Fractals, Self-Organizing Principles, and Self-Segregation

Fractals are all around us

Came across this study on planting patterns, “Fractal planting patterns yield optimal harvests, without central control” that bears some closer review.

What’s fascinating about this is that it seems to present a real-world solution to a problem commonly referred to as the “tragedy of the commons,” in which the self-interest of individuals leads to the destruction and overuse of shared natural resources.

Spatial patterning often occurs in ecosystems as a self-organizing process caused by feedback between organisms and the physical environment. “The centuries-old Balinese rice terraces are also created by feedback between farmer’s decisions and the ecology, which triggers a transition from local to global scale control,” explains Lansing. “Our model shows for the first time that adaptation in a coupled human-natural system can trigger self-organized criticality.”

This is absolutely fascinating, and it’s interesting to consider this in relation to other ideas on a “self-organizing criticality” that we’ve explored here before, such as in brains and sand piles.

For proponents of ed reform who argue against centralized control, this seems like it could be worth digging into further.

The aspect of fractals here is also tantalizing. After chatting with a colleague about the article, he referred me to Ron Eglash, a mathematician who has studied fractals in African history and culture. Do yourself a favor and watch his TED talk, it will blow your mind.

Eglash raising an interesting point about self-organizing principles: they can be wonderful, as in Google search, or our brains. But there is also a dark side, such as in the spread of HIV or the damaging effects of capitalism. He suggests that the fractal algorithms employed in Africa could present us with “robust” “ways of doing self-organization — of doing entrepreneurship — that are gentle, that are egalitarian.”

I’d love to explore more about how the fractal design of school structures and systems could be utilized for a productive purpose. Please share if you’ve got more on this.

Another interesting angle on the Balinese rice farmers is suggested in an earlier study reported also on, “Phase transitions of rice farmers may offer insight into managing natural resources.

Their study and modeling seems to suggest that smaller self-segregated communities within a society are desirable in the long-run.

They found that the downside of the segregation is that it increases the social disharmony throughout the society as a whole. The upside, however, is that the social disharmony within each community becomes very low. In some communities, individuals are more likely to keep cooperating with each other—using the shared resource fairly—compared to the situation without segregation. These results were very similar to what the researchers observed in the segregated society of the Balinese subak.

This seems to be a dark side unmentioned in the more recent study on how the Balinese farmers exemplify a self-organizing society in harmony with nature. Or perhaps this isn’t a dark side — it’s a suggestion that some self-segregation can be positive.

But I don’t know anything about the Balinese subak, either, so not sure how much to read into this. Certainly worth going deeper into this. If any readers have knowledge of African fractal algorithms or Balinese subaks, please share!

Free Range Children

“Which brings us to the inevitable issue of what will become of my boys. Of course, I cannot answer in full, because their childhoods are still unfolding.

But not infrequently I field questions from parents who seem skeptical that my sons will be exposed to particular fields of study or potential career paths. The assumption seems to be that by educating our children at home and letting them pursue their own interests, we are limiting their choices and perhaps even depriving them. The only honest answer is, Of course we are. But then, that’s true of every choice a parent makes: no matter what we choose for our children, we are by default not choosing something else.

I can report that Fin and Rye both learned to read and write with essentially zero instruction, albeit when they were about eight years old, a year or so later than is expected. They can add and subtract and multiply and divide. I can report that they do indeed have friends, some who attend school and some who don’t, and their social skills are on par with their peers. In fact, Penny and I often hear from other adults that our sons seem better socialized than like-aged schoolchildren. Fin and Rye participate in a weekly gathering of homeschooled and unschooled kids, and Fin attends a weekly wilderness-skills program. In truth, few of their peers are as smitten with bushcraft as they are, and sometimes they wish for more friends who share their love of the wild. But even this is OK; the world is a place of wondrous diversity, and they must learn that theirs is not the only way.”

–Ben Hewitt, “Unschooling: The Case for Setting Your Kids into the Wild” on Outside

Tragedy Does Not Have to Define Our Management

Anderies JM, Janssen MA (2012) Elinor Ostrom (1933–2012):
Pioneer in the Interdisciplinary Science of Coupled Social-Ecological Systems.
PLoS Biol 10(10): e1001405. 
Image credit: Courtesy of Indiana University.

Following a link from Aditya Anupkumar on Twitter, I read this excellent article from Tim Harford in the Financial Times contrasting approaches to “the tragedy of the commons” between Garrett Hardin, the coiner of the term, and Elinor Ostrom.

To review, the tragedy of the commons refers to the conundrum of managing natural resources that require collective sacrifice, but individual incentives are to over harvest.

Hardin saw this tragedy as inevitable, and advocated for strict policies to reduce overpopulation. He made the assumption that all situations in which a commons was at stake would play out in the tragic manner that he described.

On the other hand, Ostrom observed successful collective management of natural resources, and derived principles from those observations.

“These principles included effective monitoring; graduated sanctions for those who break rules; and cheap access to conflict-resolution mechanisms. . . Lin’s only golden rule about common pool resources was that there are no panaceas.”

Note that I can’t provide any more quotations from the original Financial Times article, as they have a rather strict copyright policy.

Something that stood out to me was Ostrom’s observation that the complexity of problems of the commons rendered top-down policy largely ineffective. What was effective was a community driven “polycentric” approach, following such principles as Ostrom outlined above. Polycentrism is a term which means “a political or cultural system which contains many different centres, especially centres of authority or control.” School systems could rightfully be said to embody that concept.

Reading this, I was struck by how this approach to managing complexity mirrors a vision for collaboration between political divides I cherish for the model of schools as ecosystems, which I’ve written more about on “Beyond Ideology“:

  • The idea of minimizing top down control with a goal towards community self-governance, and a restoration of human dignity
  • A focus on a methodology demonstrated to be effective
Our management of complex public systems and resources does not have to be tragic. With the proper recognition for the necessity of community driven collaboration, rather than the infantile broad dismissal polarized “sides” have for one another, public education can be effectively managed.

Beyond Ideology

Following a link the other day on Twitter from John Hagel, I was inspired by an article by Andrew Romano on The Daily Beast about a unique collaboration on the issue of criminal justice between unlikely compatriots. Aptly entitled Liberal Academic, Tea Party Leader Rethinking Crime Policy, the article tells how common ground between liberal and conservative perspectives was found, centered on pragmatic outcomes versus ideological debates.

At the center of this story is the “liberal academic,” David Kennedy, a criminologist who has researched a method of crime reduction that moves beyond the ineffective and expensive–not to mention dehumanizing–criminalization wrought by the War on Drugs, and a “Tea Party leader,” Mark Meckler, who Romano paints as ready to move on from the shallow political debates engendered by the Tea Party.

When he had discovered Kennedy’s methods, “Meckler was energized. This was exactly the sort of second act he had in mind—a proven, nonideological way to remove ‘the heavy hand of the state,’ he tells Newsweek, ‘and give these communities the freedom to govern themselves.'” . . . 

On the right, we always talk about self-governance,” Meckler explains. “So I thought, why haven’t we been applying those ideas to the criminal-justice system?” . . .

Kennedy’s program didn’t hew to liberal orthodoxy, placing the blame on society rather than the criminals themselves. Nor did it reflect conservative dogma. It just worked.” [Bold added]

There seems to be two points of convergence between liberal and conservative perspectives presented here:*

  1. The idea of minimizing top down control with a goal towards community self-governance, and a restoration of human dignity
  2. A focus on a methodology demonstrated to be effective

I believe these two points have great bearing on the “ed reform” debate, as all too often ideology seems to cloud our better judgement and prevent meaningful collaboration from occurring.

Here’s how I’d like to incorporate these two potential bridges between liberal and conservative on Schools as Ecosystems:

My goal in developing the perspective of the school as an ecosystem is to promote sustainable and resilient learning communities. This goal can serve as a potential bridge for those interested in the goal of self-governing communities, whether left or right.

My goal in further developing the framework of a school as an ecosystem is to create a methodology that can lead to the design of healthier, more effective school environments that promote student well-being and meaningful learning. In other words, I’m less interested in debating vouchers or LIFO, and more interested in developing metrics for evaluating and designing positive school cultures. In short: I want something that works.

Ultimately, I conceive of ideology as a form of intellectual laziness. Cheap points for pundits and politicians. And I expect my readers to help keep me honest and let me know when I slip.

*. [Yes, I know I’m way over simplifying the political continuum, so feel free to correct me in the comments]