How to redesign government using fractals
Fractals are fascinating.
Fractals are formed by various types of mathematical repetition and can be found in many aspects of nature such as clouds, snowflakes and plants. According to Wikipedia:
A fractal has been defined as “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole,” a property called self-similarity.
The wonderful thing about fractals is that they look the same at different scales — this is particularly true of certain types of fractal such as the Koch Snowflake and the Sierpinski Triangle which are created by the repetition of simple mathematical rules. These are the same sorts of rules that can be found for naturally occurring fractals.
Next time you look at a tree think about fractals. Trees are fractals in motion. As the Fractal Foundation explain:
A sprout comes out of the ground, and then splits into branches. Each of these branches then splits again into new branches, and each of these branches splits again into new branches. At each point in this process, it is as if two new, smaller trees emerge, and the new branches can be thought of as the trunks of the next generation of trees. So a large tree can be seen as a collection of many smaller trees of various sizes. Thus the repetition of branching that forms the tree also generates the tree’s self-similarity. In plant science, the branching points are called ‘nodes’, and the branches themselves ‘internodes’.
So what has this got to do with democracy?
Well fractals might provide a rather neat way for establishing democratic structures.
Here are two principles that could be used:
1. Exactly the same democratic structures should be repeated at every level of government
So, for example, if the UK parliamentary arrangements are in fact ‘the envy of world’ then they should be replicated at every level of government. This is already true to some extent for the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales but is certainly not true for local government or for town and parish councils.
The implication of this in the UK is that we should have local parliaments. In other words, a clear split between the executive and non-executive aspects of government as exists at other levels. It doesn't have to be that system of course, it could be a different one, but there has to be ‘self similarity’ at every level.
The benefit is that it is easy for everyone to understand — once you ‘get it’ at one level, you ‘get it’ at every level. Every node is essentially the same.
2. The distance between different democratic levels should be decided by a simple mathematical rule
How are the distances between layers of government decided now? How did we decide, for example, that there should be three devolved administrations below central government in the UK. How did we decide that there should be 353 councils in England; 57 single tier with the rest part of two tier arrangements? How did we decide that their should be 32 councils in Scotland, 22 councils in Wales and 11 in Northern Ireland? How did we decide that there should be 10,000 or so parish, community and town councils in England?
Of course these ratios weren't decided at all, not in any strategic way, rather layers of government have evolved according to various political, historic and contextual reasons. Structures have evolved piecemeal and are often contested. Proposed changes to local government units in Wales or to Parliamentary constituencies across the UK are both current examples of exactly how contentious any changes can be.
I don’t know but I suspect that the story is similar for any other part of the world.
An alternative way of doing things would be to have a mathematical rule for deciding distances? Here is an example using the UK and ‘divide by 21’ to illustrate this:
- 1 UK Government
- 21 Regional Governments (population about 3 million each — same as Wales)
- 441 Local Governments (21 for each region, average population c. 140,000 — about the same as Wales!)
- 9261 Community Governments (21 for each local area, average population 6,500)
- 194,000 Street Governments (21 for each community, average population 300)
You can see that the numbers for local and community governments are very similar to the numbers we have in the UK now for those layers of government now. The regional layer really sticks out as being out of sync.
OK, so the street governments level might seem a little far fetched but you will have to forgive me — I'm a fan of that sot of thing.
Don’t imagine that all of these units need to be uniform — the opposite in fact. Trees aren’t mathematically perfect — their uneven shapes reflect the conditions that surround them and the weather that they experience. In the same way unit sizes for government can only be an approximation — governments need to fit naturally into the landscape and to work with the natural grain of the population.
Anyhow, next time you look at a tree remember that is not just a magnificent part of the natural world but could also be a fantastic metaphor for government and democracy.
Earlier version published at localopolis.blogspot.co.uk.