A means to what end?

[part 1]

Decentralization is achieved by dynamic self-organization toward a goal. More effective, flexible and resilient distributed networks, including tech-based shared marketplaces, community-built knowledge bases, self-regulating financial environments based on consensus, and self-governing cities using Twitter, lead us to believe that decentralization per se works.

However, we still don’t know how to deliberately transition from an existing structure to a decentralized one, even of the problems with staying in existing structures are clearly obvious.

Facilitated by technology, decentralization is possible as a result of shifting attitudes, from top-down engagement with authorities — to collaborative, self-sufficient, autonomous networks.

The most exciting application of decentralization is in relationship with Smart Cities, where energy, transportation and public services can be dynamically coordinated, distributed and co-produced by individuals continuously live-streaming updates about their needs.

To the extent that decentralization is a means to an end, not a goal in itself, it’s worth flexing some mind muscles and asking: what kind of real-world problems can we solve using decentralization as a model?

1. Homelessness

One can look at homelessness in itself as a condition striking those unable to meet social and financial requirements, or it can be seen as a systemic predicament, having both individual and societal origins. The second definition would free our thinking from stereotypes, and help us see the big-picture implications of homelessness.

Conditions that push people into homelessness are far more common than is often realized: roughly 100 million people are homeless worldwide, which is roughly 1.4% of the world’s population. 40 times more than the number of people who die in the United States each year… Low wage jobs, workplace discrimination, social fragmentation, paired with various physical and psychological stressors, push individuals into difficult living conditions.

Symptoms of social stress can become obvious to friends, but these are not “severe” enough to demand immediate action. Amongst all, self-destructive behaviors are common indicators of adversity increasing beyond manageable levels. Providing help before the individual succumbs, can be a good preventive strategy. Think about Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety:

“The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate.” — W. Ross Ashby

This simply means that societal complexity can increase beyond one individual’s ability to cope with resulting problems or perturbations, in which case either the system needs to become less complex (unlikely), or the individual needs to be given access to means of adjusting his own condition as a response.

How do we help people out of a state of risk into a state of security without just bailing them out temporarily?

“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” — Chinese proverb.

Decentralized intervention and rehabilitation programs?

Homelessness is a multi-faceted problem, with numerous aspects that must be addressed together. It cannot be solved by simply providing more housing, or by increasing the minimum living wage, although these measures can help.

Instead of institutions and foundations working on isolated causes that contribute to adversity and homelessness, a more holistic, collaborative approach is needed to achieve long term results. Collecting data for inter-agency response is an important first step. Distributed information gathering, intervention and decision making systems can have far-reaching effects on reducing the risk of homelessness, and increasing the chances of functional re-integration into society, at a cost 21 times lower than that of providing full support services (food, shelter, counseling).

At the grassroots level, crowdsourcing help for people at risk in the form of individual donations, shifts the responsibility from institutions to the community. Startups like HandUp emphasize the humane side of each case, making it easier for decentralized immediate intervention to happen, by activating social solidarity, instead of marginalizing those who simply didn’t “fit the system”. On the other handy, we also have success stories like Occupy Sandy, a community-driven movement that proves decentralized support in times of crisis can become effective in a matter of days. If there’s anything we can learn from these examples is — the engine that drives decentralization is collaboration. With technology, this intrinsically gratifying behavior is reproduced at a global scale. It’s an exciting moment in history, and it’s important that

2. Drones

Self-organizing structures appear everywhere. In some cases, we see them as emerging naturally, and in other cases, they arise in the context of human technology and innovation. Commercial and private drones using space overhead will most certainly give rise to a complex network of flying things.

The Problem

Letting drones owners choose how they fly may be a recipe for chaos; while introducing strict regulations could slow down progressive thinking inspired by the use of drones as delivery and exploration devices. The question is what can be done to enable self-organization in drone interaction?

Controlled experimentation and open traffic maps?

Decentralized drone flying systems sound very much like a sci-fi scenario, but only because we don’t see the progress unfold before our eyes, we only witness the result.

What happens in the meantime looks something like this: first, one sets a well defined experimentation zone, away from population areas and existing traffic, and analyze the way human controlled drones use the space available. The experiment is then replicated, but with autonomous devices. Progressively one adds layers of complexity and randomness to understand how accidents can be avoided considering current reaction times and navigation capabilities of different drone models.

For peace of mind, before bringing drones into populated areas, “no-fly zones” can be assigned, either by personal choice or by the FAA. Within well defined experimentation areas, self-regulation for drone transportation can be expressly encouraged.

We need to also recognize that there are many different models of drones, each with its very own limitations to navigation, movement detection, and collision avoidance systems.

Delivery drones can carry objects of up to five pounds (Amazon Prime Air, Google’s Project Wings), and cover a limited distance within half an hour. However, delivery drones will not be the only type of flying devices that will serve us, there will be surveillance, emergency intervention and exploratory drones.

Traffic maps need to be generated for all types of drones, and used to design updated models that interact with each other, perhaps shape-shifting to serve multiple purposes and self-organizing as swarms. Considering that drones have more degrees of freedom than any other transportation device we have ever invented, the potential of self-organizing drones opens the gate to a very maleable future of transportation.

“No road? There’s a drone for that!” — Andreas Raptopoulus

3. Agriculture

We are in the midst of a complete transformation of our society, and the changes are not completely visible to us. The agricultural industry has consolidated into a few large companies responsible for much of agricultural commerce worldwide. Agri-businesses use an efficient approach to agricultural production, but their practices have raised major concerns about the impact of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and antibiotics on our health. Health risks propagate within the system, leading to potentially disastrous consequences not completely visible to the untrained eye.

Peer-to-peer marketplaces?

Organic agriculture and the foodie movements are getting traction, to the point where it seems like local initiatives converge into decentralized peer-to-peer marketplaces.

Many challenges must be addressed before innovative peer-to-peer marketplaces can make locally grown produce available for large scale consumption. Still, the question of how this might work is worth considering.

Decentralized food production could be the next logical step if urban agriculture advocates and local farmers joined forces, but re-thinking agriculture from the bottom up may not be a sensible endeavor, and most certainly will not happen in a few years. Agriculture is connected to demand, environmental changes, market dynamics, production capacity, growth dynamics, and several other industries. It’s a robust system that has adapted slowly to current needs, and could break down easily under extreme conditions.

Perhaps peer-to-peer marketplaces may be viable solutions in communities where there’s a consensus on farming, processing and distribution processes, but it cannot feed 7 billion people, out of which 40% rely completely on industrial agriculture to provide them with food, jobs, and — implicitly — with the adequate means to have a decent modern life.


The very nature of a self-organizing system is that it self-regulates and reaches a point of stability on its own, depending on the dynamic between the different parts and the environment.

Decentralization is not “good for us” because it fixes the flaws of top-down structures, but because it creates an opportunity to interact in ways that enable us to solve complex problems, at a meta level.

Decentralization is perhaps to modern society what consciousness is to the brain, except this time — some of the most brilliant individuals living amongst us today are actively using this emergent property to design a better future.

Thank you to everyone reading earlier drafts of this article and providing constructive feedback. The problems presented above were initially discussed during the Complexity Salon in April.

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