Emergent patterns in nature and society

Social-ecological system

What Are Leaders Really For? – Duncan Watts

A week ago I had an interesting discussion with Jon Norberg about leadership. Jon is doing, among other things, an agent based model about how leaders influence opinion change in social networks. He’s been inspired by one of the iconic examples of transformation in resilience science: the case of the governance system of Kristianstads Vattenrike in Southern Sweden.

I have to confess that I’ve been skeptic when it comes to leadership. My feeling is that the literature give too much importance to key individuals, the product of history tends to fall in the actions of few key individuals that acted in the right moment bridging organization or spreading initiatives. I don’t find it surprisingly given the fact that much of us grow up watching Captain America and Superman. What a good times. Anyways, the literature on complex adaptive systems have address the same issue from another perspective: swarm dynamics – how emergent patterns rise from local interactions between agents. In a swarm, any individual could be an agent of change. All it has to do is following the rules and send the right signals in the right moment to scale up the movement of the swarm or the flock and avoid predators or mountains. On this perspective, leaders are not super heros, but rather individual with agency (the power to produce change locally) that act accordingly with the signals of its own context and the network structure. In that sense, Hitler or Gandhi were not driving the change, rather they were part of it, they were rather driven by the bubbling of the social activity of their time. Jon told me that both versions belong to different schools of thought in sociology, which names I can’t recall at this moment.

Today, Duncan Watts, on of the authors on my to read list, wrote something similar that illustrate the issue of leadership inspired on the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here is his blogpost from Harvard Business Review, I copied all so you don’t miss the details (source: What Are Leaders Really For? – Duncan Watts – Harvard Business Review.)

The Occupy Wall Street movement has both perplexed and frustrated observers and analysts by its persistent refusal to nominate an identifiable leadership who can in turn articulate a coherent agenda. What is the point, these critics wonder, of a movement that can’t figure out where it’s trying to go, and how can it get there without anyone to lead it?

It’s a reasonable question, but it says at least as much about what we want from our social movements as it does about the way movements actually succeed.

Typically, the way we think of social change is some variant of the “great man” theory of history: that remarkable events are driven by correspondingly remarkable individuals whose vision and leadership inspire and coordinate the actions of the many. Sometimes these individuals occupy traditional roles of leadership, like presidents, CEOs, or generals, while at other times they emerge from the rank and file; but regardless of where they come from, their presence is necessary for real social change to begin. As Margaret Meade is supposed to have said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

It’s an inspiring idea, but over 100 years ago in his early classic of social psychology, “The Crowd,” the French social critic Gustave LeBon, argued that the role of the leader was more subtle and indirect. According to LeBon, it was the crowd, not the princes and generals, that had become the driving force of social change. Leaders still mattered, but it wasn’t because they themselves put their shoulders to the wheel of history; rather it was because they were quick to recognize the forces at work and adept at placing themselves in the forefront.

Even before LeBon, no less an observer of history than Tolstoy presented an even more jaundiced view of the great man theory. In a celebrated essay on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin summed up Tolstoy’s central insight this way: “the higher the soldiers or statesmen are in the pyramid of authority, the farther they must be from its base, which consists of those ordinary men and women whose lives are the actual stuff of history; and, consequently, the smaller the effect of the words and acts of such remote personages, despite all their theoretical authority, upon that history.” According to Tolstoy, in other words, the accounts of historians are borderline fabrications, glossing over the vast majority of what actually happens in favor of a convenient storyline focused on the skill and leadership of the great generals.

Thinkers like Le Bon and Tolstoy and Berlin therefore lead us to a radically alternative hypothesis of social change: that successful movements succeed for reasons other than the presence of a great leader, who is as much a consequence of the movement’s success as its cause. Explanations of historically important events that focus on the actions of a special few therefore misunderstand their true causes, which are invariably complex and often depend on the actions of a great many individuals whose names are lost to history.

Interestingly, in the natural world we don’t find this sort of explanation controversial. When we hear that a raging forest fire has consumed millions of acres of California forest, we don’t assume that there was anything special about the initial spark. Quite to the contrary, we understand that in context of the large-scale environmental conditions — prolonged drought, a buildup of flammable undergrowth, strong winds, rugged terrain, and on so — that truly drive fires, the nature of the spark itself is close to irrelevant.

Yet when it comes to the social equivalent of the forest fire, we do in effect insist that there must have been something special about the spark that started it. Because our experience tells us that leadership matters in small groups such as Army platoons or start-up companies, we assume that it matters in the same way for the very largest groups as well. Thus when we witness some successful movement or organization, it seems obvious to us that whoever the leader is, his or her particular combination of personality, vision, and leadership style must have supplied the critical X factor, where the larger and more successful the movement, the more important the leader will appear.

By refusing to name a leader, Occupy Wall Street presents a challenge to this view. With no one figure to credit or blame, with no face to put on a sprawling inchoate movement, and with no hierarchy of power, we simply don’t know how to process what “it” is, and therefore how to think about it. And because this absence of a familiar personality-centric narrative makes us uncomfortable, we are tempted to reject the whole thing as somehow not real. Or instead, we insist that in order to be taken seriously, the movement must first change to reflect what we expect from serious organizations — namely a charismatic leader to whom we can attribute everything.

In the case of Occupy Wall Street, we will probably get our wish, for two reasons. First, if OWS grows large enough to deliver any lasting social change, some hierarchy will become necessary in order to coordinate its increasingly diverse activities; and a hierarchy by nature requires a leader. And second, precisely because the outside world wants a leader — to negotiate with, to hold responsible, and ultimately to lionize — the temptation to be that person will eventually prove irresistible.

Leaders, in other words, are necessary, but not because they are the source of social change. Rather their real function is to occupy the role that allows the rest of us to make sense of what is happening — just as Tolstoy suspected. For better and worse, telling stories is how we make sense of the world, and it’s hard to tell a story without focal actors around which to center the action. But as we witness a succession of popular movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, we can at least pause to appreciate the real story, which is the remarkable phenomenon of a great many ordinary individuals coming together to change the world.

As a final thought, I don’t think leaders actually drive social change, at least when it comes to opinion formation and value change that has driven transformations in governance systems of   Kristianstads or the Great Coral Reef cases. The “transformations” were rather driven by a self-organization of the system itself, it was ready for change. Leaders played a role on the course of action that history take, on the developing of the facts. But as the forest fire example proposed by Watts, it is more the change in slow variables rather than the spark what dominate the dynamics of fire. A more relevant question is then, what are the slow variables that underly regime shifts in society?


Climate change and conflict – violence

It’s becoming a trendy topic, the connection between future climate scenarios and conflict, violence and terrorism. Some quotes from The Guardian – Climate change will increase threat of war, Chris Huhne [UK climate secretary] to warn:

“Climate change is a threat multiplier. It will make unstable states more unstable, poor nations poorer, inequality more pronounced, and conflict more likely,” Huhne is expected to say in a speech to defence experts. “And the areas of most geopolitical risk are also most at risk of climate change.”


His comparison of climate change and terrorism echoes Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser to the government who warned in 2004 that global warning posed “a bigger threat than terrorism”. The warning so incensed the then US president George W Bush that he phoned Tony Blair to ask him to gag the scientist.


Climate change intensifies security threats in three ways: increasing competition for resources; more natural and humanitarian disasters, such as the droughts now causing famine in Africa, which will also lead to mass migration and the conflicts that ensue; and threats to the security of energy supplies.

The recently published book Tropic of Chaos: Climate change and the New Geography of Violence by Christian Parenti seems to be on the same line of thought. Although disentangling causality from a bunch of case studies is a delicate issue, by looking at the TOC’s one get some curiosity on his arguments on the links between e.g. monsoons, droughts, CPR dilemmas -cattle, water management- and particular syndromes of violence in different places of the planet. The interested reader may have a look at his interview on Grist: Packing heat: Why violence boils over on a warming planet. He for example picked up on the link between food crises and the Arab spring also reported by Bar-Yam and Homer-Dixon on a previous post here. Such linkages reinforces my idea that the frequency of disturbance is a key component on a regime shift archetype that operationalize the link between social and ecological processes. Let’s see how the idea evolves. In the meanwhile, I’ll need an extra summer to catch up my readings list.

Geoffrey West: The surprising math of cities and corporations | Video

TED video on the scaling laws of cities by Geoffrey West, distinguished professor at Santa Fe Institute. Inspiring words on entropy and how super-linearity may drive urban systems towards unexpected collapse. Counter-intuitive and catchy. Another good reason to look at regime shifts in cities. What can we learn from scaling and how can we apply networks in a creative and useful way?

Geoffrey West: The surprising math of cities and corporations | Video on TED.com.

Poverty traps and regime shifts

This reflections are dedicated to the memory of Andrés “El Negro” Portilla , a colombian ecologist who left us last week. It was a pleasure to share a classroom, friends and a dream. Now he is gone, now we miss another team mate; the least we can do is work harder and try to fulfill the gap he leaves behind. An impossible task though.

Two weeks ago we held an inspiring seminar on the relationship of poverty traps and regime shifts. It was organized by two of my colleagues: Hanna Larsson and Olivia Puill. They both work on the Sahel, a region in Africa where poverty is not only on the books. Our discussions were guided by Poverty trap formed by the ecology of infectious diseases by Bonds et al (2009) and Fractal Poverty traps by Barret and Shallow (2006).

First I gave an introduction to what a regime shift is, or at least our working definition, and how it is related with the concept of poverty traps. A poverty trap is “any self-reinforcing mechanism which causes poverty to persist”. Martin Scheffer is probably not the first one on suggesting poverty traps as a social regime shift, but he is for sure one of the scholars who recently wrote it down in his book Critical Transitions (2009):

“More recently, new theories have emerged that may explain persistent poverty. They have addressed the puzzling existence of apparent poverty traps on various scales showing how poor economies may fail to develop altogether, why subgroups in rich economies may fail to share prosperity, and why a poor person may be unable to accumulate capital in a given society. The overall image is that a number of different mechanisms may be involved. For instance, on the level of countries, corruption and organized crime may keep entire societies in an impoverished state, and for various other reasons, poor economies may simply be unable to produce the level of human and physical capital to achieve a certain kind of economic organization needed to escape the poor state. Within societies, positive feedback may maintain inequality in power and wealth. At the individual of family level, income may all be needed for food and shelter, allowing no investment in education or setting up a small business. Although the issue is complex, many of the models in this field lead to the prediction of a threshold of poverty that separates the poverty trap from an alternative richer condition”

Poverty traps can be understood as a social regime shift dynamic with inherent cycles. However, the tricky part for me is when it become useful to address poverty as a social dynamic system coupled with ecological dynamics; or when is it an external source of noise. For example, in Bonds et al paper it is clear that poverty dynamics are coupled with disease outbreaks. Hence, one can not manage one without the other. But it is not always the case. Literature on desertification and drylands degradation often refers to poverty as an important driver of change. However, a meta-analysis of case studies shows that although poverty is present on a number of cases, their influence may not be as strong as other drivers. Poverty/environmental issues are hard to generalize.

In the fisheries case, one may think that poverty undermine cooperation and exacerbate the common pool resource dilemma. Given that roughly half of the total world annual catch is made by small scale artisanal fishermen, poverty is not an minor issue. The problem is, how strong is poverty as driver of change for regime shifts? and how it interact wit other regime shifts drivers at different scales?

“Fractal poverty traps involve multiple dynamic equilibria that exist simultaneously at multiple (micro, meso, and/or macro) scales of analysis such that they are self-reinforcing through feedback effects […] The challenge posed by fractal poverty traps is that interventions need to be simultanously applied at all scales where low-productivity strategies reinforce one another” (Barret & Shallow 2006)

The idea of fractal poverty traps, or interacting poverty traps nested in scale reminds me the idea of panarchy. Although it is keep as a working hypothesis on Barret & Shallow paper, it gives light on possible ways to tackle the scale inter-dependency problem. In fact, most of our discussions focused on how to bring poverty traps from individual and household level to the country one. What aspects of poverty worth to be measured to operationalize such cross scale interactions? Dollars per day is definitely not a good proxy. One of the ideas that pop up during the conversation emphasized on assessing the distance among rich and poor during time to get a better sense of regional – national dynamics.

Poverty traps has been heavily studied at the micro and meso scales. Poverty traps at the household level has been attributed to lack of initial investments, risk aversion, weak credit and insurance markets. At the meso scale, factors leading to poverty traps includes social capital (corruption), lack of infrastructure (e.g. roads) or war. These factors typically leads to failures such as childhood undernutrition, illness, lack of education, and environmental degradation. All combined further reduce the probability of getting out the trap.

“The concept of fractal poverty traps implies a need (i) to broaden poverty analysis beyond the familiar micro-macro dychotomy prevalent in economics so as to take intermediate scales of aggregation seriously, (ii) to address appropriate roles for subnational scale institutions in poverty reduction strategies, and (iii) to consider how investments at any particular scale are shaped not only by the direct returns associated with asset accumulation or productivity growth at that scale, but also by prospective indirect effects resulting from how investment at one scale might affect thresholds and patterns of asset accumulation or productivity growth at other scales”(Barret & Shallow 2006)

Marta Berbéz-Blázquez, a colleague that join us through skype, point out that the fractal poverty trap hypothesis is missing the strong component of path dependency. In other words, above the national level there is inter-countries relationships that have shape the inequalities between the north and the south. History matters. Colonization in the past and industrial interest today (getting ecosystem services from poor countries to the north) through markets and trade systems are reinforcing the asymmetry between rich and poor. How to study and how to deal with this feedback is a promising area of research.

The interested reader may want to have a look at:

  1. Poverty traps by Samuel Bowles, Steven N. Durlauf, & Karla Hoff
  2. More than good intentions: How a new economist is helping to solve global poverty by Dean Karlan, Jacob Appel. You can also read the review of the later in the freakonmics blog here.

Water changes everything

I’m preparing a blogpost on poverty traps and regime shifts inspired in a seminar we held some days ago in the Resilience Centre. As an appetitive, here is a video exemplifying some of the key feedback mechanisms at the household level of water related poverty traps. Enjoy it and happy Earth’s day!!

The coral triangle

Thanks to German Quimbayo, Colombian ecologist, for the lead to this video that shortly summarize what is driven socio-ecological system degradation on the coral triangle. Both native communities and coral biodiversity are coupled in a failure trajectory.

People of the Coral Triangle from James Morgan Photography on Vimeo.