Survival of the Best Connected

Quantum mechanics challenged physics orthodoxy — sub-atomic particles were not ‘things’ but ‘interconnections between things’ meaning the universe has no fundamental building blocks. Reality only exists as a complex web of interactions — a system of relationships.

How systems function with the wider environment was explored by Norbert Wiener in his 1948 book Cybernetics (meaning ‘steersman’). He introduced the idea of the self-regulation mechanism, which follows the general principle of a room thermostat: as the room heats up/cools down (past performance) the thermostat switches off/on (subsequent action), meaning the room heats up/cools down again and so on. It is a feedback loop that keeps the system functional. Wiener suggested that this principle is applicable to all systems — mechanical, living or social — from economic systems to market regulation to decision-making systems.

Systems also need energy to keep running — machines need electricity and modern organisations — operating in highly-complex environments [1] — require fresh knowledge to meet novel situations that emerge. Tapping sufficient knowledge flows therefore is key to an organisation’s capacity to adapt and survive in dynamic environments. Those that “don’t communicate with the outside world — to gain information for knowledge and understanding as well as matter and energy for sustenance — die out and become … uninteresting parts of that world.”⁠ [2]

But how can systems with circular casualty (A triggers B triggers A etc.) actually evolve and thrive?

“Autopoiesis” (meaning ‘self-production’) describes how living systems can self-reproduce and evolve by unlocking ‘accelerated Darwinism’. Ordinary Darwinism highlights the crucial role of random mutations that provide members of a species a distinct competitive advantage, which disseminates throughout the species by a process of natural selection. But autopoiesis suggests a system doesn’t need to wait for random mutations as it can pro-actively accelerate its own evolution by increasing its level of internal complexity — becoming more complex than the environment around it:

‘An autopoietic system is to be contrasted with an allopoietic system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials to make a car, which is something other than itself (the factory). However, if the system extended from the factory to include components in the factory’s ‘environment’ (supply chains, workers, dealerships, customers etc.) then it can become a viable autopoietic system capable of self-creation’ (Wikipedia).

This ‘extension into the environment’ is a pro-active strategic play — rather than a re-active ‘wait and adapt’ approach that’s been used very successfully in business: Ford paid assembly line employees enough to become customers also, creating a positive feedback loop; Toyota integrated suppliers into its assembly line to form an advanced production system capable of producing a greater variation of higher quality cars at less cost and opening up new market segments it could exploit successfully. And an autopoietic ‘extension into the enviroment’ is a massive play by Amazon today — using AWS to become a platform on which niche players discover fresh markets for it to exploit with its scale.

“To discern what is going on (in a more complex, uncertain world) we must interact in a variety of ways with our environment. We must be able to examine the world from a number of perspectives … We can’t just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in”⁠ [3]

Sub-atomic physics, cybernetics and autopoiesis reveal the fundamental importance of interconnections with as wide a network as possible. If we are to generate the energy needed to act, evolve and prosper it’s not just any network we need though (as social media echo chambers demonstrate). Organisations operating in a highly uncertain world need a requisite variety of inputs into their systems in order to recognise and respond to novelty appropriately:

In an uncertain world⁠ [4] employing a diverse, heterogeneous set of people creates a “diverse community [that] will be able to survive and reorganise itself because a damaged link in the network can at least partially be compensated for by other links. In other words, the more complex the network is, the more complex its pattern of interconnections, the more resilient it will be … diversity means many different relationships, many different approaches to the same problem”⁠[5]

Those who thrive in our more complex world will not be those who rely on their store of knowledge — as there will always be more knowledge outside the organisation than within — but those that effectively tap into deep, fast-running — Amazon-like — flows of knowledge. Strategic advantage therefore is shifting to those who are designed for curiosity, who actively seek novelty and possess the requisite variation of perspectives to make the insights that lead to breakthrough action.

It’s currently survival of the most connected.


2 Strategic Game of ? and ?. John Boyd

3 Strategic Game of ? and ?. John Boyd


5 Science, Strategy, War. Frans Osinga