Decentralized

The most successful biological organisms have an organization that eschews centralized control in favor of allowing multiple agents to independently sense and quickly respond to environmental change.  Our immune system trusts millions of cells all over the body to look for, and neutralize, invading pathogens without any conference calls to our brain to plan and execute an appropriate response.  The octopus, which has a powerful central brain, nonetheless knows how to balance its advanced cognitive capabilities with the quick responsiveness afforded by having millions of color changing skin cells spread across its body.Pretend you are an octopus.  You are happily (yes, octopuses seem to have emotions) skipping over a coral reef looking for crabs to eat, when suddenly you spy a large mouth grouper swimming your way.  Your best bet at this point is to hide, but how do you do it? You have a wonderful brain, why not use it to tell your body what to do?  Okay, start shouting orders: “Arm 1, turn pink! Arm 2, turn greenish yellow! Arm 3, turn sorta red-fuschia-ish!”  You can see the problem right away.  Not only will your brain be too slow to tell a complex body how to act, but the coral reef is too complex for your central brain to even have a good sense of what it looks like in each little micro-environment at once. Fortunately the octopus has millions of skin cells that can each respond to the environment around them, changing shape and form to match the very local conditions in their immediate area.  Their collective actions give the octopus as a whole its camouflage. Research by Geerat Vermeij, who looks at broad patterns in the history of life, suggests that the most adaptable organisms use decentralized organization—where multiple semi-independent agents sense change and respond to it on behalf of a larger body, but not under the control of a central brain.  The vertebrate immune system is an excellent example, wherein many independent sensors scan the body for invading pathogens, identify and upregulate an appropriate response without deference to a central brain.In society, there are both negative and positive analogies to this type of system. For example, putting most of the U.S. security agencies into a single large centrally controlled bureaucracy (the Department of Homeland Security) after 9/11 led to ineffective responses to the next major security emergency, Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of Katrina, the question on everyone’s mind was, “Where’s FEMA”, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Finding an agency within a bureaucracy means finding the “org” chart, and the org chart of DHS looks like this:

Can you find FEMA in that (hint: it’s the box with the dotted line around it)?  The org chart is a symbolic representation of the difficulty for ideas to find solutions or solutions to find ideas in a centralized organization.By contrast, Google Flu Trends uses the distributed sensing power of millions of Google users searching flu-related terms to accurately detect flu outbreaks.  Unlike the centralized US Center for Disease Control’s flu trends reports, which require surveys to be sent to doctors and hospitals and returned to CDC for analysis and report writing, Google Flu Trends are available (like the camouflage of an octopus) almost instantly, and up to two weeks earlier than the CDC data.But we also like to say, “Have an Open Mind, But Not So Open That Your Brain Falls Out”.  By this we mean, all that decentralization is great, but it will never work effectively without some central control.  In adaptable systems there are several key roles of a central controller, an organization, or a manager.   A central controller is useful for getting the resources that decentralized problem solvers need (all those skin cells in the octopus wouldn’t work at all without the metabolic energy provided for them by the octopus and its clever brain).  A central controller is also often useful for having a bigger vision (the octopus seeing the threat of the predatory fish) and that is essential for helping define the actual challenge.  For example, while the most effective research, mitigation, and adaptation strategies for climate change may be at the local and regional level, it is still necessary to have a body like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that can see the collective effect of our actions on the planet as a whole and across long time scales.