Here's a new term for you. It's called a holon (from the Greek term "whole"). A holon is simply something that is both a whole and a part. Holons are a useful idea when thinking about resilience and complex systems. Let's dive into this.
In this theory, well constructed complex systems are composed of many subsystems called holons that interrelate in the following manner:
- All holons serve as parts in a larger self-contained holon, and simultaneously
- as a self-contained systems that are composed of smaller holons.
Here's an excellent parable from Herbert Simon that may help you get your head around how holonic theory works (and why it is useful):
Suppose each watch consists of 1000 pieces. The first watchmaker constructs the watch as one operation assembling a thousand parts in a thousand steps. The second watchmaker builds intermediate parts, first 100 modules of 10 parts each, then 10 subassemblies of 10 modules each, then a finished watch out of the subassemblies, a somewhat longer process, 110 steps longer.
It would seem that constructing a watch in a single sequential process would progress faster and produce more watches. Alas, life being what it is, we can expect some interruptions. Stopping to deal with some environmental disturbance, like a customer, the watchmaker puts down the pieces of an unfinished assembly. Each time the first watchmaker puts down the single assembly of 1000, it falls apart and must be started anew, losing up to 999 steps. Interrupting the second watchmaker working on a module of 10 using hierarchical (in the first sense) construction means a loss of at most 9 steps.
For organizing complexity, the moral is this: taking a few extra steps in the short run, saves many steps in the long run.
Scale Invariance, Holons, and Resilience
It should be obvious from the above parable that holonic theory is a useful way to construct, maintain, and repair complex systems (particularly in turbulent environments). This makes it useful for resilience. However, the classic approach to the theory does lack a very important attribute: holons, while self-contained wholes, cannot operate autonomously since they don't contain most of the attributes of the larger system. In short, when disconnected from the entire system, they fail.
To fix this problem with holonic theory, we need another useful concept from resilience called scale invariance. Scale invariance means that across all scaling factors (large, medium, small, tiny, etc.), the properties that define the whole are conserved (intelligence, mobility, form, productivity, etc.).* The benefits of scale invariance to resilience should be obvious: whenever a scale invariant system breaks down, all undamaged subsystems continue to operate as if unaffected. As a result of scale invariance, reconstructing the larger system is easier, faster, and done with less damage.
However, there is a problem with scale invariance. It operates on a continuum as in, 5% of the entire system should have the same properties as 6%, 15%, 37% etc.. As you can see, this is an attribute of scale invariance that makes it hard to use when constructing or engineering many very useful complex systems. The solution to this impasse is to combine the two concepts.
In other words, build holons that can be used to construct larger and more complex systems, but make each holon as self-sufficient and autonomous as possible. Let's see how this works in the real world, with our economy.
Economic Scale Invariant Holons
The big problem with our modern economy is that it has been integrated into a single global system (or network). There aren't any autonomous and self-sufficient intermediate steps (scale invariant holons), only mutually interdependent parts (company, community, state, nation, etc.). This means that nearly the entire economy must be operating in order for the economy to operate, anything less and the entire thing breaks down (think Fall 2008). The absence of a holonic structure also makes it very difficult to construct new complex systems that can solve equally complex problems.
The solution to this impasse is to create scale invariant holons at intermediate layers within our economy. Or, more simply, the minimum necessary step to building economic scale invariant holons is focus on self sufficiency in the necessities critical to economic life (as opposed to all systems, regardless of criticality) such as: food, energy, water, and many basic products. So where do we start? Given the trends in technology and social structure that are currently underway, the best place to accomplish this goal is as the local community level. To build resilient communities.* Read: Resilient Communities and Scale Invariance for more about how this works.