0. The Sustainability Challenge

The sustainability debate is often framed in terms of climate change and emissions. While these are extremely important issues, we feel it is critical for them to be viewed as part of a greater Sustainability Challenge. That greater challenge encompasses other questions, questions like how do we maintain biodiversity in the face of mass extinction? How do we cultivate sociocultural diversity in the face of globalization? How do we foster social, political and economic sustainability in the face of fragile and corrupt institutions? Understanding what sustainability means should be an ongoing interdisciplinary field of research that we all engage in.

But how do we then think about these complex issues? In this manifesto we argue as follows:

  • I. Life sciences can illuminate sociocultural and technological processes.
  • II. Operations methods can help us deal with unpredictable complex systems.
  • III. Architectural mindsets allow us to design elegant structures at an appropriate scale.
  • IV. Synthesized into Organic Operational Architecture, these can take on the Sustainability Challenge.
  • V. Applied in the public domain as sustainable, free & open community governed ecosystems infrastructure.

I. Organic Perspective

We believe in an approach that extends biological thinking to sociocultural and technological systems: let us call this the organic perspective. Technically, this is not really an expansion: ecology for example is the science of studying the interaction of organisms with one another and their environment, and our social structure, culture and tools are part of our environment and indeed dominant forces on the planetary ecosystem. Indeed the discipline of ecotechnology studies the various interfaces between ecology and technology. This may seem to justify the continued application of knowledge from the disciplines of natural science and technology to the life sciences, and not the other way around. But considering that culture and technology emerged from living systems in the first place, would it really be that much of a leap to think life science would help us understand them?

The 1970s saw the emergence of a new biologically inspired definition of culture: behavior which is socially transmittable. This concept is far more operational than a meme, because ideas cannot be directly measured with ease but behavior can. Culture thus defined replicates between individuals with variation, meaning it can evolve: enter the theory of sociocultural evolution. While clearly a product of our culture, technology is arguably another distinct layer of evolution: tools can be transferred and replicated without any direct cultural transmission. These parallel evolutionary processes emerge from and interact with biological evolution and one another, but behave radically differently in both quantitative and qualitative ways. Most importantly they don't have an independent metabolism and depend on other organisms to be replicated, much like a virus; and just as for the virus, it makes sense to ask of culture and technology: are they alive?

Let us dodge this semantic debate and simply say that culture and technology share some evolutionary properties with living organisms. Evolution, however, is not the only perspective biology can offer us. Developmental biology studies the life cycle of the organism, how it grows from being conception to maturity. In humans this manifests in to process by which a fertilized cell develops into an embryo, then being born and growing up to become an independent adult. We believe it makes sense to extend this perspective to study how culture and technology develop in individuals and groups. Methods and tools are systematically developed, taught and learned using repeatable design and pedagogy procedures. These developmental procedures are themselves encoded into our genes, culture and technology, subject to evolutionary processes. Indeed, as we shall see, they are actively studied in other disciplines.

From the organic perspective, the ecosystem is populated by organisms, cultures and technologies, individually developing and collectively evolving, interacting with one another and their environment.

The organic perspective is a generalization of the human perspective: it expands the humanities instead of deconstructing them, placing us first and foremost as organisms that are part of a living environment.

II. Operations Approach

But that is not to say life science alone can suffice: plenty of supporting disciplines from other fields will be needed. In this regard I would like to focus on the role of complex systems theory and operations research in tackling the sustainability challenge. Operations research is concerned with the design and management of processes and resources for effectively achieving goals in private and public organizations. Complex systems theory is concerned with understanding systems with many interacting parts. The complexity involved surpasses what we can be handled by mathematical analysis, and the field emerged only with the advent of computers allowing us to simulate and analyze these systems.

Over the last 50 years or so, these fields taught us a valuable lesson: it is extremely difficult to predict and understand complex systems. There are multiple deeply rooted reasons for this which emerged independently in several fields. An early example was chaos theory, which showed us that even relatively simple mathematical systems built upon deterministic (non-random) foundations can exhibit unpredictable behavior. Even the very foundations of mathematics, Kurt Gödel showed, exhibited unknowable properties emerging from known foundations. Empirical investigations of complex systems, especially in the life sciences and social sciences, showed other problems: complex systems are typically open, they interact with the external environment by their very nature. This means they cannot be isolated to a closed system in a lab, and that even if we would be able to understand and predict their internal behavior, we could not predict how they would respond to changing external circumstances. Context may not be everything, but it's certainly a critical factor in real life.

Some of the most critical breakthroughs in recent years came from operations research. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, retired options trader, operations researcher and philosopher of science, focused on the concept of randomness. For Taleb, randomness is an epistemic concept: a reflection of the limits of our knowledge, of our uncertainty, improbability and unpredictability. This conception of randomness depends on perspective: what is random to you may not be random to me. Taleb developed the concept of a black swan: a random event with huge consequences, be they positive or negative. This could be the collapse of an ecosystem or economy due to an unexpected chain reaction, the surprise success of a product, or the global spread of an internet meme.

But more important to us is his idea of antifragility. Taleb argues that the opposite of fragility is not robustness: the fragile suffers from random events while the robust is indifferent to them. The true oppose of fragility would be something that benefits from random events and processes. This is nothing new: the immune system is antifragile to small exposure to pathogens, populations evolving by natural selection are antifragile to some degree of variation, and economic markets are antifragile to a degree of experimentation in business strategies. This resonates well with a new range of approaches to software development operations, such as agile and scrum, as well as business operations methods such as lean, kanban and variations. Taleb likes to say he wants to 'live well in a world I don't understand'; we argue this exemplifies good operations methodology: acknowledging unknown unknowns, and formulating appropriate antifragile strategies.

III. Architectural Mindset

Design could be defined for our purposes as the coiteration of form and function towards a particular end. When successful, the objects of design are well adapted to their uses, and provide us - in the Roman architect Virtruvius' words - "utilitas, firmitas and venustas" (commodity, firmness and delight). While explicit 'design thinking' about any product seems to be a later development than architecture, perhaps by millennia, thinking about service design seems to only have developed in recent decades. Recent trends in design (including architecture and software development) have included an increased user focus, something even engaging in participatory design when the client is directly engaged in the design process.

At the same time, great attention has been given to a full lifecycle of the product, in biological terms to it's development process. This perspective leads to reuse and repurposement of underutilized resources and recycling. With the ecological and evolutionary perspective added the product's impact and externalities would also be considered, and possibly corrected or mitigated.

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IV. Organic Operational Architecture

When discussing evolutionary theories - whether biological, sociocultural or technological - we are putting behind us the colonially chauvinistic idea of 'progress' which marked some antecedent theories. Just as we do in biological evolution, we must say in sociocultural evolution that no culture surviving today is more or less evolved than any other. That is not to say that all cultures measure equally to with respect to all values, or that they are equally successful at achieving all goals: indeed it is part of the human condition to lament the shortcomings of our culture, and sometimes that of our neighbors too. Even when culture evolves to achieve those values, it may be discovered those values themselves were miswanted: they had served the ends of a privileged group, or had unforeseen negative side-effects. Luckily values themselves are a type of culture, a culture that tries to lead and direct other culture, and a culture that can evolve with the times and meet the needs of it's sociocultural ecosystem.

V. Ecosystem Infrastructure