Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

The inevitable instability of systems

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on July 2, 2013

Sometimes we tend to believe in the stability of systems. Systems are sometimes designed, think about road- or rail systems, or sometimes they are discovered, like stellar systems or the behavior of ant colonies. We design for the best, making it as robust as possible. Or when we discover them, we are amazed about the complexity of it. In most cases, we just don’t understand them with the universe as we know it as the best example.

Why is it that we tend to think that systems need to be stable? Cant’t we just accept that everything where energy (or another flow) is involved is by definition unstable? Sometimes a system appears to be stable, but in time it will become unstable and ultimately it will collapse. Road systems will collapse because too many cars drive on them, because there is not enough construction, or because they become superfluous. Stellar systems are unstable because they will collapse with others or they faint away (no more energy), and ant colonies will disappear.

My understanding is that every system that is created at some point will disappear at another point, and that energy is the fuel that is needed to create and maintain it, but that energy will also destroy it. Without energy a system is dead (maybe stable?), therefore it is inevitable that a system is unstable by definition. So the only stable system might be a dead system. Characteristics of a system are structure, behavior and interconnectivity, all three influence each other resulting in change in those characteristics. While a system exists, those three characteristics influence and change each other. At one point a minor change can start the disruption of the system.

Stable vs. unstable

By accepting that systems are per definition unstable, can we design better systems? Let go of control, and accept that the end of one system can mean the beginning of another. Or by letting two systems collapse in a controlled manner, this can mean the start of a new (and perhaps better) one. If we bring this philosophy into organizations (or economies), what can we learn from this? Can we develop new design principles that respect the temporal nature of systems? What is we always include a scenario of the end of the system while we design it? I think this would be a lot better. Think about the current banking issues. Banks collapse, and we try to ‘save’ them. It is basically a quick fix without thinking things through. We think this system is needed, but we haven’t thought through alternatives, and certainly did not think about what to do when this system might fail at some point, certainly not when this system was introduced.

The banking system is not needed for humanity. At some point it seemed a good system for us, and it still might be for some time despite the huge financial injections. But this system is not there forever, and we have seen it’s weaknesses. One of the best example of a temporary system is the democratic system. By definition we accept that they are unstable, and we’ve built in rules to make sure it will collapse quickly. It is not the most efficient system, but it is a system that renews itself on a regular basis. While the democratic system itself can collapse as well, we do not try to make it efficient and stable. That would bring us to dictatorship, which is efficient but has it’s disadvantages.

So, maybe more questions than answers or solutions, and maybe questions that were asked many times before, but some questions need to be asked again and again. Last but not least: systems are interconnected not only with itself, but also with other systems. Let’s not forget that one while designing systems. Instability of one system might be needed (or even crucial, think about day and night, rain and drought) for the stability of another.

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Overlapping communities by multiple group membership: quantum behavior in social networks

In social network analysis, a network often looks quite simple, when you zoom in to a certain section. People are nodes, and they are connected to other nodes. Sometimes a connection means friendship, but it could also refer to advice giving, dislikes, knows, etc. etc. I’d like to see a connection as “works together with”, and nodes as people in a certain context, for example a large organization. In organizations  nodes often belong to a cluster of nodes resulting in closed networks or clusters where ties are strong, and some nodes connect clusters, making them brokers. These ties are less strong. These networks are often visualized as a snapshot in time for sake of simplicity, and more often than not are overly simplified for readability purposes. Where people in organizational settings used to be member of one or two work-groups, nowadays with the rise in online collaborative spaces this membership is much more dynamic and volatile. Membership is much more voluntary than it is designed, groups emerge and dissolve faster and easier, and resources (knowledge, skills) come more from members themselves instead of the organization. Especially in the online world, albeit in organizational settings, this is and will be the case more often (well, in knowledge intensive organizations that is).

The above results in people being member of more groups than they were before. This can be as a core member in one or more teams, and it can be in the periphery in other teams. In social network terms this results in overlapping communities. There appear many bridges not made up of two different people (nodes), but a single node is forming a bridge by being a member of two or more communities at the same time. This is coined as a “structural fold” by Vedres and Stark (2010) as opposed to a “structural hole” coined by Burt (1992). To me, the “structural fold” is in abstract terms comparable to quantum mechanics. Where atoms in quantum-land can switch positions instantly (well, not exactly, but it can appear that way), people can too, when working with online collaborative tooling. It is common for many people to work at more than one project at the same time, dividing their time on different projects, not always knowing beforehand where to work on at what moment. That makes it possible to bring in knowledge and situations from one project to another almost instantly and by the same person. In network visualizing, there is a world to discover here. When a person connects two groups by being a core member for both, visualization could be relatively easy with Venn-diagrams. However, with more simultaneous multiple group memberships, and with more nodes in the network showing the same behavior, visualizing would be very challenging. I found the image below that illustrates what I’m referring to. The majority of the nodes are member of more than one group at the same time. With these numbers the visualization is good to interpret, but with growing numbers this will be a problem. Try to visualize overlapping communities with more than 10.000 people and hundreds of communities.

vantage-cots

We see nodes being connected to other nodes, and being part of multiple groups. In this simplified example it is quite easy to interpret. In a global and large organization this would be quite problematic. Maybe when we add dimensions things would become easier. However, when introducing the quantum behavior as I just mentioned would introduce new difficulties when visualizing. Perhaps we have to let go of a person being a single node, a person can be many nodes at once. Person 1 can be at different ‘places’ simultaneously, and when a person is in which position is unknown, and perhaps irrelevant. The same is the case for person 2, 3, … n-2, n-1 and n. Showing and integrating their networks would be a great challenge. Maybe we can learn from current quantum visualizations. Nodes circling or jumping through network space via hidden dimensions. Although I wouldn’t be too happy when the controversial string theory would enter the social network space… Bottom line: a picture tells a thousand words, but that’s not always enough.

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From social capital to social fabric

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on July 16, 2012

Recently I’ve been reading about topics like social capital and knowledge from a network point of view. Networks (in organizations) are quite an interesting point of view, because it represents the ‘real’ flow of information, knowledge, advice, ideas, gossip, etc. Some networks form naturally, being intrinsic of nature, and some are being formed extrinsically. A little bit of both would be the best for an organization, because not all networks would be beneficial in such an environment. With the progress of online possibilities, both can be accomplished. How to ‘design’ online networks is not a one-size-fits-all concept, and how they develop is unique in every situation, but both can be guided to some extent. Both design and emergent processes determine the structure of the network.

An interesting article I’ve read recently was “Why Should I Share? Examining Social Capital and Knowledge Contribution in Electronic Networks of Practice” (Wasko and Faraj, 2005). What are motivations for people to exchange advice and ideas to others that they don’t know? It’s interesting, because it’s what we see all the time. I’ve learnt a great deal from people who left a comment on this blog, most of them (you) just leave a comment based on common interest, not afraid to share their expertise, no expectations for reciprocity or feeling obliged, but just eager to have a conversation on a subject that is a shared interest. So my thesis from experience is that sharing is a good thing, not only here but in organizations as well.

What happens on blogs like these is completely voluntary. Time is available in abundance. In organizations, the situation is a bit different. One of the reasons is time, which is a scarce resource at work, and must be justified to a great extent. It can take a long time for valuable networks to develop, therefore it makes sense to speed up this process a bit, and make it justifiable to spend the scarcely available time on. Typically, organizations are organized in a way that people who need to (or have been told to) work together, are located close by. Organizations are familiar with the concept of designing the organization, like an organization chart and locations of employees. For a great deal, this behavior is copied to an online environment. While this can have disadvantages (eg. showing off), it is an opportunity to speed up the process. It makes sense to walk on two tracks here, the designed, and the evolving. Or does it…… Am I getting a little bit of track here?

My point is that social capital in organizations should be fostered, so it can develop more quickly and become more sustainable. Social capital points to the collective capital of a constellation of people, also known as a (social) network. While people can leave the network, the social capital still remains. The better the network is formed (determining on the purpose), the better the organization is equipped for changes in the network. The advance of enterprise social networks is an enabler for this capital, but it won’t happen automatically. (I dislike the term ‘enterprise social network’ when it’s used for a product, because it has a false promise in it.) A network only becomes social when it has acquired social capital over time. It becomes sustainable. Its structure is solid. Its fabric becomes social.

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The importance of philosophy

Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on November 13, 2011

Inspiration to write about something can sometimes be hard to find. That’s what’s happened to me this year. For whatever reason, writing on this blog didn’t happen at all. Fortunately inspiration is best found when you’re not looking for it, thanks to Chris Jones while mentioning his latest blogpost. Chris wrote about science and philosophy. He argues for a common ground called complexity. Interesting post, I would recommend anyone to read it fully. It was this post that made me think about the importance of philosophy in many fields. My reply on Chris’ post was the following:

Science is timely, philosophy is timeless. What’s true now in science can be false tomorrow. That’s a fact. In philosophy there is no true or false. What’s true in situation A, can be false in situation B. Differences in culture, beliefs, age, etc. defines what’s true or not in philosophy, and in general this diversity in thinking is considered a richness for many of us. It enables us to change perspective and rethink theories or ‘facts’ that can lead to other conclusions. In many cases it can even change the current state of science (think radical, for example the concepts of time or gravity). So science benefits from philosophy, like many fields of interest benefits from philosophy. Without philosophy, science would not progress. So therefore I would argue that science, like many other fields is a dependent of philosophy.

Because Chris put science and philosophy next to each other in a picture, like they represent two separate modes of thinking, that made me think. When you place philosophy on the right (like in the picture), then the left part is not only science. I rather would place philosophy in the center as it represents our ability to think (both left and right in the brain), and science as one of the many satellites around philosophy. Science is a product of our thinking, philosophy is the process of thinking. But what about art?

I use the term process because in philosophy, there is no common ground, no result. Only the topics are shared amongst them. Many philosophers disagree on the big questions in life. Religion, existence, free will, reason, ethics; these are the big topics that make philosophers think. The ambiguity in philosophy between many philosophers’ thinking is key to make progress here. The seeming inefficiency by disagreement is actually very effective. It’s the only way we can think from different perspectives, making it possible to advance in science, technology, political issues, human rights and so on. In that sense, philosophy is at the center of everything we can imagine. There would be no science without philosophy, neither would there be religion or ethics.

Philosophy is the process of thinking. Wisdom and knowledge (to name a few) the result. In that sense, you cannot argue that philosophy is in our right brain, or science on the right. I would compare it with the duality introduced by Wenger: “The negotiation of meaning involves the interaction of two processes, participation and reification, which form a duality“, where reification is the result of the process of participation, making the abstract more concrete.

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Sharing and buying, what’s our currency?

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on December 30, 2010

Discussions about new currencies in this age of sharing are not new. Many have done research about other means of value compared to money as we know it. During the rise of the internet, we exchange value more easily without the need of money. And then there is this other characteristic what really differs from money: abundance. Nowadays there is an abundance of knowledge, an abundance of people who know how to find people for specific needs, or willing to share experiences, ideas or knowledge about numerous subjects like travel, product reviews, music or even business experiences. The latter is rather difficult for many people. Sharing is all good they would say, but about personal stuff rather than professional. Why share all your knowledge about foreign markets, while you’ve spent all your working life to build it up?

That question is an interesting one to answer. Why would you do that? And if you would, with whom? It can represent your competitive advantage, an advantage that you would like to keep intact. As with many seeming threats, it’s better to seek for ways to use the ‘threat’ as new chances, because if you’re not the one who’s willing to share, others will. So as a knowledge leader, someone who really is good in some specific areas, it can be a good strategy to position yourself that way. There are enough examples of ‘knowledge leaders’ that make use of channels to share their knowledge where it can be copied easily. Books are not the only way, the internet provides faster and wider spreading of the valuable information. Protecting the knowledge is not needed when you want it to be shared. It’s your new marketing channel. 37signals is my favorite example here, they try share their knowledge and strategy as much as possible, and with result.

Another interesting characteristic of sharing is its value. Knowledge (is every form, such as experiences or market knowledge) has value. Value for the sender and it’s recipients. But real value is created when people come back to the sender with unexpected responses which can lead to new insights, new ideas, or combinatorial innovation. See what happens in forums like some on LinkedIn, for example. People find each other, discuss topics, and collaborate which is good for all participants and spectators.

Sharing knowledge is not the same as giving up competitive advantages. In an age where sharing is easy, you’d better use it in your advantage. Of course, first things first, you still need enough money to make a living, but on top of that we exchange more and more without the intervention of real money. So you can ask yourself what our currency really is. It seems to shift more and more away from money as a medium of exchange, to an exchange of knowledge, experiences, which builds relationships and trust, and spurs innovation. 1+1=3. Above post is the result of sharing thoughts with a colleague about being open or closed about you business experiences, and at the same time an argument for trying to share as much as possible to encourage new ways of value creation.

Some interesting reads on this subject:

The complexity of complexity

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on June 24, 2010

A recent discussion on Twitter on complexity triggered me to write this post. Clearly, it is a subject that is being interpreted in many (3?) ways. Complex, chaos, simple, complicated, anarchy, all terms that are being compared in order to try to understand what they (should) mean. Some argue that you can use axes and create a spectrum, where all these phenomena can be plotted upon. Others disagree with the language used, or that these levels exist for complexity. And then there are other misunderstandings or misinterpretations. For example, complexity and Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) are not exactly the same. We’re talking about the complexity of complexity.

Good for us humans, our thinking and behavior is quite complex as well. We are able to understand complex matter, albeit when looking back. We are used to think in linear ways, especially when we try to predict things to happen. In retrospective, we are capable of understanding things (events, behavior, etc.) that can be called complex. The most important attribute of complexity is non-linearity. Quite interesting finding, when looking back to understand phenomena it seems linear, looking ahead to the future, expect non-linear behavior. Is that complexity? No, it’s just uncertainty. Quite different things. And when looking back, uncertainty is gone, one outcome emerged in favor of many, at the time possible, outcomes.

Now I’ve almost lost myself in the above paragraph. Of course, complexity is related to uncertainty. However, the range certainty-uncertainty does not classify complexity, nor does predictability. In my view, complexity can not be classified, influenced or whatever. Complexity is an attribute of the behavior of a whole, where many actors are somehow involved and influence each other.

To me, complexity is not about systems. It’s about social phenomena. We can talk about the ‘problems’ of complexity and complex behavior, rather I’d talk about the opportunities. Dave Snowden understands this very well. Like I’ve said before regarding emergence, I’d like to say the same about complexity. It’s time to accept and embrace complexity, and to develop methods to get the most out of complex social phenomena or behavior. To be able to develop these methods it is important to understand complexity, however, I think we should not try to understand complexity fully. Our understanding will become better sooner or later, but we have to deal with it now. That’s inevitable.

Everything is emergent

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on May 21, 2010

In a world that changes increasingly faster and faster, the perceived complexity increases with it. It becomes harder to predict the status quo even on the short-term, perhaps even that of tomorrow. The attempts to make predictions become useless. An obsolete approach.

We need to stop acting like we have control over what will happen in the future. We just don’t know. Often we are not even close. What’s the point of making predictions of the future anyway, and then trying to control what happens?

Organizations are the best example of future predictors. They keep trying to figure out the most likely scenario’s to occur based on what happened in the past. Organizations have difficulties in accepting the fact that these predictions are not only a waste of time, it’s even worse than that. They even try to understand what happened in the past based on the present situation. What happened in the past was just one of the possible outcomes. There are no parallel pasts that occurred at the same time and that have led to where we are now. Rationalizing what happened then, is like denying what could have occurred. Sometimes it helps to understand phenomena, but using that for future predictions means that the same mistakes are being made over and over again.

Again, we have to stop predicting, and start nurturing the current situation in a way that good outcomes will flourish, independent of what that outcome can be. It’s not the outcome that matters most, it’s the road to it. The road to it (where ever it will lead) is an emergent path. So many influences are on the lurk, so many that no one knows how many and what they are, that they should be dealt with along the way. They both can be positive or negative, both will have influence on the emergence.

Dealing with matter like I described above is so different then how we are used to, and not only different, but scary as well. To accept and be comfortable with uncertain paths is not suitable for most organizations nowadays. And it won’t be for the years to come probably. However, we see more and more organizations that operate in a networked environment, where many stakeholders play a role. In these situations, long-term strategies are being replaced by emergent strategies, where control does not have a place.

Coming back to the title of the post, maybe it is somewhat exaggerated at the moment, maybe it is more realistic to speak of a change from long-term goals to short-term goals. Dealing with short-term goals combined with iterative processes is a good first step towards completely letting go of control and accepting that everything is emergent. We are humans with brains that can think ahead in time, let’s not forget that important aspect of us.

Empowerment, a management fad?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on April 19, 2010

A term that is used in many circumstances, is empowerment. It is used on so many occasions (both verbally and in written text), that I feel that it is misused more often than that it is used correctly. Or is it just a management fad, like BPR or TQM?

Empowerment refers to increasing the spiritual, political, social or economic strength of individuals and communities. It often involves the empowered developing confidence in their own capacities. […] Empowerment is the process that allows one to gain the knowledge, skill-sets and attitude needed to cope with the changing world and the circumstances in which one lives.

Ok, that’s what Wikipedia reads. The post of Mike Griffiths recently triggered (or empowered?) me to rethink empowerment. I can recall some papers I’ve read some years ago at the university about the subject. I also remember the debate it triggered there, because it can be interpreted in so many ways. Empowerment can refer to both individuals and communities. It refers to empowering a person or the collective. How does this work? Some questions come to mind here:

  • Is empowerment something that benefits only people without any power?
  • Who is powerful enough to empower others?
  • Who knows what is needed to empower someone? (perhaps only the unempowered)
  • Who or what benefits from empowerment?
  • Why is the term interpreted in so many ways?
  • Is empowerment of an individual or group a prerequisite for self-organization?

Without answering these questions immediately, I’d like to look at some real world examples where I think that empowerment is taking place. These places have some things in common. These places generally have a leader that leads the company quite different that the common leadership practices. They are not alone and unattainable at the top of the pyramid, they make sure that employees are involved not only in their own tasks and responsibilities, they know what their clients want and make sure that their employees know as well. These and some other characteristics are practices by only a few leaders, leaders that dare to make extraordinary decisions, that give control to their employees. Companies that have some similarities with these characteristics are Zappos and Semco, for example. These are companies that make quite ordinary products, have great results, but run their companies not like their competitors do. I’d like to call these companies examples of the real empowering companies. You just feel that you would like to work for them. That makes a company a great company, if you ask me.

To come back to some of the questions I posed earlier in this post, for example the question ‘Why is the term interpreted in so many ways?‘, I can say it depends heavily on who used the term. It can be the manager that tries to make others only work harder instead of really making them really more responsible for what they do, or it can be the employee that feels like not having enough resources or information he or she needs, or to feel more involved. If empowerment is a management fad, is hard to answer. I think it can easily be or become a management fad, but some core-principles that can be attributed to empowerment are really valuable and here to stay. These are universal, humane and part of the science of empowerment.

Another question I asked in this post is ‘Is empowerment of an individual or group a prerequisite for self-organization?‘. Perhaps it is. Empowered employees are able to manage themselves, both individually or in a collective. Maybe it is self-management, however, I prefer to make use of self-organization, for obvious reasons. In the problem statement I stated some time ago, I made an assumption by stating ‘how to […] empower employees for self-organization?‘. It seems this assumption still stands for me. To be continued…

Knowledge diversity

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on April 9, 2010

Today I would like to discuss something about knowledge. The first thing I would like to mention about knowledge, is that there are many understandings about the concept. This post does not try to explain knowledge, nor my view of knowledge. It is a concept that is difficult to grasp. Many research has shown that knowledge is difficult to transfer either, for various reasons. Knowledge is often partly codifiable, and partly (perhaps mostly) tacit. Many companies have tried to codify as much tacit knowledge as possible, assuming that this codified ‘knowledge’ is easy to transfer and easy for others to internalize it. This not only feels unrealistic, research has shown this as well.

Acquiring knowledge is just not possible from just reading books, blogposts, manuals, documentation, etc. Acquiring knowledge is learning and experiencing from codified information and takes much time participating in the practices and getting your hands dirty. Inspired by John Tropea’s post, (and Harold Jarche’s, Rob Paterson’s and Tony Karrer’s as well) I would like to elaborate on that some more. Context is important in knowledge management (is it possible to manage knowledge? or is it outdated? what is it anyway? aren’t we just talking about learning? well, food for thought and perhaps another story…), even as knowledge creating and eventually decision-making. This is very well outlined and written by Chun Wei Choo in his book ‘The Knowing Organization’.

I’d like to explore the concept of ‘Knowledge diversity’ here. Not only because knowledge is experienced in such a diverse way, but because many knowledge workers (I hate these words) are operating in an environment where many disciplines come together. In a place where you are surrounded by people who have different skills than you have, it is less important to share and transfer all that knowledge (if possible at all), it becomes more important to know where to find specific knowledge, if you do not have the skills or resources nearby. If your network is vast and becomes vaster, you might be able to locate resources that can help you out.

The question I ask here implicitly (well, I just externalized it in a way I suppose) is how to organize yourself in an environment where knowledge is located at many places (scattered), and where that knowledge is diverse. You can be quite sure that the person or persons you need are out there, so it should become easier to locate these resources whenever you need them. Is this ‘knowledge management’ (again, a very diffuse term)? Or is it a step to self-organization in an environent where the required ‘knowledge’ is out there?

Assuming that such a scenario is desirable, the next question would be how to reach such a situation. However tempting to explore the latter, I think the former deserves some more attention. Therefore I should be somewhat conservative, make a step backwards and ask:

Are we in an environment where knowledge is diverse (considering people, location and type of knowledge), and is it important/desired to be able to locate this knowledge somehow?

I hope this blogpost leads to making this question better, more relevant, or even obsolete, and can help me to a next step: organize yourself in an environment where knowledge is located at many places (scattered), and where that knowledge is diverse.

Crises, what’s next?

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on March 16, 2010

In my last post I argued that crises are the result of complexity. While I still hold this argument, a crisis is probably a situation where complexity is at a maximum, if there is a maximum. The situation will probably not become more complex than that. A response I got on the previous post from John Marke was a reference to his paper ‘Why bad things happen to good policies‘. I will come back in more detail about his paper later, but one of the important statements is that all paradigmatic shifts are preceded by crises. That’s interesting, if complexity is followed by a crisis, and a crisis is followed by a paradigmatic shift, then complexity will be followed by a paradigmatic shift.

Complexity → Crisis → Paradigmatic shift

Complexity can be seen as a positive feedback loop towards complexity, while a paradigmatic shift is a negative feedback loop towards a ‘stable’ but new (and temporary) equilibrium. A new equilibrium in the sense that it was not predicted or a situation that was stable before. If we can speak of systems here (depends on your point of view on systems), at least we are talking about complex systems, or complex adaptive systems.

If a paradigmatic shift follows a crisis, then who or what sparks this shift to occur? It’s hard to say. In a complex environment, there is a huge network of resources that is ever-expanding. The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (Metcalfe). That makes it unpredictable where this shift is coming from, but chances are that it can come from a bottom-up, self-organized distributed sub-network within the system. A question that John Marke asks the reader in his paper is ‘how could we empower them’? First we have to identify the possible ‘we’ and ‘them’. Or shouldn’t ‘we’, and should it be more emergent? Marke poses a similar choice, adapt to the complex adaptive system, or harness complexity and have it work in your advantage.

I like his way of thinking, because either you just accept the fact that you can do anything except adapt, or understand some properties of the system (emergent, unexpected, self-organized, highly connected, adaptive). The latter has more interesting possibilities, and is more congruent with these characteristics. Remember, you are probably in this complex adaptive system as well, play a role, and have the same characteristics. It’s not something totally alien.

In this present situation, it is easy to understand that the situation is getting complex more quickly than it did in the past. That means that crises are about to occur more often, and the same is true for paradigmatic shifts. The thing we need to accept is that situations are not stable, and these ‘stable’ situations are volatile and temporary. Solutions are valid for a short period of time, almost by definition. And why do we want to reach a situation that worked in the past, while the environment around us keeps changing in a rapid pace?

This post is my answer to the paper of John Marke. He’s in the process of writing another, on resilience, the solution space of complexity as he puts it.