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The Power of Self-Organisation

Published on 21 August 2008
Updated on 05 April 2024

Aldo Matteucci – DiploFoundation, Geneva

We all believe in organisation. We worship the Great (or Intelligent) Organiser in the sky, and we admire great organisers, from Alexander of Macedonia to Napoleon. Our mental structures are ‘wired’ toward organisation – cause and effect yielding vertical structures and an causing an ‘ideal’ or ‘visionary’ order to come into existence.

Diplomacy – a discipline (note the term) that emerged out of absolutism – believes in structures, organisation, and of course universal principles. Nothing is more organised than a Ministry of Foreign Affairs – or so we hope. The minister orders and the diplomat execute his vision. This view is replicated within the embassy. Titles and ranks are outward sings of this fascination with order. The personal validates the structural in a self-perpetuating paradigm.

But is it so?

Democracy is in fact – self-organising[i]. Adam Smith understood the power of self-organising markets. But he could not tear himself away completely from his conceptual blinkers – so he spoke of the ‘invisible hand’ behind the self-organisation. Darwin of course discovered that descent of species was self-organising, even though the underlying processes escaped him. The second half of the XXth century put our awareness of self-organising systems on a scientific basis: chaos theory is its lynch-pin. But the theory did not percolate past a limited number of people. Internet (the great accelerator) is forcing us all to confront reality – the most powerful natural and social processes are self-organising, not directed or organised.

In the town of Switzerland a 17-year old went on Facebook, and suggested that his cohort celebrate the end of summer with a ‘botellion’. This is the term given in Spain to spontaneous gatherings were egregious quantities of alcohol are drunk and a good time is had by all. Well – except for those who have to clean up after the mess and the police resp. the emergency services, which are overwhelmed by the event.

Within a few days 5’000 had promised to be there. More were expected. Panic soon spread among the authorities. Barricades of paragraphs were tested for strength. The press resonated with the story. The original ‘initiator’ has withdrawn, but the official pressure just elicited counter-pressure. Confrontation looms ahead. Meanwhile it seems that every Swiss city with a significant Facebook community wants to have a ‘boteillon’ of its own.

The business world has already begun consciously to harness the powers of self-organisation. Wikipedia[ii] is the most obvious example. But this business model has been copied many times over. Boeing’s Dreamliner – the 787 – is being built by ‘as broad network of partners who are collaborating in real-time, sharing risk and knowledge to achieve a higher level of performance.[iii] It is not unlikely that within a couple of decades economic power will rest not with the owners of capital, but with these ‘networks’ – with poorly defined property rights. The network that has created the 787 is so unique, and has embedded so much knowhow that it will have become – like Wikipedia – a ‘natural monopoly’. One wonders, incidentally, how traditional international trade policies will deal with such transnational networks.

Meanwhile, diplomacy sails on unfazed, following the old vertical organising model. The UNFCCC is the latest diplomatic craze. Based on the ideology that ‘global problem requires a global solution’ it has achieved nothing since its inception 20 years ago; in fact, it has significantly retarded tackling the problem by trying to get all the ducks in line. To this end it has taken on the impossible task of remedying the past, planning for the future, and sharing the burden of today – all at the same time. No wonder it is foundering.

Self-organising groups are tackling the climate change issues in concrete terms. People (and countries) are changing their consumption habits – not acting selfishly by sitting it out, as the UNFCCC conceptual model postulates. It might not be enough to solve the problem, but is a hell of a lot more than what has been achieved with the ‘top-down’ (or organised) approach so far.

The Doha Development Agenda remains unfulfilled – yet free trade is being advanced through regional free trade arrangements. True, they are suboptimal, but still better than no progress at all. Even labour and social standards are spreading among the ‘sinners’. Not on account of international agreements, but because the buyers insist that such standards be applied when producing the wares they have ordered, and verify it.

Not that diplomacy had not been given warnings over the past centuries. From Machiavelli to Metternich attempts at self-organisation were tried, only to be overwhelmed by hegemonic ambitions. In Europe the EU is the outcome – a self-organising structure at its core. Yet classic diplomacy still hankers for a ‘pecking order’, rather than accepting self-organising multipolarity of interests.

Paraphrasing John Lennon, one may whisper to this or that self-centred ambassador: ‘diplomacy is what happens to you while you are busy (strategically) planning other things’. The latest wave of ‘China bashing’ emerged because the son of Woody Allen, who with his mother is interested in Darfur, launched a campaign to shame China for its support of Sudan. Tibet was the obvious rallying point.

Self-organising groups are grasping the diplomatic initiative everywhere – leaving diplomats non-plussed. It is high time for diplomats to shed their ideological blinkers and join the fray. Principled idealism – in the Platonic sense of higher order behind reality, for which we should strive – is bunk. In fact, it might turn out to be counter-productive: by focusing on the gap between what can be achieved and what ‘ought to be’ in theoretical terms we feel dispirited and despondent. Instead we should be rejoicing that the solution is ‘good enough’.

Self-organising groups produce ‘good enough’ solutions fast and effectively. Wikipedia has been proven to be no worse than the Britannica – on average. It has taken Wikipedia seven years, a few basic rules of operation, no grand design, no bureaucracy, and essentially no budget, to get where Britannica is after 220 years.

We are running out of time. Is it not time to switch to self-organising solutions?


[i] The Greeks struggled with this issue. They overcame it by creating a mythological ‘Solon’ – the founding father of the Republic. Whether he existed, whether he did promulgate the laws of Athens is anyone’s guess.

[ii] Wikipedia is a free,[5] multilingual, open content encyclopedia project operated by the United States-based non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its name is a portmanteau of the words wiki (a technology for creating collaborative websites) and encyclopedia. Launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger,[6] it attempts to collect and summarize all human knowledge in every major language.[7]

As of April 2008, Wikipedia had over 10 million articles in 253 languages, about a quarter of which are in English.[2] Wikipedia’s articles have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world, and nearly all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Wikipedia website.[8] Having steadily risen in popularity since its inception,[1] it is currently the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet.[

[iii] Don TAPSCOTT – Anthony D. WILLIAMS (2006): Wikinomics- How mass collaboration changes everything. Atlantic books, London; xii + 351 pp. p. 225.

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