The Control Paradox in Self-Organizing Systems

by Lynn Johnson on January 5, 2011

Self-Organizing Systems

Emergent social movements are themselves not new, but are generating change in seemingly new ways…ways that are difficult to predict and harder to control.  Is the State Department getting on board or in the way?

Three years ago, TRG began a study of the phenomenon of self-organization in human systems, whereby like-minded individuals locate, organize and motivate one another in support of a social or political cause.  Though self-organization can occur on any scale, we examined such cases as the 2009 Iranian protests where self-organizing seemed particularly fast and powerful, chaotic and unpredictable.

It is not news that technology and new media have transformed the way individuals collaborate and behave, transcending national, cultural and societal boundaries.  Still, the socio-political impacts of ubiquitous communication are sometimes surprising.

Last month’s Italian protests are the most recent in a string of emergent social movements that are themselves not new, but are generating change in seemingly new ways.  From Iran to Italy, Moldova to Colombia, these systems are not replacing the traditional dynamics of nation states, but are occurring in tandem – and frequently in contradiction. Complexity and uncertainty are intensifying in ways that make traditional worldviews obsolete.

Governments are faced with learning how to deal with these dynamics.

The Civil Society 2.0

The Civil Society 2.0 initiative is about creating “a self-sustaining movement to connect social good organizations with technology based tools and volunteers to help raise digital literacy and increase their impact in the 21st century.”

To the extent that a resilient civil society predicates the sustainability of broad-based social movements, the U.S. State Department appears to be getting on board.

Helping civil society organizations (CSOs), NGOs and grassroots organizations better execute their mission independently was the focus of a November 2010 “Civil Society 2.0 Summit,” a State Department-sponsored event designed to bring together technologists and CSOs for the greater social good.

Will this really help?

It’s too soon to say.  But two findings of our self-organizing systems study stand out as cautionary considerations.

First, authenticity – that is, the social movement’s perceived independence from governments and institutions – is as important a variable as any when looking at socio-political self-organization.   So important is this independence that detractors will fabricate associations with governments even where none exist.  Preventing governmental “assistance” from becoming a liability is an ongoing challenge.

Second, attempts by governments to control or manage self-organization are misguided.  As author Gregory Brunk posits, when human systems become more bureaucratic in their efforts to control complexity, they are less able to absorb the routine chaos in the system.  According to some, including Joshua Cooper Ramo, the new charge of government is to accept unpredictability, exercise flexibility and build resilience, a shift that is difficult in practice for any bureaucracy.

Are the State Department’s efforts, an indirect approach ostensibly to build capacity, rather than control events, a sign that this message is getting through?

Time will tell.   I’m hopeful it is a step in right direction.

Lynn Johnson is a senior strategist and program manager at TRG specializing in self-organizing systems, radicalization and transmedia.  She is currently based in Colorado and can be reached at

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