Complex adaptive systems, broadband and self-organisation
- ----- Original Message -----From: Michael WolffSent: Friday, August 01, 2003 9:12 PMSubject: [ki-work] Complex adaptive systems, broadband and self-organisation
Graeme has kindly referred me to a paper by two academics: 'The ecology the Connecticon' by Dr Frank Rennie and Robin Mason.
This provides an interesting scientific explanation of how ki Work can emerge given the existence of broadband, and the interrelationship between stable command-and-control organisational structures and flexible, on demand, networks of freelance teams. Below are excerpts from the paper. Full paper available at
Dr. Frank Rennie is Convenor of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Research School of Sustainable Rural Development at the UHI Millennium Institute in Scotland and Robin Mason is Professor of Educational Technology at the U.K. Open University
The utilisation of broadband technology in supporting entrepreneurial activity is explored in an attempt to understand the educational skills demanded in the new millennium. A model of a complex adaptive system is proposed that incorporates the whole technical infrastructure of the Internet, plus the human resource utilisation of the Internet users, together with increased levels of interactivity, both between users and between different types of communication devices. We have called this complex system the Connecticon, and attempt to explain some of its key emergent properties. From these we make some suggestions for optimising the changes to conventional practices that we call innovation.
Fundamental to the impact of broadband is the level of connectivity it affords. At this stage we want to introduce the concept of "the Connecticon." In simple terms it is a new way of looking at connected information communities. The Connecticon is constructed of three layers, or elements, that interact constructively to give results that are extremely flexible, often unpredictable, and are innovative in an almost infinite variety of combinations — the ideal environment in fact to foster the culture of entrepreurialism in business, education, and in society as a whole. The first layer of the Connecticon is the physical infrastructure of the Internet, the terminals, servers, cabling, routers and all the growing network of paraphernalia commonly known as cyberspace. Evidence shows us that this physical structure of the Internet is increasing at an enormous rate, and despite concerns about the digital gap, is truly global in its proportions (Castells, 2001).
This brings us on to the second layer of the Connecticon, which is the human resource located at the end of each terminal and node in this physical network. Many nodes have more than a single user, but even single users are enormously complicated repositories of knowledge, culture, behaviour, and potential links to other value systems. This vast human resource, added to the physical network of cyberspace is a source for learning and innovation of gigantic proportions, even and possibly because of its unstructured state. Networks are ideal for the replication of ideas, and the introduction of the human role in the interpretation and communication of data adds a rich complexity, given that even the most ardent users of the Internet do not live all their lives through the Web, nor leave behind their memories, reactions, and understanding of real world experiences when they go online.
With the third layer of the Connecticon the potential for education and innovation grows exponentially in exciting and unpredictable ways, constrained only by the mathematical probability of serendipity. The third layer is the level of high quality, high-speed interactions, both between users of the network, and between differing types of devices physically comprising the network — what we have termed hyper-interactivity. When we consider these three complex layers as part of an organic structure, not simply consisting of geographically isolated academics using computer terminals, but all types of people, young and old, communicating by computer, mobile phone, digital cameras, satellite and wireless communication links, geographical positioning systems, and with access to almost unbelievably large data storage facilities, then we can perhaps just begin to comprehend the potential of the Connecticon.For each individual user, the quality of this construction (quality of data and quality of access) will only be as good as its weakest link, and this is where broadband comes in. So what difference will broadband access to the Internet bring to assist business innovation in rural and remote regions? Despite the advertised benefits of broadband connection to the Internet, (BT, 2003) there are currently very few actual examples in the U.K. of these benefits manifesting themselves in the business practices of small businesses, community organizations, or remote locations.The authors take the definition of broadband to be simply as:
"Broadband services should provide sufficient performance — and wide enough penetration of services reaching that performance level — to encourage the development of new applications." 
As the authors of this report identify, this definition implies an evolutionary path that is both technical and economic, in which the last link to the individual user is regarded as a potential bottleneck that inhibits innovation and constrains the development of new services elsewhere in the network.
[According to systems theory], in a complex adaptive system there is a constant fluctuation at the sub-system level between the forces that exert a positive feedback (to promote change) and those that exert a negative feedback (resist change and promote stability).
The authors suggest that this description of the Connecticon, and in particular broadband access to the Connecticon, resembles a complex adaptive system, an organizational structure with many connections and parts that adapt due to feedback mechanisms that gives it the ability to change and survive in a fluctuating environment. It has in fact an ecology of connectivity — a scientific system of the relationships and interactions between the human resources (users) and the totality of their online environment. Like all complex adaptive systems the organization of the Connecticon has characteristic behaviours called emergent properties that function synergistically at each level of the organization to give the system a life that is greater than the sum of its parts (Marten, 2001). Three fundamental emergent properties of the Connecticon are:
- Self organization;
- Stability domains; and,
- Complex system cycles.
A key process of assembly of complex adaptive systems (social systems and natural systems) is their self-organising properties known as community assembly. In terms of the Connecticon this is translated as the ability of the system to expand, contract, and adapt structural changes through the process of fitting the parts together — in other words the compatibility and convergence of the various elements of the system. In part this is determined by technical features — whether one machine can communicate effectively to another, or if software can be understood and adapted. Another part of the assembly process is in the area of convenience — new technical solutions, even if they are more efficient, may fail if they do not meet the needs and abilities of their users, the human resource level of the Connecticon. New networks (or sub-systems of Connecticon space) may be added or removed from the system, not simply because their users want them to be, but because their 'ecological niche' in this complex adaptive system is either realised, or rejected by the ability of the new network to be incorporated within the larger system. This leads us neatly to the emergent property of stability domains.
In a complex adaptive system there is a constant fluctuation at the sub-system level between the forces that exert a positive feedback (to promote change) and those that exert a negative feedback (resist change and promote stability). The overall balance of the tension between these processes will determine whether the complex adaptive system as a whole will grow, maintain a steady state, or decline. In terms of the Connecticon, the ecosystem state (the overall state of the system) will be influenced by a very wide range of factors, not simply the technological possibilities, but also culture, social values, human perceptions, education, and understanding. It is a complex mix that varies for a particular time, place, and part of the Connecticon system, but the mixture plays a determining factor in whether the whole system maintains a constant level of activity or makes rapid leaps forwards. In both levels of stability there are enormous opportunities for the construction of new knowledge, the combination of knowledge to raise new levels of understanding, and of course opportunities to capitalise upon this new understanding in an entrepreneurial manner that may further change the perceptions, values, and social habits of human society.
Complex system cycles
A key element in understanding stability domains lies in the emergent property of complex system cycles. It is this property that results in progressive change of the system or sudden switches in direction. In Connecticon terms it could be reflected in the steady rise in numbers of users of e-mail and of the World Wide Web; it could be in the sudden and dramatic growth of mobile phone users; it could be the ubiquitous desire of businesses to have a Web presence; or, it could be the collapse of dot.com companies on the stock exchange. In educational terms and in our context with particular relevance for how businesses learn to change and innovate, we need to consider whether these system cycles are truly new, or if they are simply a new expression of long established cycles of learning and understanding.
We will return to these general properties towards the end of the paper, but firstly we identify those properties specific to broadband access that are challenging the constraints of 'traditional' learning and are resulting in new forms of entrepreneurial activity.
- It is many times faster;
- It allows transfer of more complex data;
- It enables much greater interactivity between users (hyper-interactivity); and,
- It is always on (avoiding dial up connections and line sharing).
Bala Pillai, Sydney, Australia
APIC Acumen Networks/Self-Sustaining Mind Ecosystems (since 1995)
Yahoo IM: bala2pillai"Ants have no (or little) problems with food and shelter. Ditto with birds and nearly every other species. Humans are bogged down by anxieties over food and shelter. With minds, shouldn't humans be thousands of times ahead, not trailing fractions behind ants?"