Flow: Participatory Communication & Collaboration

Flow: Participatory Communication & Collaboration
This picture was named the "Milky Way" and I find it very compelling since it contains a very deep lesson about how we perceive our reality. Remarkable artists such as Janet Sobel, who later served to inspire well-known drip-artists like Jackson Pollock, capture complexity in the most beautiful manner. Janet apparently used music to harness her "artistic flow", which is remarkable since both such drip-paintings and music exhibit fractal phenomena. We might not fully perceive the "self-similarity" like a Silver Fern or Mandelbrot, but such images also highlight how we can often overlook such delicate patterns in nature due to the veil of complexity. Herein resides a great lesson for us when confronted with complexity, which can guide us when developing resilient systems and better patters of living for the future. Image source.

This post represents the second post within the "Regenerative Revolution" series that is currently in focus. As usual, visual imagery will be used liberally to aid comprehension and there will be several anecdotal stories, much like any fire-side ramblings, including a healthy smattering of humour. In the previous post, the late Prof. Raymond Williams provided clarity on the broad spectrum of our "communication systems" that define our reality on Earth and how such systems are principally contingent on collective values and behaviours within global societies. The criticality of our participatory agency is something we will expound further in this post. We also explored how such a complex adaptive system will evolve into greater states of complexity and the synergistic role of technology in that space. But before we detail this notion further, we should pause to reflect on the nature of "emergence". What architecture, if any, characterises efficient communicative systems and desireable emergence? The aspect of resource-efficient designs that embody nature-inspired principles will be crucial if we are to develop resilient and sustainable patterns of living.

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After all, nature has had 3.8 billion years of research, development and experimentation experience, therefore, there is a great likelihood that we will find highly optimal forms, hidden correlations, systemic symbiosis and design principles within her nuanced depths.

The systemic lifecycle of a tree will be a visual allegory that I will use extensively throughout this article, both as a dendritic archetype for achieving optimal flow architectures within systems but also as a relatable metaphor for complexity, chaos, scalability and emergence (both desirable and undesirable).

This image is meant to convey the whole system-of-systems metaphor for the relevance of devising new technological solutions that can sense and utilise the elusive patterns and correlations within our communicative ecosystems on Earth. If information, the currency of communication, is the fifth phase of matter, then our exploration into the flow architectures of the other four phases will not be in vain. This image is adapted from the works of Bill Mollison, in the Permaculture Designer's Manual, but it has cross-disciplinary relevance.
The image on the left can be understood to illustrate the system-of-systems context that a tree finds itself in, depicting both desirable (e.g. phototropism) and undesirable emergence (e.g. brittle fracture). The image on the right captures some of the scaling laws and patterns that nature embodies, which links to the works of Leonardo Da Vinci and Pareto-analysis, but more on this later. Image is sourced from - Mattheck, C. Updated Field Guide for Visual Tree Assessment. Karlsruhe: Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe, 2007.

To explore this territory, we will continue to lean into the works of eminent thinkers, musicians and artists in this space. In this post, I will lean heavily into the works of brilliant drip-artists and pioneering thinkers such as Alex Podolinsky, Alan Turing, Allan Savory, Ibn Khaldun, Victor Papanek and Leonardo Da Vinci, including brilliant academics such as Prof. Claus Mattheck, Dr Melvin Vopson, Sir Roger Penrose, Prof. Peter Turchin and Prof. Adrian Bejan - a physicist who has labelled the repeating constructs within nature's systems as the "constructal law". In my own opinion, this "constructal law" sits squarely at the confluence of fractality and non-ergodicity of reality; and this law is observed at all scales of our complex reality. There is an immense amount of learning here to inform our collaborative innovation approaches for our increasingly VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world.

Most of the main books from the bookshelf that inspired this article

One of the notions I would like to expand on is the idea of dendrites as an archetype for scalable and highly efficient flow architecture within a complex adaptive systems (CAS).

We need not look far for inspiration and examples. Whether it is the self-similar and fractal dimension of distributed nebulos gas in space or an artwork which is seemingly "random" (but in fact fractal), the extent of "hidden patterns" in our reality is truly breathtaking. I will also explore some of these beautiful commonalities that exists between these seemingly discrete fractal domains that constitute our reality.

The Crab nebula is an astrophysical system that exhibits complex morphological patterns at different observing frequencies. As is often the case when trying to peer through the veil of complexity, appreciating patterns within the temporal domain requires perseverance and diligence. Further reading - Chanu, Athokpam Langlen, Pravabati Chingangbam, Fazlu Rahman, R. K. Brojen Singh, and Preeti Kharb. ‘Analysis of the Structural Complexity of Crab Nebula Observed at Radio Frequency Using a Multifractal Approach’, 2022. https://doi.org/10.48550/ARXIV.2206.04717.

Whether we look at the grandest scale or even the minutest scale, we observe such scale-invariant fractality (which has been covered at some length in a previous post). Even the patterns that emerge in our morning ground coffee exhibit this "constructal law", as shown below.

The formation of the smallest rivers in the drainage basin of a funnel coated with unfiltered coffee sediment. The funnel was held vertically upward, and the photograph was taken at an angle and from above. Note the marriage of shapeless ow (disorganization, diffusion) and now with tree shape and structure (organization, streams) at the smallest, finite scale. Trees form all around the funnel and are visible from above. Source: Bejan, A. & Zane, J. P. Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization. (Doubleday, New York, 2012).

I believe fractality often eludes our comprehension in the spatial-domain, but even more so within the temporal-domain. I certainly feel that time is certainly the less tangible and more abstract in nature relative to its universal twin, space. But as we later discuss in this article, our clues to the true nature of time may in fact reside within the flow of information:

“Indeed, we may now consider the nature of time as experienced within the physical realm, literally as the informational flow of entropy.” - Currivan, Jude. The Cosmic Hologram: In-Formation at the Center of Creation. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2017.

But more on this later.

This will be a recursive theme in this article, which will be an exploratory mosaic of musings into the world of complexity, fractality and "hidden patterns" within both the spatial and temporal realms of our reality.

There are a lot of terms 'thrown about' when speaking of scale-invariance and self-similar systems. I include this informative schematic from a recent paper, which acts like a very useful and visual terminology reference. Source - Grosu, George F, Alexander V Hopp, Vasile V Moca, Harald Bârzan, Andrei Ciuparu, Maria Ercsey-Ravasz, Mathias Winkel, Helmut Linde, and Raul C Mureșan. ‘The Fractal Brain: Scale-Invariance in Structure and Dynamics’. Cerebral Cortex 33, no. 8 (4 April 2023): 4574–4605. https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhac363.

Such laws and symmetries from the realms of physics, when conflated with biomimicry examples, will prove to be highly insightful with respect to designing more efficient "communication systems" (i.e. information systems) for our techno-agrarian future, which are more scalable, equitable, complex, fairer and highly resource-efficient. This inspiration applies equally to developing scalable political communication systems (from village council to central government) as well as distributed-edge cyber-physical systems.

Let's begin.

A cautionary note: despite the article's name, if my articles were analogous to a river, this would be my rapid. In some parts, it is rather bumpy, eclectic and does not flow that well. This is partly due to the fact that I am currently rather time poor (due to personal reasons), and this topic was sitting in my draft folder for so long, I felt it was gathering dust - I just wanted to get it out there, much like a kite thrown into the winds of inspiration. Like a Kite catching the wind, I am hoping it will take shape over time. In some sections, the logic flows, other parts could do with much more refinement, but for now, it acts like a good example of emergence - a mixture of stability and instability. In essence, raw thoughts.

Defining 'Flow'

The Most Important Adjective for Systems Thinking

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I will recount tales of Africa in this article, including one when I gave myself concussion in a bush-toilet. But South Africa is the birth-home of my beloved wife Cheri, and since nearly two decades, I can say that Africa is now 'in my blood'. This beautiful image depicts the fractal distribution of water systems throughout Africa. Source.

Flow is an attempt to capture the network traffic which would characterise a complex adaptive system, which embodies emergence and progresses via 'disorganized' and 'decentralized' ephemeral opportunities. Whether one is

  • an educator contemplating a better teaching system,
  • a technologist innovating on societal challenges,
  • or an elected government official wanting to construct a truly open and participatory government

the importance of understanding the nature of flow systems and flow architectures is difficult to overstate.

"Technology, science, information, education—in one word, culture—is how all of us unwittingly open up our channels and liberate our flows. Peter Vadasz’s observation is worth repeating: “Any society has as much freedom as the available technology can provide and support.” This is why the physics of evolution is so important and valuable, and why the constructal law teaches us how to fast-forward the design of open government...
The flow system of humanity has a built-in capability for participating in the generation, maintenance and evolution of these flow architectures." - Bejan, Adrian. Physics of Life: The Evolution of Everything. 1st edition: May 2016. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016.

Since my early days working in the defence sector, I recall being formally exposed to the broad discipline of systems engineering and systems thinking. Such systemic approaches towards complex projects have incorporated noteworthy frameworks from leading complexity thinkers such as Dr Dave Snowden (who founded the Cynefin Framework) and Dr John R. Turner (co-founder of The Flow System). However, personally speaking, one of the most interesting system thinkers that I have come across in the times of today, is Anatoly Levenchuk (also on Medium), who was previously the chair of the INCOSE Russian chapter. In many ways he echoes this altruistic sentiment from Feynman...

“If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis … that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.” - Richard Feynman

His words illustrate how the atomic agency that constitutes our reality can teach us a great deal about practical systems thinking. We indeed live in a complex systems-of-systems reality, and in many respects, we should learn to embrace the uncertainty and complexity. Curiosity can be a loyal ally in this respect.

“I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.” - Richard Feynman

On Medium, one of the writers that I have recently started following is Ashley Crouch, her articles have a poetic element in narrating the world that surrounds us, as per this recent one, which very much reflects Heraclitus's famous words from the 6th century “The only constant in life is change”...

Life is chaotic and the only constant is change. It’s not about learning how to gain more control, but rather how to flow in the stream of change. If control is a river full of rapids, we must learn to go with the water rather than fight it. We control only how we respond to the ever-changing flow of the river. And that control is really more about becoming part of the river. Embrace the chaos. - Source

We need to cultivate more creative generalists i.e. ‘bricolage

I sometimes feel that our tendency to seek to define things and entities is in some ways antithetical with the ethos of systems thinking. Georgy Petrovich Shchedrovitsky, one of the founding pioneers of systems thinking, liked to repeat: "A definition is a coffin for a dead thought". In many ways, our biased tendency to favour those who espouse certainty rather than uncertainty, manifests itself also in our social worlds, such as the Dunning-Krueger effect. Sir Ken Robinson, a fellow alumni from the University of Warwick, once said, “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.”, which contains a pragmatic truth, since many pioneers were both bold and radical. I think it would be reasonable to infer that systems thinkers have an unnatural willingness to embrace uncertainty, chaos and complexity - regardless of the 'social perception cost' (I can think of several pioneers that fall into this category e.g. Nikola Tesla, Alex Podolinsky...). Possibly this is rooted to the fact that in the times of today, we rarely find a renown physicist to also be a bard and stonemason, or a dairy-farmer also a biologist and part-time poet. There may be some cases of courses, but this is certainly not typical and our educational systems certainly cannot prescribe such pathways.

The world of patents can give further support to this notion. Having filed a patent myself a few years ago whilst working at EVRAZ East Metals AG (on the use of magnetic fields to influence the stoichiometry of nano-precipitates in steels resulting in lattice strain, paramagnetic modifications and ensuing modulus enhancements), I had some interesting discussions with a patent attorney. His reflections about the link between a patent's impact (and novelty) was, in his opinion, correlated with inter-disciplinary inventors, polymaths and scientists who had bridged different fields of academia. A recent paper proved this hypothesis.

Illustration of the manifold inscribing all embeddings θ and an evaluation of three articles or patents (hyperedges h1-3) in terms of their surprising combinations. In contrast to h1 and h3, paper h2 draws a novel combination of components unlike any patent from the past, making it of low probability and high surprise. Source - Shi, Feng, and James Evans. ‘Surprising Combinations of Research Contents and Contexts Are Related to Impact and Emerge with Scientific Outsiders from Distant Disciplines’. Nature Communications 14, no. 1 (24 March 2023): 1641. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-36741-4.

Our agency in society has in some ways become siloed and more defined relative to certain (not all of course!) time periods in our history. Whether this is a positive development in life, I am not so sure. I find this a very curious thing, since it was not long ago during the 19th century, the days of William Blake, Jan Christian Smuts (who features again later in the article), Nikola Tesla, 'Iolo Morganwg' and James Clerk Maxwell, when vocations sustained far greater plurality and multiplicity, which I think is conducive to enhancing diverse thinking. In this respect, I should add that I am very grateful for the conversation I had recently with a good friend of mine, Stephen Viljoen (a fellow "pattern seeker" and admirer of Celtic music), who shared his experiences in facilitating role-plurality and its effect on bolstering information pooling within agile teams.

Iolo the Romantic poet and the Rational Dissenter was also attracted to Hinduism, Brahminism and the Jewish cabbala. Multiple interests of this kind were not viewed as a sign of weakness in Iolo’s day. On the contrary, versatility was encouraged and the manner in which many-sided people, including autodidacts, mastered a variety of crafts as well as range of literary genres commanded respect. There is considerable merit in the approach successfully deployed by Jon Mee in illuminating the radical rhetorical practices of William Blake through the Levi-Straussian concept of the ‘bricoleur’. Iolo certainly fits the image of the protean craftsman who worked with his hands and his brains to draw on a wide range of disparate data, tools and repertoires to create a ‘bricolage’...
Diversity, ambiguity and complexity lay at the heart of Iolo: therein lies much of his appeal. It is wholly fitting that he should have coined the Welsh word for ‘unique’ (unigryw)...
The complexity is revealed, too, in the enormous diversity of his interests, which derived partly from individual genius and partly from the multifaceted richness of his cultural background. - Jenkins, Geraint H., and Iolo Morganwg, eds. A Rattleskull Genius: The Many Faces of Iolo Morganwg. Iolo Morganwg and the Romantic Tradition in Wales Series. Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press, 2005.

I think Elon Musk and David Epstein, author of 'Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World' would agree with this sentiment. The latest science on learning rate strongly correlates with how diverse and cross-disciplinary learning opportunities create more "hooks" to catch the 'Velcro confetti' of new knowledge. Throw in the variables of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) and we have a well suited response. In this respect, I would echo the sentiments of Dr. William Donaldson in his recent TEDx Talk, systems thinking will prove to be an invaluable guide to lead us through our VUCA age.

Information is the Currency of Communication

...and its Flow Shapes our Future

Trying to Map the Communication Flows of Information within this Ecosystem would have extremely high Complexity. This is where Systems Thinking becomes invaluable. Source - Woodhill, Jim, and Juliet Millican. ‘Systems Thinking and Practice: A Guide to Concepts, Principles and Tools for FCDO and Partners’. Institute of Development Studies, 3 February 2023. https://doi.org/10.19088/K4D.2023.002.

As explored in some of my other articles, we are very much confronting a convergence of global challenges at the moment, which is nicely captured in this sketch above and the brilliant lecture by Indy Johar (below).

Based on the image above and the recent talk by Indy Johar, we can clearly infer that there are interdependent and complex relationships between the systems in our environment and the enabling systems (one system defines or changes another system). Allan Savory's work very much resides at the heart of this confluence. And within such a complex system-of-systems, there is a whole chain of such relationships, feedback loops and 'hidden links' to consider. One of the pioneers of mathematics and computer science is Alan Turing, a truly brilliant mind and like any systems thinker, his interests were broad-spectrum and his passion for patterns in nature enabled him to perceive the true intricacies of the working world. To be completely frank, I think Alan Turing intuitively appreciated the constructal law a century earlier (as per his works on the morphogen system), but he was often limited by the limited computing abilities of his time.

An example of a ‘dappled’ pattern as resulting from a morphogen system. Source - Turing, Alan M. ‘The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 237, no. 641 (14 August 1952): 37–72. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.1952.0012.
“The ‘wave ’ theory which has been developed here depends essentially on the assumption that the reaction rates are linear functions of the concentrations, an assumption which is justifiable in the case of a system just beginning to leave a homogeneous condition. Such systems certainly have a special interest as giving the first appearance of a pattern, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Most of an organism, most of the time, is developing from one pattern into another, rather than from homogeneity into a pattern. One would like to be able to follow this more general process mathematically also. The difficulties are, however, such that one cannot hope to have any very embracing theory of such processes, beyond the statement of the equations. It might be possible, however, to treat a few par­ ticular cases in detail with the aid of a digital computer.” - Turing, Alan M. ‘The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 237, no. 641 (14 August 1952): 37–72. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.1952.0012.

Taking a metric from any one of these sub-systems (such as air pollution levels) only tells us part of the story, and in many respects, the root-cause will be buried in some conflated space between other strongly correlated sub-systems (such as energy production). Another example could be our approach to conservation, such as encouraging eco-tourism by building some simple infrastructure for wildlife watching. But after some time the non-linearity of feedback loops comes into action and there is an emergence of poaching in the area. In response to this a system of social-engagement and community education might be mobilised, which would represent a phase change on the image below, and the perennial cycle continues (this is an example we will revert to again in more detail later on).

An Example from the World of Conversation of Ecosystems. There is a relationship between the systems in the environment and the enabling systems (one system defines or changes another system). And there is a whole chain of such relationships, links (both visible and hidden) and interdependencies to consider. These manifest as a range of macro-level and micro-level feedback mechanisms. For more details on real conservation case studies, please read further into the image source - Biggs, Reinette, Frances R. Westley, and Stephen R. Carpenter. ‘Navigating the Back Loop: Fostering Social Innovation and Transformation in Ecosystem Management’. Ecology and Society 15, no. 2 (2010): art9. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-03411-150209.

This is an example we will come back to within the context of ivory poaching and we can understanding such non-linear feedback mechanisms to be known as 'sliding reinforcers'. We could list hundreds of examples here but what I aim to illustrate is that unless we rapidly adopt systems thinking, we are like a herd of horses wearing blinkers and navigating a highland moor - sinking bogs a-plenty.

Physics is an excellent place to go if wanting to embrace complex adaptive systems. its like a pantomime for chaos, feedback mechanisms, phase transitions and uncertainty - and I think one of the main reasons for this is that the causality scale between cause-and-effect (in both the spatial and temporal sense of space-time) can often be so complex and strange (i.e. quantum mechanics) - one has to spend several 'boring' hours thinking about it and still feel perplexed. Just how Allan Savory noted how disturbance at the Botswana border (i.e. disturbance at the soil surface by grazing herds) yielded a profound example of emergence, which at the time, eluded the established scientific understanding. New paradigms of understanding catch on like underground solar panels - we will revert back to this "paradigm effect" later on.

"We had a massive buildup of animal numbers in a game reserve on the Botswana border known as the Tuli Circle, and as a result thousands of animals starved to death. I believed, as did the wildlife biologists working with me, that with dramatically fewer animals living there the area would naturally recover, but it continued to deteriorate. Most of our scientists blamed drought, but in the year of the so called worst drought the records showed one of the best rainy seasons ever, in both volume and distribution.1 I published a paper at the time in which I concluded that, once land was so badly damaged, it had reached a point of no return and would never recover. Because my peers held the same beliefs, that paper was published, much to my embarrassment today as I now realize how wrong we all were...
The Tuli Circle, where so much of the game had died off and where so much soil lay exposed, could not recover if left undisturbed because it was a very brittle environment. It required some form of disturbance at the soil surface, similar to what the formerly large herds provided, in order to get more plants growing, as the next chapter explains. In the tsetse fly areas, the increased use of fire had exposed soil, and though old grass plants remained healthy, nothing disturbed the soil sufficiently to allow establishment of new ones. Thus communities declined and soil became unstable." - Savory, Allan, and Jody Butterfield. Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore Our Environment. Third edition. Washington: Island Press, 2016.

This also finds resonance in the world of physics. For example, quantum mechanics has recently established the existence of stable quantum phases of matter described by symmetric tensor gauge fields, which naturally couple to quasi-particles of restricted mobility, such as fractons (explored in part in an old post). Recent studies are showing how a "disturbance" of these system (technically termed "fragmentation"), essentially yields Hilbert spaces, which can both mimic 2D string theory and our 3D world (i.e. continuum). Extend this in various fields of physics and one starts to sense repeating patterns. Just how Allan Savory noted how such patterns are best perceived through a holistic/systemic understanding of reality...

In the 1920s this new worldview was given a name, holism (from the Greek holos), and a theoretical base by the legendary South African statesman-scholar Jan Christian Smuts (1870–1950)...
In Holism and Evolution (1926), Smuts challenged the old mechanical viewpoint of science. Like modern-day physicists, Smuts came to see that the world is not made up of substance, but of flexible, changing patterns. “If you take patterns as the ultimate structure of the world, if it is arrangements and not stuff that make up the world,” said Smuts, “the new concept leads you to the concept of wholes. Wholes have no stuff, they are arrangements...
Science has come round to the view that the world consists of patterns, and I construe that to be that the world consists of wholes.”...
Individual parts do not exist in nature, only wholes, and these form and shape each other. The new science of Smuts’s day, ecology, was simply a recognition of the fact that all organisms feel the force and molding effect of the environment as a whole. “We are indeed one with Nature,” he wrote. “Her genetic fibers run through all our being; our physical organs connect us with millions of years of her history; our minds are full of immemorial paths of pre-human experience.” - Savory, Allan, and Jody Butterfield. Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore Our Environment. Third edition. Washington: Island Press, 2016.

Naturally, I think this translates to many skills and disciplines (mathematics, biology, economics ...), not just physics - but it serves regardless as an excellent template for exploring systemic complexity and elusive causality.

Understanding something new is an artform in itself. Despite feeling like no progress is made, its often the artform of persistent curiosity and diligence that yields the greatest benefit, not the small increment of the domain-specific theory. Quick fixes often have a short half-life, and like any radiologist would know, a short-half life implies risk.

'Quick fixes' will not work in our VUCA age. But systemic fixes will...

We need more permanent solutions that address root causes i.e. the true 'pain points'

Despite having a respect for Permaculture, my farming roots bias my judgement towards a more pragmatic stance. In this regard, I have great admiration for pioneers such as Allan Savory and other 'regen-ag' proponents such as Richard Perkins. The book Holistic Management by Allan Savory is a remarkable book, acting like a practical example of how system thinkers would approach the management of our environment. Highly recommended.
Real life presents cause and effect situations that are less straightforward. Symptoms, or effects, can appear to result from multiple causes. Cause and effect is seldom a simple chain but a mesh extending infinitely in all directions...
We generally tend to favor a quick fix over more permanent solutions because by nature we seek to avoid discomfort, which a quick fix alleviates right away. Since most of our quick fixes involve the use of some form of technology, it is tempting to believe that technology is responsible for this quick fix mentality, but it is more likely the other way around: in an attempt to deal with problems we develop technology. Whichever it is, the fact remains that we are naturally inclined to resort to any one of the quick fixes modern science so often conjures up at the drop of a hat, rather than seek to address the underlying cause of the problem. Once the fix alleviates the symptoms, however, we tend to forget we even had a problem—until it recurs, as it surely will if the underlying cause is not rectified. - Savory, Allan, and Jody Butterfield. Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore Our Environment. Third edition. Washington: Island Press, 2016.

To help delve into this more, we could consider the weather. After all, knowing which hour it will start to rain is a much easier question than why precisely 841mm of rain will fall between 2-4pm tomorrow. Was it because a few butterflies fluttered around a particular plant on some distant continent?

Among all the studies of fractal and chaos theories, I think one of the best places to start exploring this topic is the Lorenz system, also widely-known as the The Butterfly Effect. We experience the weather daily, and we can all recount times when the forecast was completely wrong. Even today, our physics-informed climate models are still contending with the reality of chaos when trying to accurately predict the weather.

A beautiful example of a Lorenz attractor, plotted using fractal equations of scaled 'butterflies'. Source.

When faced with complexity, systems thinking can offer the necessary heuristics and guidance to navigate the worlds of chaos, flow and emergence. But before we delve into such topics (such as risk mitigation and agent-to-agent interactions), lets first find a practical synopsis for 'systems thinking', which in many respects is more like a guide on 'how to think', when confronting complexity.

Systems thinking helps to solve complexity in a variety of projects: it makes it possible to think one at a time about everything important, temporarily discarding the unimportant, but without losing the integrity of the situation, the interplay of these separately throughout important moments, systems thinking manages attention in complex collective projects. System thinking makes it possible for students of various specializations to reliably keep their projects in their heads and records in all their blossoming complexity to connect theory and life. For experienced engineers, managers, technological entrepreneurs, people of creative professions, systems thinking allows you to lay out their knowledge of life on the shelves. - Practical Systems Thinking, Introduction | Aisystant’. Accessed 11 April 2024. https://aisystant.com/en/practical-systems-thinking/introduction.

Back in the early days of my career within the defence sector, still green behind the ears from my studies and still using my faithful cooking book, "Meals you can do with one pot", I was exposed to the formalities of systems engineering and systems thinking.

Systems Thinking is where we treat real world things (objects, products, situations, organizations, etc.) as systems, to learn more about them. By treating things as systems, it makes us think differently about them, providing insight and understanding that could not be gained any other way. This different way of looking at the real world allows us to solve previously unsolvable problems, to exploit opportunities and prevent the occurrence of issues. - ‘Systems Thinking’. Accessed 22 April 2024. https://www.burgehugheswalsh.co.uk/systems-thinking?ref=formresilience.com.
I am ever so thankful for the excellent training that I received many years ago from Burgh Hughes Walsh. I would fully recommend them if a reader wishes to implement more systems thinking within their current organization. Image source.

Naturally, such an approach is truly transferable across all segments, sectors and domains, and is summarized nicely in the images below.

An overview of a systems engineering approach methodology. For more details and explanation, I would recommend this course and resource - https://aisystant.com/en/practical-systems-thinking/introduction.html
There is a relationship between the systems in the environment and the enabling systems (one system defines or changes another system). And there is a whole chain of such relationships and adjacency links to consider. The "enabling" relationship is not a part-whole relationship! Enabling is not the same as composing! The pot in which the soup is cooked is not the pot as part of the soup, or the soup as part of the pot! It is a pot in the enabling of the soup! - https://aisystant.com/en/practical-systems-thinking/introduction.html
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Leaning into the cyber of cyber-physical systems, this systemic reality is equally true for our data flows. Source Holten, D. ‘Hierarchical Edge Bundles: Visualization of Adjacency Relations in Hierarchical Data’. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics 12, no. 5 (September 2006): 741–48. https://doi.org/10.1109/TVCG.2006.147.

Whether its the nucleation of a snowflake, the shaping of a river basin, the surface of an extra-terrestrial planet, the growth of a tree or the thermodynamics of dendrites forming during steel casting - nature consistently manages to contextualise emergence and optimise form for efficiency, regardless of the incurred complexity. But how can we emulate this in our techno-spheres and socio-economic systems? Well, my aim in this article is to reflect on the usefulness of perceiving information as a flow system.

The Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue beautifully captures the essence of flow within the context of water, trees and landscape -

Water in a landscape is a fascinating thing as well. I often think that water is the tears of the earth’s joy and sadness. Every kind of water in a landscape has a different kind of tonality and a different kind of presence to it. You think of the stillness of a well, of the energy of a stream, of the totality of the ocean or the singularity and memory of a river. I also think that trees are incredible presences. There is incredible symmetry in a tree, between its inner life and its outer life, between its rooted memory and its external active presence. A tree grows up and grows down at once and produces enough branches to incarnate its wild divinity . It doesn’t limit itself—it reaches for the sky and it reaches for the source, all in one seamless kind of movement. - O’Donohue, John, and John Quinn. Walking in Wonder. Convergent Books, 2018.

The flow and characteristics of water in our tree-adorned landscapes serves as a wonderful example for us in how we ought to efficiently organize our collaborative ecosystems and derivative systemic technologies. As depicted in the image of Africa above, entire continents are shaped by the power of water, and even so, at its lowest denominator, a water droplet, it presents scale-invariance.

A sketch I prepared for a project-activity, as part of the Permaculture Design Certificate program.

A few years ago, I completed a Permaculture Design Certificate with Geoff Lawton on Zaytuna Farm, which was a goal of mine given my interest in regenerative agriculture. I learned a great deal from this experience, but one of the most impactful things that emerged from this course was being exposed to the works of Bio-Dynamic farming pioneer, Alex Podolinsky. I am now the proud owner of his published set of lecture-notes, which I am told is becoming rarer to find these days. It is clear from his lectures and life achievements that Alex Podolinsky was a true systems thinker and in many respects, a polymath. His ideas span so many different fields, ranging from physics to ecology, which I assume gave him an ability to perceive nature as an interconnected whole. To illustrate this, in his lecture notes he addresses the matter of nutrient cycling within nature's soil systems -

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How is nature organized to make those nutritional elements (from rock) soluble without any external chemical treatment (such as artificial fertilizers)?
"There are some chemical actions going on in the soil to help, but they are never of a permanent nature, they are always of a temporary nature - something happens for a while then ceases. There is though, a permanent organization working in nature to make insoluble elements soluble." - Biodynamic Agriculture Introductory Lectures Vol. 1 by Alex Podolinsky, Gavemer Publishing, 2000

He then goes into great depth detailing such emergent temporal mechanisms, but also explains the holistic bigger picture, drawing out self-repeating patterns between the two extremities of scale. One of these systemic links was related to nature's mechanisms to purify water. Alex recounts the tale of a hydrological engineer called Theodor Schwenk, who applied the Schlieren optics principle to test the quality of water. Inspired by Schwenk, Alex Podolinsky and his colleagues made some truly remarkable findings.

Water test Chromas from the Schlieren optics principle. Source - Biodynamic Agriculture Introductory Lectures Vol. 1 by Alex Podolinsky, Gavemer Publishing, 2000

In the image above, the Chroma on the left was from a city with poor water quality, the Chroma on the right from a city with very good water quality, deriving its water source from an Alpine source. We can instantly note that the healthier water exhibits more diversity, fractality and when scaled, we can note dendritic detail, including signs of turbulent flow. On the left, we note none of these characteristics. Alex and his colleagues made many more results, including the effects of lunar cycles on the nature of spring water and its interconnected effects with plant cycles. Some would deem his work 'radical', but history has often associated this term with polymaths and thinkers who are in many respects, 'ahead of their time' (Einstein, Turing, Tesla ...).

The fractality of water, much like healthy cardiac rhythms, is an anecdotal signal, which represents the health of complex adaptive systems (CAS) within nature. Indeed, if Earth could shed tears, we could likely characterise her health through the fractality of her flow systems, with water being a major one. There is indeed much we can learn from this. But before we continue into the fractality of dendrites, we first need to appreciate the essence of 'ergodicity'.

The Evolution of Life

A “Non-Ergodic” System

Non-ergodicity stands in contrast to “ergodicity. “Ergodic” means that the system in question visits all its possible states. A very simplified example (with some strong assumptions) of this would be the Galton board below, whereby all slots (or states) can be accessed given sufficient time for the balls to traverse downwards, presenting itself as a normal distribution, but also exemplifying convergence towards the central-limit (or mean).

A Galton Board

A more representative example of ergodicity would be the thermodynamical "blackbody" radiation problem (an ergodic system shown by the radial heat source in the top-left image within the Figure below).

The effect of size on the design of distributed heating. The total heat loss per user decreases as the size of the inhabited area increases. The heat loss per user is lower when the architecture evolves stepwise from radial to dendritic as N increases. Source: Bejan, A. The Physics of Life: The Evolution of Everything.

One of the takeaways I wish to highlight from this figure above is that the extent of "dendricity" (if there is such a word...), reaches a minimal point whereby the heat loss is minimized (akin to the minimisation of the Gibbs free energy - thermodynamic potential). I will revert to this very insightful inference, when linking it to the design of information-based flow architectures.

But back to the nature of ergodicity...

In statistical mechanics this is based on the famous “ergodic hypothesis, which, mathematically, gives up integration of Newton’s equations of motion for the system. Even more profoundly, the evolution of life in our biosphere is profoundly “non-ergodic” and historical. The universe will not create all possible life forms. This, together with heritable variation, is the substantial basis for Darwin, without yet specifying the means of heritable variation, whose basis Darwin did not know. Ergodic systems have no deep sense of “history.” In contrast, non-ergodic systems, much like a dendrite in nature, do not visit all of their possible states and they are historical. In physics perhaps the most familiar case of a non-ergodic system is a spin glass:

Spin glasses are magnetic systems, that is, systems in which individual elements, the spins, behave like small magnets...The scientific interest of spin glasses lies in the fact that they are an example of a complex system whose elements interact with each other in a way that is sometimes cooperative and sometimes adversarial. The mathematics developed to understand their behavior can be applied to problems arising in a variety of disciplines, from ecology to machine learning, not to mention economics.
Source: University, B. The mathematics that makes us realize we don’t know much: Behavior of spin glasses. https://phys.org/news/2022-11-mathematics-dont-behavior-glasses.html.

The example of a spin glass is both a call to great humility (they remain as constant reminders of how much we don't know) and learning; since such complex systems abound both in nature and in our human-created systems e.g. global economic system. Non-ergodicity implies irreversibility and it gives us history in our universe - there is an inherent profoundness in this. To unpack this more, we need to enter into the world of quantum field theory and information theory.

Information has Flow

...(including Mass?!) and the Paradigm Effect

Diagrammatic representation of the mass – energy – information equivalence. Source - Vopson, Melvin M. ‘The Mass-Energy-Information Equivalence Principle’. AIP Advances 9, no. 9 (1 September 2019): 095206. https://doi.org/10.1063/1.5123794.

Since the bronze age, humans have harnessed the power of water to create watermills, which enabled farmers to convert wheat to flour, thus yielding the emergence of bread and other products. But what about information? The parallels between our water system on earth and the web of information, which is sustained by the world-wide web, are truly compelling.

The Caylee tree model of the internet is inspired by the theory of river networks, which can provide an explanation for the fractal properties of the net with respect to the optimization of some thermodynamic potential - a minimisation of some cost function. Source: https://doi.org/10.48550/arXiv.cond-mat/0009178

As noted above, networks are present in many aspects of everyday life, from the watershed where the rivers water is collected, to the veins and lymphatic channels that distribute blood and nutrition in animals and plants, to the telephone or electricity or internet webs that transport in our houses the services we need. In all these cases, the network properties should be such to optimise some cost function, as for example the number of points connected with respect to the length of the web. Or in thermodynamical terms, the Gibbs free energy.

But before going into the topic of 'free energy' (which in essence, is an informational construct of a system), let's address entropy and thermodynamics. Entropy is a fundamental concept in thermodynamics, representing the degree of disorder or randomness in a system. The second law of thermodynamics states that in any energy transfer or transformation, the total entropy of a closed system will always increase over time until it reaches equilibrium. This law implies that natural processes tend to move towards states of higher entropy, which is often associated with greater disorder. Now, let's tie this concept of entropy to information theory. In the context of information theory, entropy represents the uncertainty or unpredictability of information. A system with high entropy contains a large amount of information, while a system with low entropy contains less information and is more ordered and predictable.

black and gray internal HDD
A hard-drive. Photo by Vincent Botta / Unsplash

The connection between thermodynamics and information theory emerges when considering the process of creating, manipulating, or erasing information (such as wiping a hard-drive). In the Landauer principle, it is argued that the erasure of information is a dissipative process, meaning it generates heat and increases the entropy of the environment. This connection implies that information processing is subject to the laws of thermodynamics. This can of course be connected to informational dynamics within Black-Holes, but I would point the reader to the works of Stephen Hawking or Sir Roger Penrose if wanting to go into this further.

Explanatory diagram about the emergent entangled informational universe. Source - Denis, Olivier. ‘The Emergent Entangled Informational Universe’. Physical Science International Journal 27, no. 1 (19 May 2023): 54–81. https://doi.org/10.9734/psij/2023/v27i1777.

Thanks to Einstein, we know that mass is associated with energy. Since information processing involves physical processes governed by thermodynamics, the creation, manipulation, or erasure of information necessarily involves the conversion of energy. Therefore, information can be considered to have mass (albeit indirectly through its connection to energy). In many respects, the implications of this are so abstract that it is truly perplexing.

  • Has the world got heavier in our informational age?
  • Is the "fundament" of our reality made of "information" and is that the aperture we can peer through to account for the 'missing' mass in the universe (i.e. dark energy and dark matter)?

These are deep and profound questions, and in approaching such paradigm-shifts in understanding, as humans we often tend to succumb to the paradigm effect.

"But when a new idea goes against our experience, knowledge, and prejudices—what we know rather than what we think—our mind blocks it out, distorts it, or rebels against it. A good example is the new idea introduced by nineteenth-century physician Ignaz Semmelweis, who demonstrated that physicians could cut maternal deaths in the delivery room dramatically if they washed their hands in a chlorine solution between autopsy work and examining patients. He couldn’t prove why it worked, but the results were compelling. Medical institutions rejected the idea not only because they knew disease was caused by an imbalance of the “four humors” and that it spread through “bad air,” but also because physicians were offended by the idea of having to wash their hands (as they were gentlemen, it was impossible for their hands to be unclean). It was several decades after Semmelweis’s death that hand washing with an antiseptic became standard medical practice. As this example shows, it is not just individuals who are slow to accept new ideas outside prevailing beliefs; it is also the institutions protecting the body of knowledge tied to those beliefs...
This inability to accept new ideas outside prevailing beliefs is called the paradigm effect, and none of us can escape it." - Savory, Allan, and Jody Butterfield. Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore Our Environment. Third edition. Washington: Island Press, 2016.

In our universe, the irreversibility of certain processes, such as erasing information, is tied to the increase in entropy (curiously, the mind tends to remarkably high-entropy states under certain conditions, such as a near death experiences and meditation/prayer), as dictated by the second law of thermodynamics. This irreversibility gives rise to history in our universe, as past states cannot be perfectly recreated from present states due to the loss of information and increase in entropy over time. If we compound this with Verlinde's entropic gravity, the non-locality of consciousness and the holographic principle, it could have some profound philosophical implications. Is information the fifth phase of matter (like a cosmic film etched with consciousness) that counter-balances the flow of entropy in our abstracted (some would call it 'simulated', such as Elon Musk) baryonic reality?

"As we’ll see, in the past few years this equivalence of information and energy and the relationship with the concept of entropy, the equation for which is inscribed on Boltzmann’ s memorial, is revealing that information is actually more encompassing and fundamental, indeed expressing itself in complementary ways through the conservation of energy and matter and entropically through the flow of time itself." - Currivan, Jude. The Cosmic Hologram: In-Formation at the Center of Creation. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2017.
This abstracted (some would call it 'simulated') reality is a compelling area of research and I believe we are only scratching the surface of understanding. As humans, we often overlook our inherent biased reference point and have a common tendency to only peel the bark of knowledge before learning its deeper roots, so in this respect, we should be hesitant to 'define' things. Above is a collection of my own reflections and musings for the purposes of this article. In many ways my notes are misleading, since there exists an equivalence between mass, energy and information, but in some ways, we are at the mercy of scale. I can point the reader to these three image sources if wanting to delve deeper into this - Penrose, Roger. Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017, Vitiello, Giuseppe. ‘Matter, Mind and Consciousness: From Information to Meaning’. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience 19, no. 4 (2020): 701. https://doi.org/10.31083/j.jin.2020.04.310., Tegmark, Max. ‘Consciousness as a State of Matter’. Chaos, Solitons & Fractals 76 (July 2015): 238–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chaos.2015.03.014.
"A mark appearing on a film; an electroscope discharging abnormally ; that is enough to force physics to accept fantastic powers in the atom. Similarly, if we try to bring man, body and soul, within the framework of what is experimental, man obliges us to readjust completely to his measure the layers of time and space. To make room for thought in the world, I have needed to ' interiorise ' matter : to imagine an energetics of the mind ; to conceive a noogenesis rising upstream against the flow of entropy ; to provide evolution with a direction, a line of advance and critical points : and finally to make all things double back someone.” - De Chardin, Pierre Teilhard. The Phenomonen of Man. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2008.

Many belief systems (Lunaric tradition in Judaism, Buddhism etc.) have articulated the profound otherness implied in this "noogenesis", or “ground of being,” to use a term coined by the philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich. I find this compelling, since it could be argued that as humans, we have had our suspicions that there is something rather mysterious about our reality, which often eludes our minds but not 'our gut-based instincts' (which also features in Savory's Holistic Management Framework).

From a very personal perspective (so feel free to skip over these two sentences), but I find that Romans 12:2 is seemingly a calling to embrace this new pattern of being, which parallels this "noogenesis" (he also used "Omega Point") that Teilhard notes above. In the words of John O'Donohue, he noted Jesus to be "the prism of all difference", and its with this notion that I found the information-affirming words in John 1 "In the beginning was the Word..." to be truly compelling. Much like the inspiration that captivates Mathematicians such as John Conway (such as his paper on Audioactive Decay), the connection between “word play“ (i.e. information) and numbers in our universe is highly enigmatic. Even the account of Genesis could be appreciated with a renewed sense of profoundness, "Let there be light..."

"Many physicists believe it will be proved that the electroweak interaction, which combines electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force, was also combined with the strong nuclear force in the earliest moments of our Universe and before symmetry breaking, thus forming a grand unified theory. Such integration would almost surely reveal that at its most primordial the cosmic hologram projects the entirety of physical reality as light." - Currivan, Jude. The Cosmic Hologram: In-Formation at the Center of Creation. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2017.

But I am no theologian, my musings here are likely erroneous. The true nature of reality is very much a Mysterium Tremendum, which has long since eluded even the greatest of intellects. This is beautifully captured in this short ant-inspired parable by one of my favorite philosophers, John O’Donohue.

“The radar of our senses, while beautiful, is incredibly limited. This is illustrated for me by a parable I was once told. There was a stone in the corner of a meadow and under that stone lived a colony of ants. They were just ordinary ants but among them lived a genius ant, an Einstein ant. One day the board of the colony addressed the genius ant, telling it that there was nothing more for it to learn and it would have to leave them and go out into the world. So on a misty October evening the colony bestowed its valediction on the genius and it made its entry into the world. There happened to be a totally non-metaphysical horse grazing nearby. Regardless of how brilliant our genius ant is, it will never be able to perceive the horse, such is the disproportion in size....So I wonder are there presences all around us, that because of the disproportion between our senses and their presence, we are not picking up at all? We are seeing a lot more vacancy and voids in the world than actually exist. Maybe it is the role of the artists and mystics to attend to the seeming emptiness about us and find incredible riches there.” - John O’Donohue, Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World, Crown Publishing Group, 2018

We live under such a stone in on our corner of the universe and our observance of reality is really at the mercy of scale. We don’t have a full picture of the broader landscape.

Interestingly, Anatoly Levenchuk recently gave an interview about the need for a more systemic (as in our system-of-systems understanding of reality and the parallels of a neuron-inspired understanding about the future of AI and humans) understanding of the universe, which partly parallels this ergodic 'noogenesis' noted above. My Russian, which I tried to learn whilst working for a Swiss-Russian company a few years ago (to aid collaboration initiatives with my Russian-speaking colleagues), is unfortunately rather basic and I could not follow most of the video dialogue. However, if wanting an essence of the main points, they are summarized in English here.

Maybe the age of AI will highlight how creativity in the human mind delineates from non-ergodic AI by its ergodic nature (Penrose’s Orch OR etc.).

A picture I took from Elgol on the Isle of Skye (looking over at the Cuillin mountains) during our honeymoon many years ago. Nature was a poet's greatest source of inspiration and I believe it engages the deep recesses of our mind like no other thing. John O'Donohue was living proof of this.

In many respects, I believe the great poets of our past instinctively knew this systemic complexity within reality and could articulate it so beautifully:

"We should keep our feet on the ground to signify that nothing is beneath us, but we should also lift up our eyes to say nothing is beyond us." - Seamus Justin Heaney MRIA (13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013), Irish poet, playwrighter and translator, 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature

There is indeed an 'otherness' to the story of the universe, which we seek to articulate through various artforms.

But I digress.

Back to the "röda tråden" (a personally admired Swedish expression, akin to the "core narrative")...

Regardless of the philosophical implications, there is seemingly an elusive nature to 'information', and until that inherits better resolution from the sciences, the flow systems of the known four phases of matter can serve as fruitful grounds for inspiration. If information flows like a river delta or estuary (with whirlpools, tributries, inflows and outflows), how can we orchestrate desirable technological emergence, such as novel and sustainable cyber-physical systems?

Balanced Emergence, Jevons Paradox and Morphogenic Cross-Talk in Systems

Nature serves as the perfect conduit to take us into the realm of systems thinking. Imagine you're exploring a dense forest, each tree a component of a complex ecosystem. Now, there are three distinct approaches to understanding such intricate systems: hard systems thinking, soft systems thinking, and critical systems heuristics.

Hard systems thinking - This approach emerged from the depths of biology, general systems theory, cybernetics, and complexity science. Think of it as the scientist's perspective, viewing systems—like cells, ecosystems, and communication networks—as tangible entities. These systems constantly interact with their surroundings to maintain stability, but they also allow for the elusive action of randomness, as coined recently by Avi Wigderson.

"Perfect randomness ... is elusive and hard to verify." - Avi Wigderson, Complexity Theory Pioneer, 2024 Turing Award Recipient

Such 'randomness', can also be appreciated as instability or 'turbulence' (analogous to a whirlpool in a river system) within the system, which effectively become 'ergodic islands' of new emergent possibilities. Alan Turing's morphogenesis being contingent on this matter of instability which temporarily breaks the symmetry within a system -

“The investigation is chiefly concerned with the onset of instability...
Hydra is something like a sea-anemone but lives in fresh water and has from about five to ten tentacles. A part of a Hydra cut off from the rest will rearrange itself so as to form a complete new organism. At one stage of this proceeding the organism has reached the form of a tube open at the head end and closed at the other end. The external diameter is some­ what greater at the head end than over the rest of the tube. The whole still has circular symmetry. At a somewhat later stage the symmetry has gone to the extent that an appropriate stain will bring out a number of patches on the widened head end. These patches arise at the points where the tentacles are subsequently to appear (Child 1941, p. 101 and figure 30). According to morphogen theory it is natural to suppose that reactions, similar to those which were considered in connection with the ring of tissue, take place in the widened head end, leading to a similar breakdown of symmetry. The situation is more complicated than the case of the thin isolated ring, for the portion of the Hydra concerned is neither isolated nor very thin. It is not unreasonable to suppose that this head region is the only one in which the chemical conditions are such as to give instability.” - Turing, Alan M. ‘The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 237, no. 641 (14 August 1952): 37–72. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.1952.0012.

But a wonderful example of the criticality of 'Ergodic Free-Vortices' (free-vortices due to their temporal unstable nature) also exists within the world of mosses.

Ergodic Vortices of Innovation and 'Hidden Patterns'

river in the middle of the forest
Photo by Daniel Seßler / Unsplash. I know the location of this image, its close to Swallow Falls, which is very close to the moss-haven of Capel Cerrig in North Wales, UK. Note the small 'turbulent' whirlpool in the bottom left corner - they act like ergodic islands which encourage new emergence, more on this later.

In places such as Wales and Ireland, which are first to greet the wild Atlantic weather systems, some would say that the summer is 'the best day of the year'. This is of course not literally true. But Capel Cerrig, which was close to my birth place, is in fact one of the wettest parts of the British Isles. Aside from being a boon for umbrella sales, one benefit of this excess of rain (which ranges from horizontal to vertical), is a remarkable diversity of lichens and mosses that reside within the crevices' of these remanent ancient Celtic rainforests. Some of which are exceedingly rare and beautiful.

green moss on brown tree trunk
Photo by Javier Peñas / Unsplash

A few years ago I received the book Gathering Moss as a gift (for those who know me well, this comes as no surprise), and what a wonderful book it is, a highly recommended read. In this book I learned about how certain mosses, such as tetraphis pellucida, have their lives intricately intertwined with the forces of turbulence, or disturbance.

"Like aspen trees, these mosses (tetraphis pellucida) cannot renew themselves without space free from competition...When disturbance opens a new gap in their environment, their gemmae are quick to colonize the space, seizing the opportunity for growth and expansion." - Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Pr, 2003.

The Need for Experimentation - Ergodic Vortices of Innovation

In terms of possibilities, these temporal phases of 'turbulence' or 'instability' act like 'ergodic vortices', which is analogous with approaches such as rapid learning cycles, when seeking to innovate within product development - something the defence sector has embraced for several decades. But such turbulence does not mean that strategic directionality is lost, the 'ergodic vortices' are forms of localized disturbance whereby teams are given the freedom to experiment. The local leadership environment and culture often act like a stick thrown into a whirlpool - if done right, it points like a floating needle, despite the vortex.

water wave
Photo by Enrique Ortega Miranda / Unsplash

In fact, Fidelma Russo, the CTO of HP, recently gave a baseline budgetary recommendation to this creative practice of experimentation for our coming VUCA age - 10%. Naturally, this needs to be contextualised to respective companies, but generally, the VUCA age will seemingly necessitate more focus on creativity, applied research and strategic experimentation.  We need to learn to embrace the emergence that can be facilitated by such 'ergodic islands' of turbulence within systems thinking approaches.

But now, back to the world of mosses...

The lifecycle of these mosses also yield another wonderful example of symbiosis with fungi, namely, the cubical brown rots. These fungi help create the necessary free-space for the mosses to thrive, highlighting the intricate dance of co-creation within ecosystems.

At first sight, these seemingly discrete sub-systems (gap in tree canopy, tetraphis pellucida and cubical brown rots) of this illustrated ecosystem do not seem to be highly correlated. However, in 1931 the Russian evolutionist Paul Terentjev, described how in some organisms there are correlations among measurable characteristics of seemingly discrete elements, making these elements a cluster, or pleiades. This became known as a 'correlation pleiades', which can be discovered throughout nature's complex systems, but often veiled as 'hidden patterns' or 'forbidden links' (this very much links to the Relationships rule in Cabrera's DSRP). Discovering such "hidden links" (not all relationships are easily recognisable) are very important since they might also serve as network drivers and resemble 'organic' network control systems, which if better understood, could support the remote control of complex systems via smart cyber-physical systems (CPS). The resilience and robustness of such systems will be critical for our coming VUCA age.

Example: Plant-Hummingbird Systems - The image shows the characterization of the main floral types of the whole plant assemblage through a correlation analysis. The findings from this recent journal suggest that biological processes derived from both trait matching and “forbidden” links, or nonmatched morphological attributes, might be important network drivers in tropical plant-hummingbird systems. Source - https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.10974

Given the 'AI-embracing' age we live in, I believe future technologies will uncover and capitulate on such 'complex interconnectedness', whereby the algorithmic systems will aid our comprehension of system-of-systems causality. This recent study, highlighting the nuanced (we could say “hidden”) links that beavers have with both flora and fauna in their habitat abound in nature. In many ways, such links act like pivotal ‘network drivers’, and we very much need to enable better systemic understanding within complex systems, to aid better informed decision making and foresight.

This also parallels my own learnings with physics-informed sensitivity analysis within steelmaking systems, which also illustrate the emergence of 'hidden patterns' (b), which are not apparent from first-principles models (a).

There are also some fascinating insights one can make, such by adopting evolutionary algorithms during multi-objective optimisation and determining what 'hidden links' dynamically evolve as one approaches the pareto-optimal set. However, this be a rather detailed detour and this article is already getting rather long - possibly something for the future.

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Such visible and hidden patterns in nature serve to inform us on how we ought to orchestrate co-creation initiatives, to allow for emergent innovation to happen despite the veil of complexity - mirroring the collaborative efforts seen in nature whereby different organisms work together to create opportunities for growth and adaptation.
upload in progress, 0
Source - Ha, Seungwoong, and Hawoong Jeong. ‘Unraveling Hidden Interactions in Complex Systems with Deep Learning’. Scientific Reports 11, no. 1 (17 June 2021): 12804. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-91878-w.

But in this CAS, one must also be wary of positive feedback loops (I will elaborate on this more further down the article), like when a microphone amplifies the sound from a nearby loudspeaker—things can quickly spiral out of control, much like how illegal logging can often exacerbate forest fires. One of the classical examples of emergence in a complex adaptive system is the emergence of natural fire walls in a Forest Fire Model. I will not go into the intricate details of such a model, and will merely point the reader (if anyone reads the article this far...) to the right literature.

Thus, we see that the system has evolved fire walls and, by doing so, has increased overall production above what was possible with a uniform growth rate. This clever solution arose without any kind of central planning and without intent on the part of the individual agents; in Adam Smith’s (1776) words, each agent was “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” This is a nice example of “emergence” in which an unexpected, higher-level phenomenon arises from lower-level interactions...
In the Forest Fire model, the ability to adapt away from criticality was facilitated by the stable spatial interactions among the agents. The presence of risky neighbors forces an agent to avoid risk and, in the process, become an inadvertent fire wall. If instead we were to randomly scramble the locations each day, this coherence would be lost and we would see a very different outcome. Some social systems have much more stable interactions than others. Thus, we might expect that banks and suburban neighborhoods will be able to develop adaptively the necessary fire walls to prevent criticality, while the more transient relationships inherent in, say, urban neighborhoods and highway travel will not. - Miller, J. H. & Page, S. E. Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J, 2007).

I would like to draw out two of the main observations from such studies, and that is, the importance of mapping internalized objectives and relationships amongst agents and the agent-based mitigation of risk.

Our global economy is a non-ergodic CAS...

In our global economy, goods and services flow through a complex adaptive system, whereby nations, companies and individuals exercise agency in mediating such flow in accordance with the distribution and exchange of equity.

Public goods and services flow across all members of society without exclusion or diminution once offered. Moreover, as we will see, the model also touches on even deeper issues surrounding the decentralized sorting of agents within a complex adaptive system. - Miller, J. H. & Page, S. E. Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J, 2007).

The flow of equity within our global economic systems is analogous to stress that flows through the dendritic and non-ergodic structure of a tree. Nature has a remarkable ability to sustain efficiency in "flow systems", which is equally true in bio-mechanics and material science.

Several years ago, my professional work focussed on developing lightweight solutions for a range of engineered products and one of the most inspiring sources of creativity was the forms of natural structures.

I often used nature's design principles in helping to create novel design solutions. This is an example of a how feather's cross-sections have evolved based on the respective load case (i.e. flying patterns) and ensuing torsional rigidity needs for the wing structure. I used this insight to help develop a high-strength and lightweight design for a large machinery manufacturer.

Much like how Leornado Da Vinci noted that the total cross-section of branches is conserved across branching nodes, Prof Claus Mattheck has derived some incredible insights about the biomechanics of stress flow within trees.

Mattheck, C. ‘Teacher Tree: The Evolution of Notch Shape Optimization from Complex to Simple’. Engineering Fracture Mechanics 73, no. 12 (1 August 2006): 1732–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.engfracmech.2006.02.007.

What is clear from nature is that there are scaling principles and adaptivity encoded into her systems, which emerge in response to capturing and preserving the flows that dictate her energy systems i.e. water, solar etc.

Below is an example of an old conceptual sketch made as part of an on-site visit, whereby I used Mattheck's 'tensile triangle method' to optimise the form of an improved excavator bucket.

A quick sketch done during a field visit to a client whilst supporting the mining segment in Australia, linking metal alloy performance to in-field performance. A clean ultra-high strength martensitic alloy could resist much impact, but nothing exists in isolation - the design 'form' also had to be optimal. The link between nano and macro is often complex but critical.

Curiously, much like a tree, the global economic system is non-ergodic and historical:

“Paul Davidson would say the economy is a non-ergodic system. An ergodic system is one governed by probability distributions which in principle are available to be discovered. Even if the cost or complexity of gathering the necessary information to estimate these probabilities is prohibitive, or beyond our cognitive capacities, so that the situation is uncertain in an epistemological sense (in terms of what can be known), the environment could be described as ergodic if that information existed. In a non-ergodic system, the probabilities of future outcomes are unknowable because they do not and cannot exist. They remain to be created. George (G.L.S.) Shackle described a decision as ‘a cut between past and future, an introduction of an essentially new strand into the emerging pattern of history’. As Shackle put it, ‘the future, which will be partly created by this choice and a million similar contemporary ones made by other decision makers, does not yet exist’...Non-ergodic systems are governed by processes which are uncertain, not due to human cognitive limitations and/or research costs, but in a more fundamental way—because of the current crucial, inter-connected and irreversible decisions of many individuals, who do not make decisions in a stable environment, but instead collectively create that environment by their decisions and actions. The billionaire George Soros has called this ‘reflexity’.” - Hail, Steven. Economics for Sustainable Prosperity. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-90981-3.

One of the best ways to visualise flow in systems that conserve flux entities (such as water or energy, and according to the mass – energy – information equivalence principle, information also?) are Sankey diagrams. Having used these in my work when mapping the complex flows of metals usage (such as Vanadium), I believe they are an invaluable and under-utilised visualisation tool. One of my most cherished books on developing sustainable product systems, is "Sustainable Materials without the hot air: Making buildings, vehicles and products efficiently and with less new material", which can be read online here. The hard copy I own is now worn at the edges and has been a much referenced book of mine. In the world of materials and energy, whereby the entity is conserved (or converted to derivative forms), the Sankey diagram's visual perspective on 'flows' knows few equals.

Cullen's global steel flow data, the colours indicate the material type. Source - Lupton, R.C., and J.M. Allwood. ‘Hybrid Sankey Diagrams: Visual Analysis of Multidimensional Data for Understanding Resource Use’. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 124 (September 2017): 141–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2017.05.002.

In the interest of time, what I would like to highlight here is the recycling and scrap feedback loops in addition to the losses flow. Given that steel is the most recycled material in the world, many other commodity flows could not match the circularity seen here (which still needs to be significantly improved!). But how can we transfer utilisation learnings from the material domain to the informational domain? We live in the informational age, but knowing how best to consolidate, capitulate and achieve 'data-circularity', very much merits our collective efforts.

"The effect of reducing yield losses is therefore to reduce the supply of metal sent for recycling by exactly the same amount that we reduce our demand for liquid metal. In other words, yield losses create a permanent loop of recycling in the two metal flow Sankey diagrams of chapter 4, and reducing yield losses reduces the size of this loop. The strategy of designing goods with less metal that we examined in the last chapter leads to an overall reduction in demand for all liquid metal. But in contrast, the strategy of reducing yield losses simply reduces the mass of metal that is permanently cycling round the secondary production route as production scrap. The table shows how the elimination of all yield losses would reduce total energy requirements and associated emissions in the steel and aluminium industries." - Allwood, Julian, and Jonathan Cullen. Sustainable Materials Without the Hot Air: Making Buildings, Vehicles and Products Efficiently and with Less New Material. UIT Cambridge LTD, 2015. (http://www.withbotheyesopen.com/read.php).

The need to systemically address root causes in our post-carbon future - revaluating the criticality of agriculture

With technological improvements, we may be able to decrease energy intensity (as noted above - such as the input of iron needed to produce a given quantity of high-strength steel for construction use, automotive or other product) – ‘squeezing more out of less’ (to loan an expression from Chris Smaje). It very much captures the essence of what innovative companies such as SSAB are trying to do with higher-strength steels and the HYBRIT project. But despite reducing the total energy requirements through technological advancement, we still need new energy inputs and we still need to address the flows of the intermediate stocks (such as recycling at product end-of-life and minimising losses). If the energy to recycle such steels (via Electric Arc Furnace for example) perpetuates a carbon-intensive energy demand (here I imply a full cradle-to-grave carbon-intensity perspective on renewable energies, blue hydrogen and fossil-fuel energy mix) on the energy system, we are merely shifting the problem and not addressing the root cause. This then becomes an interface example where the global steel system "cross-talks" with our energy system. And as explored in the part on phase boundaries below, such an interface has very high complexity.

But when two rivers meet, small ergodic whirlpools at their interface can be agents of new emergence...

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The finiteness of our energy flows and the need for "regenerative innovation" - agriculture as the vortex of transformation...

The economist T. S. Jevons showed for the coal industry in England that more efficient use of coal had led to higher (not lower) net use. Similarly, efforts to reduce electricity consumption using energy-efficient vending machines led to greater overall environmental impacts by making machines more affordable. We observe the same phenomenon in the world of energy, a mysterious phenomena of "energy begets energy", much like Jevons paradox.

World Energy Consumption, 1965–2018. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, Source - Smaje, Chris. A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020.
But what’s clear from the (figure above) is that the modern global economy is utterly dependent on fossil fuels, whatever short-run price fluctuations the sector experiences in crisis conditions. No fossil fuels, no capitalism in its modern form and no globalisation...
While proponents proclaim the virtues of low-carbon energy technologies, (figure above) shows that these technologies aren’t even close to replacing fossil fuels or mitigating their impact right now. The next energy revolution – if there’ s to be one – is yet to begin. This is especially problematic because meeting the 1.5°C global warming target of the 2015 Paris Agreement is already unlikely in view of committed emissions from existing fossil energy infrastructure,44 unless it’s prematurely decommissioned at high cost and without low-carbon replacements available at volume. Currently available low-carbon replacements such as nuclear and renewables also have significant limitations as complete substitutes for our fossil-fuelled present. And even if they were rolled out now at faster rates than current implementation, their impact on GHG emissions wouldn’t itself be enough to prevent dangerous warming. - Smaje, Chris. A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020.

This may seem daunting, but such a convergence of disturbance can also be deemed as an opportunity. But much like the words of Stephen Hawking from the previous article,

I think the next [21st] century will be the century of complexity' - Stephen Hawking

Mimicking the ruderal plants in innovation - the early adopters at points of "disturbance"

As noted previously, in our growing understanding of reality, if information could have mass (as the fifth form of matter) - it has very significant implications when we want to make the best use out of data flows and data-driven decisions. We ought also to be cautious to not fall prey to Jevons's paradox when it comes to information, it's flow should mirror the resource-efficient flow architectures found in nature. In many respects, I believe our relationship with information would benefit from some mental construct that helps to make it more tangible, such as the concept of "symbolic economy" by Chris Smaje.

I don’t want to make great analytical claims for the concept of the symbolic economy. But I think it’s a handy mental tool for our times given that we’ve created vast material architectures from the fictive construct of capital, resulting in non-symbolic problems like climate change and species loss. The concept is also a useful tonic for the tendency to assume that the way we construe our world, for example in our relationships with land or money, are just given in the nature of things. - Smaje, Chris. A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020.

I really like this point, "the way we construe our world, for example in our relationships with land or money", and in many respects, as co-creators of a sustainable future, we should also ask ourselves what our relationship with information (technology implied here) should look like. This is a notion I will come back to later in the article (and follow up articles), but as I try to show, if we are to regenerate capitalism into a sustainable system that has longevity, the symbolic entities on earth (big data, money, financial instruments, cryptocurrency etc.) must become more transparently entangled to the non-symbolic economy i.e. our commodities. To provide a quick and simplistic example, this is very much the ethos behind the blockchain-enabled material passports (symbolic) that accompany the metals recovered (non-symbolic) via the low-energy FungAI process.

I believe the flow systems in nature are an immense source of inspiration here. Given the above, it would seem that certain flow architectures would exhibit scalability, be energetically favourable and be able to reconfigure in response to a disturbance.

The 'Free Energy', Search Space and Resilience of a Flow System

What does nature do to reduce the total energy budget of a system - it reconfigures towards an architecture that optimizes some cost function...

"This question is not only of a scientific relevance, but it also addresses a very important technological question. Namely, which cost function has to be minimised in order to improve the net properties both to plan future wiring of developing countries and to improve the quality of the net connection for countries already connected. For network formation, Nature often chooses fractal structures. Fractal objects introduced by Benoit Mandelbrot are characterised by the property of having similar properties at all length scales. In this respect they show the same complexity at different scales without a characteristic scale or size for their structures. These properties are defined between a lower and an upper scales which, for the present case, are the size of a single node and the total world network. It is exactly this scaling property that allows animals to survive with a quantity of blood much smaller than the solid volume occupied by their body. The fractal structure of veins distributes the blood so efficiently that every cell is reached in a reasonably short path with the minimum possible structure." - Source: https://doi.org/10.48550/arXiv.cond-mat/0009178

To loan a term from thermodynamics, it minimises the 'free energy'. There is no such thing as 'free energy' in the physical sense (if there was, our climate crisis would not exist), and in reality, entities such as the Gibbs free energy are in essence an informational construct of a system i.e. a thermodynamic potential. A bit of a misnomer of a term really. But without going into the mathematics (a nice introduction here), we can merely reflect on the matter of a system evolving its extent of ergodicity in response to dynamical changes within the system's environment. Enter the world of phase transformations, a world that dictates the constraints and boundary conditions for any material scientist and metallurgist.

Steelmaking is truly a complex system-of-systems, which also presents ergodicity and non-ergodicity. In this image the molten steel represents the turbulent world of fluid dynamics, with vortices and complex flows championing the liquid system. In contrast, the solidification process by form of dendrites represents the threshold towards a historical non-ergodic system.

This image above is familiar territory to any metallurgists reading this article. In reality, during continuous casting (for example reasons - call it the supra system of interest), there is a great deal of focus on influencing the cooling dynamics, whereby methods such as dynamic soft reduction is employed. Such practices can influence the hydrogen-embrittlement resistance (a correlated sub-system) of the billet and the interaction of micro-alloys on hot-ductility characteristics (another correlated sub-system). Steelmaking is truly a complex system-of-systems, which also presents ergodicity and non-ergodicity through thresholds such as a phase-transition.

But why do phase changes happen?

Wikipedia provides this nicely and succinctly -

Phase transitions occur when the thermodynamic free energy of a system is non-analytic for some choice of thermodynamic variables (cf. phases). This condition generally stems from the interactions of a large number of particles in a system, and does not appear in systems that are small. - ‘Phase Transition’. In Wikipedia, 15 April 2024. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Phase_transition&oldid=1218992511.

This is interesting, since we know from earlier sections of the article that the free energy of a system is in essence, an informational construct. But in nature, we can see that these systems have high degrees of freedom, and this gives the system resilience.

"In order for a flow design to change, the design must have the freedom to change, to morph, to evolve. River deltas carved every day in the silt have freedom, and because of this they display the best flowing design of the day, which is a tree that is better than yesterday’s tree. Freedom endows all flow designs with two things: efficiency and staying power. This is why social systems that are free to change have two characteristics—wealth and longevity." - Bejan, Adrian. Physics of Life: The Evolution of Everything. 1st edition: May 2016. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016.

Conventionally speaking, the four main states of matter are solid, liquid, gas, and plasma, depending on the specific characteristics and environmental conditions such as temperature and pressure. As we have highlighted above, there is a growing body of evidence that there are more phases of matter, such as 'Information'. So given a set of environmental conditions, matter and information ought to exist in a state that minimizes its energy (for information, I would add the adjective of "flow" - "flow energy"), thus providing the matter system with stability.

Vanadium Dioxide, which exhibits a Metal-to-Insulator Transition (MIT) at near room-temperatures. The implications of such a material are truly far-reaching, such as lower-cost smart sensors and smart glass that permit light but blocks heat. Source - Ko, Byoungsu, Trevon Badloe, and Junsuk Rho. ‘Vanadium Dioxide for Dynamically Tunable Photonics’. ChemNanoMat 7, no. 7 (July 2021): 713–27. https://doi.org/10.1002/cnma.202100060.

In order to explain this territory, we could use the phases of water. However, given the "critical metals" age we live in, I would like to draw an example from the technology landscape of Vanadium. A landscape that I know well and is in many respects still unrealized outside the domain of steelmaking. Generally speaking, a metal is a metal and an insulator is an insulator at temperatures that typically forms the range for lifeforms on Earth, us included. However, there are some materials, such as Vanadium Dioxide, which exhibit a Metal-to-Insulator Transition (MIT) at near room-temperatures (for the record, it can be tweaked to room-temperatures also). Another reason I pick the Vanadium Dioxide MIT phenomena as an example is that its foundational explanation is truly complex - it cannot be fully explained by concepts such as Mott (electron correlation driven) or Peierls.

Wisdom from the "Edge of Chaos"

Phase Boundaries and Proactive Looping

A picture from our balcony in Zug, Switzerland taken recently on the 23rd of April 2024. We would often just be beneath the snow-line, which in many respects serves like an apt example of a phase-boundary on a larger scale beyond the realm of materials.

Any reader trained in permaculture will be familiar with the notion that all the "fun and exciting stuff happens at the edges" - field edges, hedgerows, lakeside and even rainforest "edges" where the canopy takes a different form or density etc.

Schematics showing the Metal-to-Insulator Transition (MIT) point for Vanadium Dioxide (M - Metal, R - Rutile). Source - Park, Jae Hyung, Jim M. Coy, T. Serkan Kasirga, Chunming Huang, Zaiyao Fei, Scott Hunter, and David H. Cobden. ‘Measurement of a Solid-State Triple Point at the Metal–Insulator Transition in VO2’. Nature 500, no. 7463 (August 2013): 431–34. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12425. Image on right illustrating the true complex and multifractal nature of a phase boundary, Source - Theise, Neil. Notes on Complexity: A Scientific Theory of Connection, Consciousness, and Being. First edition. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2023.

This is equally true for the phases of matter and to loan a term from the well-known computer scientist Chris Langton, we can refer to them as the "edge of chaos". As noted in the image above, the phase boundary is a turbulent functional space exhibiting a fractal dimension and true complexity (it is not a straight line like our school textbooks show). In my working career, I've had to familiarise myself a lot with the interface of a phase transition - the velocity, orientation and energetics of this complex γ-α interface fundamentally dictates the characteristics of the entire material system in steels (especially in nano-designed steels). The controlled management of this stochastic process in a real-world production environment dictated whether we produced coherent precipitates or not, which influenced several properties of interest.

Coherent Precipitation in Nano-Deisgned Steels, Vanadium Booklet - Source - http://dx.doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.13009.97124/1

If a material had feelings, this boundary would be like a scrum cycle or project phase facing a high hurdle of complexity and the shared instinct of "something needs to change...but which way and what...". Effectively, what a material does at this boundary space is create a functional space, which embodies limited-randomness (or chaos), but also seeks to minimise the relevant thermodynamic variables and 'free energy'.

Unlike the smooth boundary lines in a phase diagram of states of water, the boundary between order and chaos in which complexity arises is fractal, infinitely scalable and subtly intricate...Biological creativity arises within a realm shaped by fractal geometry, where stability and chaos tug at life from either side...
Negative feedback loops prevail in complex systems, keeping a system’s conditions within an oscillating, healthy, homeostatic range. In homeostasis, the system sustains the capacity for adaptation to the changing world around it, preventing any one member of the system from overwhelming others. Think back to the ants building a food line: one ant begins laying down the pheromone path that indicates the direction in which to find food and also the opposite direction for going back to the colony. Another ant crosses that path and responds appropriately, laying down its pheromone trails...
However, if every ant fell into line, the other maintenance tasks of the colony would be abandoned. This is where negative feedback shows its importance. In this case, from the moment a scent trail is laid down, it starts to dissipate. We saw how this provided directionality to the scent trail, but it is also negative feedback: the scent trails don’t last forever. - Theise, Neil. Notes on Complexity: A Scientific Theory of Connection, Consciousness, and Being. First edition. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2023.

What is key here is that the "random experimentation walks" in ant colonies are highly temporal (much like the temporal surge in carbon concentration at the migrating α-γ interface during phase transformation in steels), which is also similar to the temporal chemical actions going on in the soil (as noted by Alex Podolinsky) and temporal morphogen signals occurring in Alan Turing's morphogenesis.

An example of a ring network, with ants flowing in both directions.
“A ring network, with signals or ants flowing in both directions, allows for rapid recovery, because after a break in the flow in one direction, the flow in the other direction can re-establish a link...Ring networks are used for similar reasons in fiber optic cable networks, so that one break does not bring down the entire system.” - Gordon, Deborah M. ‘The Ecology of Collective Behavior’. PLoS Biology 12, no. 3 (11 March 2014): e1001805. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001805.
“The meaning of these formulae may be conveniently described in terms of waves. In the stationary case there are stationary waves on the ring having j0 lobes or crests. The coefficients Aso and CSo are in a definite ratio given by (6T 0), so that the pattern for one morphogen determines that for the other. With the lapse of time the waves become more pronounced provided there is genuine instability, i.e. if /is positive. The wave-length of the waves may be obtained by dividing the number of lobes into the circumference of the ring. In the oscillatory case the interpretation is similar, but the waves are now not stationary but travelling. As well as having a wave-length they have a velocity and a frequency. The frequency is (t)/2ir, and the velocity is obtained by multiplying the wave-length by the frequency. There are two wave trains moving round the ring in opposite directions.” - Turing, Alan M. ‘The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 237, no. 641 (14 August 1952): 37–72. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.1952.0012.

Another fascinating point is the criticality of creating a non-ergodic record, whereby future actions bear correlation with past actions, much like ring networks in ant colonies and biological neural networks. Neuronal oscillations within our minds follow this principle and I believe our ability to develop more complex sensing systems (that can detect the 'correlation pleiades' within complex adaptive systems, as noted earlier) is contingent on developing more nature-inspired algorithmic approaches. There is some nature-inspired wisdom that we can tap into here and much like the early pioneers of modern computing (Turing etc.), the field of Neuromorphic computing is all about capitulating on this from a chip-design perspective.

"The pioneers of modern computing starting with the greats of modern computing…Neumann, …Turing …those pioneers had the brain in mind when they were developing the original architectural notions of computing." - Mike Davies

Processes with a memory produce qualitatively, and quantitatively, different fluctuations compared to a random walk process.(A - Top Right) Correlations occur when the “walker’s” decision to follow a certain direction is influenced by its past actions. (C) By looking at the average fluctuations for these different processes at different time-scales, we can quantify this difference. A random walker shows a scaling exponent of 0.5, with the positively correlated process having a larger exponent, and the anti-correlated process having a smaller exponent. Source - Hardstone, Richard, Simon-Shlomo Poil, Giuseppina Schiavone, Rick Jansen, Vadim V. Nikulin, Huibert D. Mansvelder, and Klaus Linkenkaer-Hansen. ‘Detrended Fluctuation Analysis: A Scale-Free View on Neuronal Oscillations’. Frontiers in Physiology 3 (2012). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2012.00450.

Proactive looping...

In accordance with nature, the history-recording nature of our designed non-ergodic systems must establish a way to always capture new learning and lessons learnt. In the image above, the correlated walker achieves the optimal way forwards in the most resource-efficient manner. In essence, a cyclic tradition of looping plan-monitor-control-replan (which manifests as correlation) that is available to the agents of a CAS, including both temporal inflows and permanent outflows, akin to the 'chemical signals' in nature. This is a foundational part of the Holistic Management Framework put forth by Allan Savory and his team.

Allan Savory's Holistic Management Framework, including my overlaid notes of thoughts and ideas. This is superbly practical book on systems thinking applied in our lands and environment.

In many respects, this also bears much relevance to the relationship between what we would call leaders and followers, but this has the tendency to imply mutual exclusivity and also sub-ordination (which also goes against Raymond Williams's ideas from the previous post). Nature is far more subtle and complex than this and it tends to embody temporal phases of hierarchy and holarchy (pending on context), we need only reflect on the life of a Matriarch to realise this (older article).

If the universe is a unity, one vast holarchy of self-organizing complex systems, then we have to consider that what is true for any part is true for the whole. From this standpoint, every action we take, every decision we make, every thought we have, is not only our own—it is also an integrated, integral part of the whole holarchical universe. - Theise, Neil. Notes on Complexity: A Scientific Theory of Connection, Consciousness, and Being. First edition. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2023.

As we will learn below, one of the weaknesses of holarchical environments (such as the often slow, convoluted or elusive consensual decision making process) can be addressed through ensuring that there is 'propagation of information'. This is exactly what nature does and anyone who has stared at a flock of grazing sheep for an abnormal amount of time will have noted this curious pattern.

I do sometimes wonder what the working world would look like if there was no information asymmetry between teams, divisions and functions.

Autodidactic Cultures & Algorithms, Grazing Sheep and Power of Regret

Welsh Mountain Sheep from the high fields on my uncle's farm in North Wales, overlooking Eryri (Snowdonia in English). My own image.

As I've noted in the past, I spent my childhood years in a Welsh farming community and I recall following my uncle around the farm like an enthusiastic bad smell. Given that I have kids of my own now, he was in fact very patient with me. If it happened to be a "lower task" day (there is never really 'free time' in the perennial schedule of a farmer), I recall sitting on the farm gate and watching him train his sheepdogs. A beloved hobby of his and he became very competent at it. In fact, his reputation spread through 'word of mouth' within the farming community, even reaching as far as Switzerland (where I currently live). Here in Europe, farmers will travel far and wide to find a well trained sheepdog. They truly are a farmer's most reliable and loyal companion.

But sheep also have a lesson for us beyond fear-driven canine subjugation. When unperturbed and grazing, a recent study has shown how a flock of sheep also display a very interesting example of temporal group leadership, information pooling and collective intelligence. But they also show how an innate knowledge sharing network and by cycling the role of temporal leader in smaller groups, the flock is able to exhibit information pooling and collective intelligence. There are many takeaways here, such as parallels with agile scrum cycles, role cycling, co-leadership models and more. But at this stage, I would like to focus in on this aspect of 'information pooling and collective intelligence'.

Achieving 'propagation of information' and the 'pareto-front' within informational spaces...

There are various ways to embrace this culture of perpetual learning, and it rightly deserves its own article - there is a lot of interesting approaches in the field of knowledge management. I believe the best examples of this reside within indigenous communities, their traditions and cultural practices are in many respects, designed to facilitate the transferal of such 'tacit knowledge'.

"As a species, we need the challenge of research, the freedom of space and the fullness of knowledge" - Papanek, Victor J. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. 1st American ed. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2012.

However, to keep this article on point - since many years, one approach that I have personally gravitated towards is the Zettelkasten method. The founder of the Zettelkasten method, the German sociologist and philosopher Niklas Luhmann (published 50 books and over 600 articles), echoed the autodidactic nature of his earthly forefathers a century prior ('Iolo Morganwg', William Blake, Nikola Tesla etc.). His productivity was astounding and he also left us with his proven approach. If scaled and contextualized to an organisation or team, one can then realise that the expended energy of collecting and generating new information (new knowledge, idea implementations, project progress increments, agile cycles, backlog items...) occupy a form of functional search space (which can be always probed with search enquiries, strongly supporting knowledge sharing and feedback loops etc.), much like a pareto-front.

Several years ago I was highly engaged with developing lightweight product systems, utilising a range of approaches combining both materials design but also topology optimisation.

Some of my topology optimisation work many years ago...

This will be familiar territory to anyone working in the field of additive manufacturing, such as material-saving 3D-printed structures. In this field there is a concept called Pareto-front, which represents a set of solutions that are non-dominated to each other but are superior to the rest of solutions in the search space.

Interestingly, of the 1000s of trees that Prof. Claus Mattheck and his colleagues analysed, they formed essentially a pareto-front, whereby the ones that did not fail exhibited natural scaling laws and relations. It seems that in response to the flow of stress, trees adopt scaling laws that are best suited to ensure the collective health of the entire tree system. But there are also chaotic factors, such as storms and diseases that the tree must adapt to.

There resides a very transferable lesson here on establishing propagation of information with our cyber-physical systems that will support our more complex "techno-agrarian" future. One of the issues I have faced in my own endeavours within steelmaking, even with physics-informed AI systems, is this evolutionary memory to retain past knowledge, in essence a "correlated walker" effect within deep learning algorithms. As detailed in a previous post, deep learning methods, such as fully-connected feedforward neural networks (generally known as Multi-layer perceptrons, MLPs), offer excellent predictive strength, but at the cost of difficult explainability. There are also other downsides such as catastrophic forgetting, whereby if a neural network is trained on task 1 and then shifted to being trained on task 2, the network will soon forget about how to perform task 1. But thankfully, a new approach recently emerged, which overcomes these drawbacks, and they are called Kolmogorov–Arnold Networks (KANs). Because of their algorithmic architecture, KANs have local plasticity and can avoid catastrophic forgetting by leveraging the locality of splines (and such nodes are also learnable and not fixed).

Source - ‘KAN: Kolmogorov–Arnold Networks’. Accessed 4 May 2024. https://arxiv.org/html/2404.19756v1.

When confronted with a problem, knowing we need to innovate or develop a novel solution in response, what tools can we use to sort the chaff from the wheat, and as noted above, a pareto-analysis can help us find the optimal set of solutions. In this respect, KAMs are also showing great promise in being able to predict partial differential equations within complex systems (such as the Anderson localization phenomena in the metal-insulator transition of Vanadium Dioxide), displaying far more favourable Pareto frontiers (relative to MLP approaches), trading off simplicity and accuracy. Such compact mathematical representations (i.e. solutions) imply the possibility of breaking down a high-dimensional datasets into several 1D lookup tables, which can potentially save a lot of memory, with the (almost negligible) overhead to perform a few additions at inference time. This is highly advantageous when rolling out such cyber-physical systems on the network edge. A mini server in a greenhouse needs to be both energy-efficient and computationally-efficient.

Consistently across all special functions, KANs have better Pareto Frontiers than MLPs. Source - ‘KAN: Kolmogorov–Arnold Networks’. Accessed 4 May 2024. https://arxiv.org/html/2404.19756v1.

KANs bring fresh optimism to efficiently finding neural scaling laws with an informational system, which is analogous to Da Vinci and Mattheck's scaling laws from the world of biomechanics. However, for me personally, I am personally uncertain how to substantiate this true parallel between human-created architectures relative to the informational realm of nature, without sounding too wishy-washy. Parallels with Wigner–Dyson matrices from the realm of quantum entanglement possibly, who knows. But regardless, it’s fascinating to watch the progress in algebraic topology in being able to represent data as patterns within both commutative and non commutative spaces.

When it comes to information (especially ‘big-data’), three-dimensions just feels like being short-changed. This is also known as the “curse of dimensionality”. For now, it seems we will have to content ourselves with methods such as dimensionality reduction of high-dimensional datasets, which is an approach I’m familiar with and I’ve had some good experiences with UMAP (it manages to still maintain the global “bigger picture” of the dataset, despite reduced dimensionality).

One of the many different approaches to overcome the “curse of dimensionality” in modelling big-data in steelmaking. Source - https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mtcomm.2022.105162
A nice example of projecting temporal water-flow data into a spatial manifold. — Source: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/w12020590

In “Sankey talk” and despite good solutions such as UMAP, such projection and reduction algorithms still feels like we could be missing something in projecting temporal data into a spatial manifold, some informational loss is surely inevitable. But how do we go beyond these constraints…hilbert spaces, hyper-cubes? I need some more life experience in bouncing off others, inspiration by fellow co-workers and friends here — plus more thinking time to get some clarity on this one.

It will remain an "ergodic thought" for now.

A Hyper-cube, Source - ‘Tesseract’. In Wikipedia, 5 April 2024. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tesseract&oldid=1217441591.

In the meantime, I do believe in the elusive nature of "gut instinct". In this respect, I have a friend, Henry Notroff, who happened to be a professional musician in his early years (a Clarinettist in the 17 Hippies) and now a researcher, educator, and very much a "pattern seeker". In many ways a modern day autodidact, 'bricolage' and knows the meaning of being "in the flow" (which features in the last section of this article). We share many exchanges on ideas, ranging from Shannon entropy through to information theory. He recently informed me about a concept called the phenomology of difference and how we need a better way to probe and understand informational spaces. A fascinating topic and his current research interests might yield some needed answers in this space.

Is Regret a cost function that can be minimized when making a decision in an informational space?

When faced with a new opportunity or idea (or several of them within an informational space), I often feel lured into the trap of "maximization" during decision making. Possibly a pareto-habit, who knows. But in the real world, this can get us into trouble - as demonstrated by Herbert Simon, who in 1978 won the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Sciences for his work in this area.

Our goal should not be to always minimize regret. Our goal should be to optimizeit. By combining the science of anticipated regret with the new deep structure of regret, we can refine our mental model. Call it the Regret Optimization Framework...
Satisfice on most decisions. If you are not dealing with one of the four core regrets (foundation regrets, boldness regrets, moral regrets, and connection regrets), make a choice, don’t second-guess yourself, and move on.
Maximize on the most crucial decisions. If you are dealing with one of the four core regrets, project yourself to a specific point in the future and ask yourself which choice will most help you build a solid foundation, take a sensible risk, do the right thing, or connect with others. - Pink, Daniel H. The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward. New York: Riverhead Books, 2022.

In some ways, the points above link to correlated walkers and a culture of information pooling for the collective (such as the sheep example noted previously).

Regardless, it seems that having core policies and guidelines (which are fine-tuned for the local systemic context) helps us to quickly reach the pareto-front of any 'informational space'.

Foresight in Complex Systems, Chirp Perspective and Pattern-Metrics

Two of the agile thinkers that I have been following in recent times are Troy Magennis (author of 'Forecasting and Simulating Software Development Projects') and Daniel S. Vacanti (author of Actionable Agile Metrics for Predictability), partly because they share this ethos of information-based flow systems, but from an Agile and Kanban perspective.

"If a metric does not offer predictive power, capturing that metric is waste" - Troy Magennis

To me, their application of metrics to measure progress in an Agile context is more pattern-focussed (a 'complexity indicator') than singular indicators, which I think is a more nature-inspired approach to probing complexity. There is much more we could go into here, such as the use of cyclomatic complexity analysis on a more granular level within code development. But in the interest of time, lets stick with CFDs for now...

The Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD) in agile project management

The Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD) in agile project management serves as a visual representation of workflow dynamics, offering both qualitative and quantitative insights. It tracks the cumulative arrivals and departures of work items (story, epic/narrative, feature, requirement, use case, enhancement,…) over time, delineating active and done states. The vertical distance between lines indicates work in progress, while the horizontal distance approximates average cycle time. Patterns like flat lines suggest mismatches in arrival and departure rates, prompting introspection on workflow efficiency.

people near gray building
Photo by Max Böhme / Unsplash

Back in my university days, we had a brilliant mathematics lecturer who did a good job of grounding mathematical concepts in real-world phenomena. One of these was the temple of Chichen Itza, which was the example used to bring us into the world of Fourier transforms.

A handclap in front of the stairs of the pyramid of Kukulcan (in Chichen Itza), generates a chirp echo, that does not correspond exactly to the sound of the handclap. This fact has been known for a long time and called the attention of David Lubman, which reached the conclusion that the echo was generated by Bragg diffraction of the sound waves. Inset - The resulting Sonogram of real chirp echo of the diffraction process is function of the distance and height to which the impulse is emitted. Source - Calleja, Jorge Antonio Cruz. ‘ACOUSTICS PHENOMENA IN CHICHEN ITZA: NEW ADJUSTMENTS TO REFLECTION AND DIFFRACTION - SCATTERING CONSIDERATIONS IN ACOUSTICAL MODELS.’, 15th International Congress on Sound and Vibration 6-10 July 2008, Daejeon, Korea

Similar to the auditory chirp phenomenon observed in ancient temples like Chichen Itza, where the pyramid's architecture acts as an acoustic filter, emphasizing certain frequencies while dampening others, the CFD highlights systemic factors affecting workflow. Just as the temple's steps influence sound propagation through complex interactions, the CFD unveils the interplay of factors shaping project flow, from guidelines adherence to workload variability.

An Introduction to the Discrete Fourier Transform - Technical Articles
Schematic on Discrete Fourier Transforms. The red lines represents our temporal reality, which can seem chaotic and complex at face-value. However, when we use the right sensing methods, we are essentially asking the right questions. We can then use such smart metrics to sense the health of complex adaptive systems. Source.

In both cases, detailed analysis leveraging mathematical tools like Fourier transforms provides deeper understanding. The pyramid's staircase, imposing continuity conditions on stress and particle displacements, yields a periodic set of equations suitable for Fourier analysis. Similarly, the CFD's data, subjected to scrutiny, unveils patterns akin to frequency distributions, enabling proactive adjustments to enhance workflow efficiency. By delving into the intricacies revealed by these complex-pattern metrics, whether in agile project management or architectural acoustics, practitioners can gain insights into optimizing processes and structures for improved forecasting and sensing of complex systems.

One of the many pictures of 'turbulence' is that of a collection of spiralling coherent structures (such as a vortex): when advected by a mean flow and measured at a given point in space, spatio-temporal sections of such objects are seen as 'chirps'. Source - Bafakeeh, Omar T., Muhammad Yasir, Ali Raza, Sami Ullah Khan, R. Naveen Kumar, M. Ijaz Khan, Deyab A. Almaleki, Nidhal Ben Khedher, Sayed M. Eldin, and Ahmed M. Galal. ‘The Minimality of Mean Square Error in Chirp Approximation Using Fractional Fourier Series and Fractional Fourier Transform’. Scientific Reports 12, no. 1 (10 November 2022): 19188. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-23560-8.

From a systems thinking perspective, I think our 'sensing metrics' need to be more complex (and pattern-based) and much like the pyramid of Kukuclan, also consider the critical role of perspective (this very much links to the Perspective rule in Cabrera's DSRP) in sensing the health of a complex adaptive system (which is always evolving in time).

Screen Shot 2020-05-03 at 11.34.56 AM
The Four Rules of Systems Thinking - Source: https://blog.cabreraresearch.org/the-four-simple-rules-of-systems-thinking

If you are wearing a smartwatch whilst reading this article, it takes advantage of this very fact, since heart rate variability can only be "unpacked" through a smart sensing metric, such as detrended fluctuation analysis. Such smart metrics can characterise undesirable cross-talk between cardiac and breathing systems in our bodies, such as sleep apnea.

But what do we do when we observe undesirable emergence within a complex system...

(Allan Savory's book has much wisdom on this matter, can recommend)

Unbalanced Emergence and 'Sliding Reinforcers'

My wife, Cheri, is originally from South Africa and having met each other in late 2005, we are nearly approaching twenty years together. On my first trip to South Africa, her family took me on Safari and I wanted to put my best foot forwards to give a good impression. However, South Africa had a few surprises for a naive Welshman, who was raised on root vegetables and considered corn to be exotic. On my first Safari to Pilanesberg, I mistook a warthog for a baby rhino and had an incident in a bush toilet near a hippo hide. In short, I didn't check the toilet before sitting on the pan and a surprised toad gave me the fright of my life, so much so that I gave myself concussion on the toilet door. Throw in a bit of heat stroke, and I passed out one hour later at a Services near Sun-City. It was, what Del-Boy would call to Rodney, an 'absolute blinder' of a first impression. This provided some amusement and probably some food for thought for Cheri. But thankfully, she could appreciate how different our respective childhoods really were and that difference became our source of attraction.

An image I took whilst on Safari in South Africa many years ago.

Subsequent trips to South Africa were much smoother than the first, and I developed a great fondness for the country. It was wild, diverse and beautiful. After my second trip, the Elephant took its place amongst my most admired creatures on this planet, and the life of an Elephant has shaped much of my curiosities' over the last years (as per this old post). However, I also learnt that despite the incredible diversity in culture, flora and fauna, there were also tragic tales of desperation, inequality and loss. One of these tales was the severity of ivory poaching in South Africa, which serves as a sobering example of undesirable and unbalanced emergence within a complex system. I recently read a very interesting article, which took a systems thinking perspective to unpack some of the root-causes of poaching and why such tragic patterns emerge.

There are two relevant theories that explain how norms and instrumental mechanisms might interact to cause crime. First, the situational action theory of crime causation’ suggests that people who have strong internalized pro-social norms do not consider committing a crime as an option, even when placed in a situation in which it would be easy to commit an offence without detection (Wikström, 2006). Similarly, the model of frame selection states that people refrain from law-breaking if their pro-social norms and morals are strongly internalized, and if the immediate situation does not legitimize norm-breaking (Etzioni, 1988; Sykes, 1978). It is only when these conditions are broken that a person will utilize rational choice models to determine whether or not to commit an offence (Kroneberg et al., 2010; for a review, see Sattler et al., 2013). Although these more integrated theories have yet to be explored with wildlife crime, norms play a crucial part in determining whether or not a person is motivated to poach...
For example, the complex patterns that are observed in bird flocks (or fish shoals or insect swarms) can be shown not to occur because of an invisible hand that guides the group but because the individuals maintain a preferred distance and angle from their nearest neighbour (Kernick, 2004). Such emergent phenomena are generated by bottomup mechanisms (e.g. natural selection) rather than through a top-down controller (Bersini, 2012). - Hill, Joanna F. ‘A Systems Thinking Perspective on the Motivations and Mechanisms That Drive Wildlife Poaching’. In Green Harms and Crimes: Critical Criminology in a Changing World, edited by Ragnhild Aslaug Sollund, 189–219. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137456267_10.

Insights such as 'pro-social norms and morals are strongly internalized' and 'the individuals maintain a preferred distance and angle from their nearest neighbour' parallels the atomic behaviour that constitutes our reality. If we are to navigate the world of complex-adaptive systems, we need bottom-up approaches and perspectives.

“Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.” G. K. Chesterton

In essence, it seemingly comes down to the internalization of pro-social norms and morals by agents of a complex adaptive system. A truly bottom-up mechanism, which would necessitate a reciprocal remedy in addressing 'undesirable emergence'.

Kymmenykset & Asabiya - Antidotes to Poaching & Bounded Rationality in Socio-Economic Systems

Unfortunately, poaching is not purely a phenomenon that is isolated to wildlife, since biased agency can also manifest itself in other socio-economic systems also, such as our global economy. Taxation is a truly complex system, and in some ways, the flow of taxes can resemble the flow of wildlife in a landscape, including the influences of poaching (or luring).

Let's explore an example within our global economy - taxation...

"The Laffer Curve presents the same counterintuitive phenomenon as Jevons paradox. Arthur Laffer proposed reducing taxes on income and capital, and predicted that this would lead to an increase in tax revenue. He was right, because the change that he proposed liberated flows through the entire economy, and the economy grew; efficiency, productivity and economic activity increased as a result." - Bejan, Adrian. Physics of Life: The Evolution of Everything. 1st edition: May 2016. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016.

The Laffer Curve can possibly be true in its theoretical essence, but reality can yield a very different narrative. Real economic systems don’t behave in accordance with theory, since they are shaped by our politics and policies, which are susceptible to biased agency. This injustice manifests itself as inequality in our daily realities (such as poverty, cost of living crisis etc.), and is something Elizabeth J. Magie, the inventor of the Monopoly game, was all too aware of. She hoped that children who played her game would grow up understanding the injustice of our economic system.

Such biased agency would likely account for the discrepancy we observe between economic theory and reality.

Following the passage of then-president Donald Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the headline rates of corporation tax and repatriation tax were slashed and did not lead to a surge in business investment and tax revenues (which rather predictably fell), but instead precipitated record share buybacks...
The reason that real life doesn’t tally with the wishful thinking of the Laffer ideologies is that, in most cases, modern economies currently operate to the left of Laffer’s apex revenue-maximising rate – i.e. if you lower the rate of tax then you reduce the total tax take. - Monaghan, Paul. ‘Beware the Pseudo-Science of Low-Tax Zealots’. Fair Tax Foundation (blog), 4 March 2024. https://fairtaxmark.net/beware-the-pseudo-science-of-low-tax-zealots/.

This is a deep and complex field, and I do not wish to debate the nuances of economic theories in accounting for various taxation models. However, what I do hope to highlight is that the discrepancies between theory and reality reduces to this one issue - a lack of systemic understanding within agency-mediated complex adaptive systems, which if rectified, we could then start to sense the desirable and undesirable causality of our often good and noble intentions. Complex systems have a habit of backfiring in unforeseen ways, which is equally true in wildlife conservation. One such non-linear feedback mechanism are called sliding reinforcers.

In conservation contexts, sliding reinforcers can include such phenomena as the construction of infrastructure (roads may allow an area to benefit from ecotourism, but also facilitate the entrance of undesirable influences, such as poaching); gradual changes in the demands of resource users (e.g., unreasonable expectations for increases in hunting quotas that were originally designed to facilitate responsible co-management); pesticide and fertilizer use (small amounts can improve crop yields, but overuse harms the environment); and deliberately introduced exotic species, such as biocontrol agents, that are initially beneficial but subsequently become invasive. Feedbacks may influence the values of two variables of interest in the same direction simultaneously, meaning that correlations and other simple statistics are not suited to detecting them. - Cumming, Graeme S. ‘A Review of Social Dilemmas and Social‐Ecological Traps in Conservation and Natural Resource Management’. Conservation Letters 11, no. 1 (January 2018): e12376. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12376.

In many ways, I believe there are 'sliding reinforcers' in the world of taxation, which likely partly accounts for the discrepancies between economic theory and what emerges in the real world. These famous words could not be more true...

"He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention." —Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

I currently reside in Zug, Switzerland, which coincidentally serves as a very apt example of emergence within my local context. It truly is a rather unique place and certainly an 'outlier' amongst the places I have lived in. Within our global economic system, a monetary example of 'unbalanced emergence' (i.e. it deviates away from nature's scaling laws, circularity and exhibits losses) is seemingly a Tax Haven. There may be desirable emergence entangled with a Tax Haven, such as equity-enabling entrepreneurship, so in many respects, one must always reserve caution in sensing the causality of emergence within a CAS. After all, isolationism is the anti-thesis of a systemic understanding of emergence. However, as always, I make my best efforts to be a curious observer of patterns, and in that sense, it is difficult to see the action of balanced scaling-laws within the context of Tax Havens - also known as “the axis of tax avoidance”. And I have indeed tried to cast my search broadly here.

“A great deal of evidence suggests that the complicated rules that create and regulate the offshore no-man’s-land did not emerge spontaneously. Rather they were devised by the very professionals who are advising their clients to take advantage of them...Tax havens are described by the OECD rather forcefully as “free riders of general public goods created by the non-haven country” (1998, 15) and “poachers” (1998, 16). The OECD goes so far as to invent a new “industrial sector” to describe them, noting that “many havens have chosen to be heavily dependent on their tax industries” (1998, 10)—“tax industries” being a creative term for “rent.”” - Palan, Ronen P., Christian Chavagneux, and Richard Murphy. Tax Havens: How Globalization Really Works. Ithaca (N.Y.): Cornell university press, 2010.
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Copenhagen estimate that close to 40% of multinational profits (close to $1 trillion in 2019) are shifted to tax havens each year. This shifting reduces corporate income tax revenue by more than $200 billion, or 10% of global corporate tax receipts. Explore the map to see how much profit and tax revenue your country loses (or attracts) in this game for profits. The tax havens can be hard to find, but you can zoom in by pressing the full-screen button. This research was published by the Review of Economic Studies in 2022. Source https://missingprofits.world/

Despite the imbalance in tax revenue, which has essentially been re-routed away from non-tax-havens, the remedy is surprisingly simple. Much like the learnings from addressing wildlife poaching, it comes down to agent-driven trust, transparency and the embodiment of pro-social norms (both individually and in 'nearest-neighbour' communities). On this latter point, I believe it touches on our empathetic response as humans and we could infer that such geographical haven-clusters tend to also be susceptible to localised reinforcement learning (as per this recent study on the transfer and exchange of empathy within clusters of people) and positive feedback loops. A new axiom to the memory possibly, 'you are what you eat' (was told this as a child) and 'you are the company you keep' (based on recent studies).

This shift will have real economic consequences. Since the risk of investing will be reduced by enhanced transparency, the overall rate of return that will be required by financial markets will fall. In the short term, this might increase the value of shares, which should appeal to pension funds. In the longer term, the lower cost of capital will be reflected in the price that companies have to pay for the funds they use, and this will mean that more of the investments they wish to make should be affordable. In turn, this should lead to more funds being invested in productive activities. If that is the case, there should be an increase in labour productivity as a consequence, and this should flow into an increase in wages, and therefore in GDP. If such consequences resulted from increased transparency, it would deliver an almost universal gain. Beating tax havens will allow markets to work as they should. The fight against tax havens is thus part of the challenge of saving capitalism from itself. Source: Murphy, R. Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy. (Verso, London, 2017).

In many ways, I can see the nature-inspired qualities of 'non-symbolic' free-market capitalism, the freedom ensures participatory agency and adaptivity. But capitalism has a material and non-material nature to it, much like the dualistic nature of light. I believe it is dualistic, and like any complex adaptive system, it contains feedback loops, some of which are more balanced and equitable than others. Given inspiration by noted papers by Biggs et al., we can depict Chris Smaje's 'The Logic of Capital' (a chapter heading in his book) as high-level feedback loops within the capitalism of today. I would encourage the reader to read Chris Smaje's book for more details, but once understood, the recent revolt by farmers in Europe regarding the agency of supermarkets (e.g. the need to set fairer pricing) within the context of the 'front' loop below, things start to make much more sense.

Feedback loop is my own addition. However, the relations and text parts are all sourced from — Smaje, Chris. A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020.

Equally, the world of tax havens derives it's existence from the symbolic 'front' loop noted above. In many ways, tax havens are perfectly designed to lure unearned “Ricardian rent“ (or “rentier capitalism” sustained by the ‘front’ loop), which goes against one of the core assumptions to the theory of comparative advantage, which is that capital investment is restricted to its country of origin. The world of taxation serves as a very apt example here:

"The final way of taxing economic rents is to focus on the ways in which they return to, and further enrich, (already wealthy) shareholders, widening economic inequality. Share buy-backs, for instance, are anathema to a productive and competitive market: they are symptomatic of firms that can identify no further investment opportunities beyond artificially boosting their own stock market price." - REFRAMING TAX POLICY TO RESET THE RULES OF THE MONOPOLY GAME, TAX JUSTICE FOCUS SERIES: VOLUME 12, NUMBER 2

With this untethered flow of capital sustained by the ‘front’ symbolic flow of “Ricardian rent”, its architecture diverges greatly from the “free-energy” minimizing flows of nature, which indirectly sustains the conventional non-symbolic world of primary raw materials (commodities etc.) i.e. the 'back' loop. In essence, the ‘front’ loop’s scaling laws are highly unbalanced, which fuels greater inequality.

As we’ve seen, the logic of capital isn’t fundamentally about production, but about earning as much money as possible on investment. With the M → Mʹ loop fully unleashed by financial deregulation, nowadays we have a global rentier capitalism concerned with branding, intellectual property rights, data mining and financial speculation as much or more than delivering goods and services. One way or another, freeing people from the grip of Ricardian rent seems necessary to create a fair and genuinely productive economy. - Smaje, Chris. A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020.

One could go into more depth here, such as exploring this interplay of cyber real-estate with this model of “Ricardian rent” (or rentiers capitalism), which Yanis Varoufakis labels as “techno-feudalism”.

“With primacy resting upon the individual, participation in the system demands that renters be convinced that the labor they voluntarily perform are primarily in their own interest. An illusion must be created for the rent-paying slaves that they are owners of their production in some way, while collecting rent from them in the form of labor and capital.” - Article by David Hsing
Elizabeth J. Magie
Elizabeth Magie’s The Landlord’s Game (1902). She invented the game to illustrate the economic consequences of rent-seeking and the value of wealth taxation to discourage large agglomerations of economic power.
‘the leading corporations are largely rentiers, and the biggest sectors of the economy are largely characterised by rentier dynamics’ - Christophers, Brett. Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy, and Who Pays for It? London: Verso, 2020.

Or one could also draw parallels with Keynes and Minsky perspectives on the nature of instability in the ‘symbolic economy’ - if interested, I can recommend this book by Steven Hail, a Lecturer in the School of Economics at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. But economics is not the topic of this article, it’s merely here to illustrate how “flow in nature” is such a transferable source of inspiration. Thinkers from the 19th and 20th centuries knew this (and they didn’t need to have a book published on “Flow” to have a voice in their times), but here we are in the ‘age of progress’ and I can’t just help feel that we might have forgotten some of these nature-derived learnings. In many respects, I think our main “influencer” in life should be nature, which beckons us to flow and symbiosis, not follow and subscribe.

If it’s possible to make money without engaging in the onerous business of first turning money into commodities before earning an increase, then the logic of capital dictates that this course of action – the M → Mʹ loop – is preferable...
Generally, the M → (C) → Mʹ loop of capitalism acts as a powerful resource pump, and the severest penalty for a country that fails to keep up with it is that its resources get pumped out mostly to the benefit of people elsewhere, which is what’s happened to colonised states. In this respect, capital accumulation initiates a kind of global ratchet effect, a high-stakes game of keeping up with the neighbours. - Smaje, Chris. A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020.

The 'non-symbolic' entities in capitalism, much like how a photon of light is local in spacetime when observed via a diffraction grating (i.e. the non-symbolic entities are made of good old “local” baryonic matter - the stuff of the universe), but the "wave-function" nature of symbolic entities (i.e. informational), such as taxes or derivatives (i.e. M’), behave non-locally (or what Einstein called ‘spooky action at a distance’), becoming less tethered to the non-symbolic agents that produced its twin symbolic entity i.e. distant causality between the chaotic attractors of the ‘front’ and ‘back’ loops. The entanglement between the non-symbolic entity, and it’s symbolic twin can become distant in space and time, and sensitive to decoupling and interference. This distant causality partly substantiates why the flow architecture of this 'front' loop can be so easily manipulated (via regulation or lack thereof), and certainly diverging away from the dendritic scaling principles we perceive in nature. This is likely partly due to technological reasons (blockchain could be a potential remedy here in “tethering”, as in secure traceability and participatory consent, but limited agent/owner transparency) and policy reasons (as detailed in Chris Smaje's book), and my aim here is rather to look at this matter from a complex adaptive system perspective, not delve into the intricate cross-talk between sub-systems of taxation. But I think this perspective is nevertheless insightful to see the trend of things.

I'm no economist, but I do think flow systems in nature and physics provides a nice systemic platform to try and derive a better capital flow system for the future which is more nature-inspired i.e. a more regenerative capitalism which is more “techno-agrarian” and not “techno-feudal”. If I had more time, I would very much like to play with the mathematics of complexity and chaos theory within our global economic system, but frankly, time is far too precious a commodity given the young-family season that I am currently in. Plus, its very likely that far more capable mathematicians than myself are already developing such models since at least two decades.

pear tree with fruits
Photo by Dan Gold / Unsplash

But in short, I derive much hope and enthusiasm about the ‘back’ loop, the non-symbolic economy. It is the evolution of this “techno-agrarian” loop that can bring us back into harmony with nature, and as Chris Smaje shows, the primary sectors have a foundational role to play in shaping a better future. The primary sectors, the abode of the non-symbolic economy, will be a foundational catalyst for regenerative change across several markets.

I think agriculture will parallel the world of physics in the coming decades, they will have to embrace both more complexity and desirable emergence. Innovation will be a key enabler in that transition, but more on that in later articles in this series.

Raymond Williams' Global Village - A Participatory Morphogen System?

In 1826 there lived an agriculturalist called Johann Heinrich von Thünen and he published a book called The Isolated State, which parallels greatly with Prof. Raymond Williams' seminal book, The Country and the City. Chris Smaje, has recently reflected on von Thünen's vision for the future, which echoes the introduction to this article (Defining: Flow), with a system-of-systems "which embodies emergence and progresses via 'disorganized' and 'decentralized' ephemeral opportunities". In essence, a self-organizing morphogen-inspired socio-economic system characterized by a high degree of 'asabiya'.

"Different groups vary in their capacity for collective action. This capacity is a result of a complex mix of individual behaviors: the proportion of solidarists in the group and the strength of their solidarism, the denseness and nature of social networks within which individuals are embedded, the ability to detect and punish free-riders (including higher-level norms that detect and punish those who do not punish cheaters), and the self-organization capacity (for example, selecting and obeying a leader). The group capacity for concerted collective action is called collective solidarity or asabiya, using the terminology of lbn Khaldun." - Turchin, Peter. Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall. Princeton Studies in Complexity. Princeton, N.J. Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018.

I think this transition from 'front' loop driven to 'back' loop driven will present much opportunity to innovate, but equally much more complexity. But the transition there will likely resemble a state change in the Lorenz system (as discussed earlier in the article), there will be incremental disruptions which will invoke the sudden phase change, but as we have explored already, such 'disruption' also presents opportunity for innovative emergence. We can already make a start in reconfiguring our techno and socio-spheres for this more “morphogenic” future.

Service and the ‘Isolated State’. (a) von Thünen model, (b) rural disruptors. Source - Smaje, Chris. A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020.
I’ve disturbed the smooth centripetal flow of von Thünen’s centralising/colonial model by drawing numerous additional centres across rural space. These disruptors could be individual, more-orless self-reliant household farms like the ‘three acres and a cow’ smallholdings discussed earlier. Or they could be larger, more-or-less self reliant rural communities, or mini statelets. The point is, to a large extent they’re self-organising, building autonomies that resist the organisation of space towards a powerful centre. - Smaje, Chris. A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020.

In some respects, the phase change from the front to the back loop in the 'symbolic economy' illustration above could parallel the age of monolith vs distributed systems. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but when it comes to suitability with the two futures we see above, distributed systems are far more congruent with this morphogen-inspired model for global society. The number of interfaces are far greater and so are the nodes of connection, which implies much greater complexity.

Our sustainable techno-agrarian edge-systems will need to find their home in this landscape.

The Criticality of Trust - A Lesson from the Commons and Bounded Rationality...

As depicted in the Sankey flows of imports of high-risk payments to tax havens (as shown in the Flourish Sankey diagram above), such unbalanced emergence, negatively affects the innate resilience of the entire system, and if such unbalanced systems were represented as a termite mound or a tree, their interface (the branch junction) with the rest of the system would likely represent the vicinity of stress-concentration points (i.e. the tension fork region on a tree) - the superstructure would likely not be able to weather many storms and would need to be artificially supported.

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash large wooden hand supporting tree branch

As studies show, a more distributive and locally-scaled taxation system is a key factor in cultivating a more resilient, sustainable and equitable future. A systemic and pattern-focussed analysis of history also echo these lessons learned, as noted in the works of complexity scientist Peter Turchin.

“IF WE START WITH COMPLETELY EQUITABLE distribution of property, in just one generation the society will stratify into those who have more, and those who have less. The only way to stop this process constantly breeding inequality is by either abolishing private property altogether or by abolishing the right to inherit it. A milder form of keeping inequality in check is a steeply progressive tax on inheritance. In other words, some sort of redistributive scheme could be used.” - Turchin, Peter. War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

Which very much resonates with a recent European study on tax evasion.

“Judge Holmes famously said that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. They are a central aspect of our democracies and how we fund the common good. They are also a central mechanism through which we attempt to regulate inequality.” - GLOBAL TAX EVASION REPORT 2024, Tax Obervatory
“New forms of aggressive tax competition are emerging that severely affect government revenues. Over the last 15 years many countries have introduced preferential tax regimes to attract specific socio-economic groups perceived as particularly mobile. From a single-country perspective, this strategy can enhance tax collection and boost domestic activity. But globally these policies are negative sum: taxpayers attracted by one country reduce the tax base by the same amount in another, and global tax revenue collection falls. Because the special regimes are primarily targeted to wealthy individuals, they reduce the progressivity of tax systems, fueling inequality.” - GLOBAL TAX EVASION REPORT 2024, Tax Obervatory

This game of profit shifting compounds the global debt crisis (which affects public funds, cost of living in nations etc.) and does not provide a boost to the originating local economy. It rather undermines the small, independent businesses (the non multi-nationals) that are excluded from these tax breaks and incentives, and are subsequently left to finance their own expansion. A classic case of bounded rationality. In many respects, such an unbalanced monetary flow system limits the extent of participatory agency, which resonates with the overarching theme of this article.

Recent studies reinforce this inference and show not only the inequities and failures of the current tax regime but also suggest how we might move to a more balanced system. As noted above, if no distributive scheme exists and there are havens that avoid such distributive measures, then it really comes down to the criticality of trust, 'asabiya' and altruistic-tendencies within an agent-driven CAS.

To differentiate agency from character when humans are the agents within a bottom-up mediated CAS, is like splitting the dualistic nature of light. The truth resides within the internals of the prism. As Heisenberg noted, it is both wave and particle, and any renditions that disregards this dualistic nature does not depict its true essence. The same applies to the human, outward form and internal character.

The Odyssey is a primal goat story, where poor Odysseus keeps going forward and backward, up and down—but mostly down—all the way home to Ithaca. Each of these experiences is meant to lead us to a new knowledge and a movement “forward” in some sense, yet it is always a humbled knowledge. - Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

In many ways, I believe the story of Odysseus reflects our agency and journey in life, whereby we are born of 'good' character and our childhoods form the bedrock of our very own 'Ithaca'. However, at some stage, we are then both challenged and biased by the demands of the 'mainland' (including the very practical and noble need to survive on this planet), before ultimately returning to our own 'Ithaca'. This pattern also parallels other ancient teachings, such as the well-known parable of the prodigal son in scriptures. Naturally, the exact timing of such cycles will be different to each individual and for some, they spend the vast majority of their lives in dedication to others - honouring their call to 'Ithaca'. The missionaries (Hubert, ...) that used to stay with us for a few weeks when I was younger come to mind here (after being in the merchant navy, my step father became a lay pastor in his later years).

Given this, we ought not to be surprised to observe such emergence, even within seemingly 'model democratic systems'.

Democracy is inevitably messy, in part because the availability and affect heuristics that guide citizens’ beliefs and attitudes are inevitably biased, even if they generally point in the right direction. Psychology should inform the design of risk policies that combine the experts’ knowledge with the public’s emotions and intuitions. - Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. 1st pbk. ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

Personally, I believe the psychology of intuition, which links to our internalized beliefs, evolves as one journeys through life and experiences it. In this respect, and if we are to model the collective prioritisation of agent-mediated complex systems in nature (such as ants and termites), our human-ordered agency must become less egotistic and more altruistic. This very much links to Herbert A. Simon's work on bounded rationality, whereby we need to optimise for the spectrum of identities that constitutes the system, not a single element or small subset (which also links to the tragedy of the commons, which I touched on in earlier post). Dr William Donaldson goes into this at 11:25s...

Our need to create more 'commons' (both in the cyber and physical sense) for participatory communication and collaboration

Commons involve the relatively unusual innovation of collaboration between unrelated local households of similar social standing engaged in similar subsistence tasks...
Whereas a typical form of property and economic rights-allocation in non-capitalist and stateless societies has been based around kin groups, commons involve the relatively unusual innovation of collaboration between unrelated local households of similar social standing engaged in similar subsistence tasks. - Smaje, Chris. A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020.
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In the future, we will seemingly need to find new platforms of commonality that can sustain the participatory communications of more distributed and complex morphogen-like statelets. But lessons from the well known 'tragedy of the commons' requires us to reflect on the essential aspects of trust, virtue and character.

In may respects, this need for greater collaboration within the context of social capital parallels the concept of Ibn Khaldun's theory of asabiya.

"Here Ibn Khaldun introduces the key concept of his theory: asabiya, which Rosenthal translates as "group feeling."...
Social capital here refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated action...
Thus, asabiya appears to be essentially the agrarian societies' equivalent of social capital" - Turchin, Peter. Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall. Princeton Studies in Complexity. Princeton, N.J. Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018.

In my own opinion, the maturation towards a virtuous character (which empathises with identities beyond the self, the collective) is far more valuable than any credential on this planet. Such a character goes beyond 'bounded rationality' and seek to optimise via co-creation and collaboration. The mathematics genius, Grigor Perelman comes to mind here and his refusal to accept the Fields Medal of Mathematics and the associated the 1-million prize money...

“He proposed to me three alternatives: accept and come; accept and don’t come, and we will send you the medal later; third, I don’t accept the prize. From the very beginning, I told him I had chosen the third one … [the prize] was completely irrelevant for me. Everybody understood that if the proof is correct, then no other recognition is needed.” — Grigori Perelman (Source)

In many ways, Grigori Perelman’s ingenious contributions to mathematics represent his form of kymmenykset (a form of social self-tithing via artform or goods) to mankind. It was also a near act of pure altruism, apart from the fact we know who he is and he is not anonymous. Remarkable.

Whiskey admirers know this aspect of character maturation well (the Mortlach 16 being my current favourite). I recently read a fascinating book by David Brooks, which so eloquently captures this journey of character formation.

“Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too—the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character...
One book that has helped me think about these two sets of virtues is Lonely Man of Faith , which was written by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in 1965. Soloveitchik noted that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis and argued that these represent the two opposing sides of our nature, which he called Adam I and Adam II. Modernizing Soloveitchik’s categories a bit, we could say that Adam I is the career -oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I is the external, résumé Adam. Adam I wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories. Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong—not only to do good, but to be good. Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities.” - Brooks, David. The Road to Character. New York, NY: Random House, 2015.

This is also paralleled in the magnificent book by Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, as the migration from 'the community for myself' towards 'myself for the community', which the book elaborates upon. In many respects, an altruistic disposition towards the collective community, society, nation or global community, becomes an invaluable precursor to effective collaboration, desirable emergence and impactful co-creation. Such internalized norms can effectively create the right scaling laws within each system context, therefore minimising losses and maximising efficiency.

Source - Mattheck, C. Updated Field Guide for Visual Tree Assessment. Karlsruhe: Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe, 2007.
“Historian Lewis Mumford observed that incorporating the agency of other living creatures gave our early ancestors clues to how better to survive: “Being imitative as well as curious, he may have learned trapping from the spider, basketry from the birds’ nests, dam building from beavers, burrowing from rabbits, and the art of using poisons from snakes. Unlike most species, man did not hesitate to learn from other creatures and copy their ways; by appropriating their diet[s] and methods of getting food he multiplied his own chances for survival.” - Rifkin, J. The Age of Resilience: Reimagining Existence on a Rewilding Earth. (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2022).

Victor Papanek, one of the most prolific industrial designers in recent times, captures this wisdom beautifully by recounting the old Finnish pro-social tradition of Kymmenykset, in his book 'Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change'. This is a heavily referenced book of mine and this book has shaped much of the thinking behind this article. In many ways, Kymmenykset parallels the ancient tradition of tithing (such as the Druidic law of tithing), which prior to the 1836 Tithe Act in the UK, it constituted a much broader spectrum of giving (goods, crop, produce, artform and assets), not exclusively money. The ensuing Welsh Tithe War is another glaring example of a lack in systemic understanding, asymmetry of information by system agents (by policymakers etc.) and undesirable emergence. The policy could have been set with good intent, but feedback loops are often 'unseen', and such occurrences still transpire today unfortunately.

“Very often in Westminster, while they are taking big policy decisions, they don’t necessarily see the direct impact of that. Whereas if I put someone’s council tax up or close a community center, I’m living next door to the people affected by that,” - Stephen Houghton, Barnsley Council Leader (Source)

This is not isolated to Politics either. The challenge for humanity is to start making decisions which are not characterised by bounded rationality, bias and undesirable emergence. In essence, moving away from presumed consent by “decision makers” to fully participatory consent.

A recent resident of Tax Havens serves as an apt example of such “presumed consent” and another tragedy of the commons. I should add that it’s a non-haven commons being afflicted and unfortunately, unlike the Stone, Iron and Bronze ages, the “symbolic economy“ currently sings louder in our world. The latest victim - freshwater aquifers, our drinking water. The notion of onshore Carbon Capture Storage within aquifers and partly-depleted oil wells is another glaring example of a lack in systemic understanding (i.e. complex causality and non-linear feedback loops) and bounded rationality, respectively. The first case likely causes the mobility of metals via water acidification, turning all kitchens into jewelers, and the second is a carbon numbers game at the “bounded” benefit of pushing out the dregs, more oil. What can I say…some Alien Casino in some distant Exo-planet probably has high-odds that humanity on Earth will once again let history repeat itself. We are as predictably irrational as they come.

As explored in this article, “quick fixes” which do not take a systemic approach, often back-fire, and this manifests as unbalanced (or undesirable) emergence. There is much opportunity here to create more accurate sensing systems, which can aid more informed decision making in the future.

Recap and Understanding Flow through Artform within 3m:52s of Song

A picture of Cheri dancing on a beach on the South Island in Aotearoa, from many moons ago, whilst young and free.

Artists (painters, dancers, literary artists, musicians...) know and understand the notion of "being in the flow" better than most other folk, as a recent study shows. So as a summary for this article, I would like to delve into the beautiful world of traditional music. I love Celtic music (I play the guitar, the bohdran, the concertina, the whistle and the fiddle badly...), in its various forms and guises, and whenever in Ireland or Scotland for work purposes, I attended a live session in the evenings (usually a Tuesday or Thursday).

So in the context of flow, let us treat the beautiful Swallows Tail jig above in the context of a complex adaptive system exhibiting emergence and co-creation.

  • 0 - 0:09 The initial guitarist breaks the silence with a seemingly random riff, an experimentation to overcome the ergodic silence, the history of the song has a beginning...
  • 0:15 - 0:18 The other guitarist emerges on to the scene with a longer intermittent strum of the guitar, the time domain still convoluted, but our gust tells us the tune is fractal, an indication that the frequency domain is in check...
  • 0:18 - 0:19 The main singer, Cathy Jordan (she is truly a remarkable singer), acts like a leader from the middle, senses the musical emergence and encourages the flock of artists...
  • 0:22 - 0:50 The Flute comes into play, which is an example of desirable emergence, since it is functionally different to the guitar, but their co-creation is now creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts...
  • 0:50 - ∞ The leader from the middle, now joins the foray and sets the pace via the bodhran...
  • 0:53 - ∞ New emergence arises again, sensing the correlation of the song, information is transferred via subtle cues and there is a sense of mutual trust and belonging
  • 2:15 The song continues and all sense the rhythm of the song, all are given access to the historical notes and grace notes of the song. In this safety of belonging, the creative freedom manifests in the impromptu action of the accordion player, who signals to the group that he senses an opportunity to add a new layer to the musical creation, and rapidly feels enabled to do that given quick communication

This song is a beautiful example of co-creation, collaboration and the emergence that can manifest from such an endeavour. Much like the collaborative nature of the Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus), we would do well to mimic nature in our coming VUCA age. The quality of our "techno-agrarian" (for lack of a better catchall term) future depends on it.

Thanks for taking to the time to read this. Apparently one should not write articles longer than 15 minutes in the times of today, but when not writing for money or maximal exposure in our algorithm-driven cyber-feudal times, I tend to stop when my instinct tells me to do so. Hence, apologies that these articles may be deemed as too long...they are in many ways, an eclectic note-to-self, so I don't forget the lessons that life offers us. The benefit of making some of them public is that knowledge tends to not follow the conservation laws of physics, it increases when it's shared...throw in the axiom of "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another" - and we have fertile grounds for growth. I would be inclined to personify nature here, she can also sharpen and inspire our thinking.

Until next time 😊

Best wishes, Aaron

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