is diffferentness that enables us to thrive," they propose.

In writing about self, they suggest, "Life wants to happen. It calls itself into existence. Out of all information and all possibilities, an entity comes into form. An identity emerges. A self has created itself...No externally imposed plans or designs are required. The process of invention always takes place around an identity. There is a self that seeks to organize and make its presence known. The desires of self set a self-organizing world into motion."

Research suggests that we perceive the world based on who we have decided to be, " any moment, what we see is most influenced by who we have decided to be...At least 80 percent of the information that the brain works with is information already in the brain." The corollary to this is that "We will change our self if we believe that the change will preserve the self."

In answering the question about what conditions will allow self-organization to flourish, they state "We need to trust that we are self organizing...We live in a world where attraction is ubiquitous. Organization wants to happen. People want their lives to mean something. We seek one another to develop new capacities. With all these wonderful and innate desires calling us to organize, we can stop worrying about designing perfect structures or rules. We need to become intrigued by how we create a clear and coherent identity, a self that we can organize around...Identity includes such dimensions as history, values, actions, core beliefs, competencies, principles, purpose, mission...Identity is the source of organizations. Every organization is an identity in motion, moving through the world, trying to make a difference."

In search of that illusive concept of emergence, they write, "Emergence is the surprising capacity we discover only when we join together. New systems have properties that appear suddenly and mysteriously. These properties cannot be predicted. They do not exist in the individuals who compose the system. What we know about the individuals, no matter how rich the details, will never give us the ability to predict how they will behave as a system. Once individuals link together they become something different.

One of the current quandaries facing free, open collaboratives is compensation. It is very clear that participants benefit in many other tangible and intangible ways from the collaboration. However, in our present form of capitalism, no standard form of monetary compensation has emerged. The authors don't provide much hope of one being developed, "Once systems are called into the world by our individual explorations, it becomes impossible to work backwards. Systems cannot be deconstructed. We can't figure out cause and effect or who contributed what. There are no heroes or permanent leaders in an emergent, systems creating world. There are too many simultaneous connection; individual contributions evolve too rapidly into group efforts."

We often talk about synergy in a group, where 1 + 1 > 2. Their paradigm revolutionizes the way to think about a system, "A system is an inseparable whole. It is not the sum of its parts. It is not greater than the sum of its parts. There is nothing to sum. There are no parts. The system is a new and different and unique contribution to its members and the world. To search backwards in time for its parts is to deny the self transforming nature of systems. A system is knowable only as itself. It is irreducible. We can't disentangle the effects of so many relationships. The connections never end. They are impossible to understand by analysis."

In amplifying their concept that self-organizing systems merge through trust, they write, "Every act of organizing is an experiment. We begin with desire, with a sense of purpose and direction. But we enter the experience vulnerable, unprotected by the illusionary cloak of prediction. We acknowledge that we don't know how this work will actually unfold. We discover what we are capable of as we go along. We engage others in the experiment. We are willing to commit to a systems whose effectiveness cannot be seen until it is in systems of trust, people are free to create the relationships they need. Trust enables the system to open. The system expands to include those it had excluded. More conversations - more diverse and diverging views - become important. People decide to work with those from whom they have been separate."

We long for meaning in our lives. "Each of us embodies the boundless energies of life. We are creating, systems-seeking, self-organizing, meaning-seeking beings. We are identities in motion, searching for the relationships that will evoke more from us."