Experiencing the beauty of collaboration at human scale

Timeless patterns of human limitations

The title of this post is the title of a book project I am working on, to provide organisations with a useful sense of direction, giving them the option to snap out of busyness as usual mode when they are ready. Whether this then happens in a timely manner may vary from case to case. It is not something that anyone has much control over.


As the title suggests, the book is about collaboration, about scale, and about humans, about beauty, and about limits. It has been written from my perspective as an autistic anthropologist by birth and a knowledge archaeologist by autodidactic training.

I attempt to address the challenges of ethical value creation in the Anthropocene. There is no shortage of optimistic books that celebrate human achievements and there is also no shortage of pessimistic books that proclaim the end of the human species. In contrast I approach the Anthropocene from the fringe of human society, from the perspective of someone who does not relate to abstract human group identities.

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson observes that small groups are the organisms within human society – in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our “civilisation” are profound. It is time to curate and share the lessons from autistic people, and help others create good company by pumping value from a dying ideological system into an emerging world.

Since the very beginning civilisation has always been more about a myth of progress than about anything that benefits local communities and families. – except perhaps for the benefit of not being killed as easily by a neighbouring horde of more or less civilised people. Once the history of civilisation is understood as series of progress myths, where each civilisation looks towards earlier or competing civilisations with a yardstick that is tailored to prove that its own myths and achievements are clearly superior to anything that came before, it is possible to identify the loose ends and the work-arounds of civilisation that are usually presented as progress.

The result is a historical narrative that makes for slightly less depressing reading than 10,000 years of conflict and wars. Instead, human history can be understood as a series of learning experiences that present us with the option to break out of the tired, old, and increasingly destructive pattern once it has been recognised. Whether our current global civilisation chooses to complete the familiar pattern of growth and collapse in the usual manner is a question that is up to all of us.

Regardless of what route we choose, on this planet no one is in control. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise accordingly.

To understand why beauty, human scale, collaboration, and limits are essential for human sanity, we only need to look at the ugly reality of super-human scale institutions that currently surround us.

Super-human scale

If you want to read a good book on economics, pick up The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy by Mariana Mazzucato, and if you enjoy engaging your brain while reading you can add The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution by Samuel Bowles for good measure.

For concrete examples of making and taking in the global economy look no further than the wheeling and dealing that Vandana Shiva’s examines in her work. She makes astute observations on the role that Microsoft and other global technology companies play in rolling out intensive industrial agriculture to all corners of the planet.

Beyond the tactic of economic arm-twisting global corporations have perfected the art of accounting, shifting 40% of their profits ($600 billion annually) into tax havens with tax rates from 0% to less than 10%. Governments that represent their people rather than corporate interests would legislate against this practice – but they don’t.

Here is an excellent paper by A. Pluchino. A. E. Biondo, and A. Rapisarda on the intelligence of the economic game and the logic of capital, not even considering the effects of psychopathic social gaming. Synopsis:

On random factors that influence “social success”

there is nowadays an ever greater evidence about the fundamental role of chance, luck or, more in general, random factors, in determining successes or failures in our personal and professional lives. In particular, it has been shown that scientists have the same chance along their career of publishing their biggest hit; that those with earlier surname initials are significantly more likely to receive tenure at top departments; that one’s position in an alphabetically sorted list may be important in determining access to over-subscribed public services; that middle name initials enhance evaluations of intellectual performance; that people with easy-to-pronounce names are judged more positively than those with difficult-to-pronounce names; that individuals with noble-sounding surnames are found to work more often as managers than as employees; that females with masculine monikers are more successful in legal careers; that roughly half of the variance in incomes across persons worldwide is explained only by their country of residence and by the income distribution within that country; that the probability of becoming a CEO is strongly influenced by your name or by your month of birth; and that even the probability of developing a cancer, maybe cutting a brilliant career, is mainly due to simple bad luck.

On the randomness of the distribution of rewards when the logic of capital is applied

In particular, the most successful individual, with Cmax = 2560, has a talent T = 0:61, only slightly greater than the mean value mT = 0:6, while the most talented one (Tmax = 0:89) has a capital/success lower than 1 unit (C = 0:625). As we will see more in detail in the next subsection, such a result is not a special case, but it is rather the rule for this kind of system: the maximum success never coincides with the maximum talent, and vice-versa. Moreover, such a misalignment between success and talent is disproportionate and highly nonlinear. In fact, the average capital of all people with talent T > T is C 20: in other words, the capital/success of the most successful individual, who is moderately gifted, is 128 times greater than the average capital/success of people who are more talented than him. We can conclude that, if there is not an exceptional talent behind the enormous success of some people, another factor is probably at work. Our simulation clearly shows that such a factor is just pure luck.

Meanwhile, while society is stuck in a broken system, what is the best way of allocating R&D funding?

The European Research Council has recently given to the biochemist Ohid Yaqub a 1:7 million US dollars grant to quantify the role of serendipity in science. Yaqub found that it is possible to classify serendipity into four basic types and that there may be important factors affecting its occurrence. His conclusions seem to agree with the believing that the commonly adopted – apparently meritocratic – strategies, which pursuit excellence and drive out diversity, seem destined to be loosing and inefficient. The reason is that they cut out a priori researches that initially appear less promising but that, thanks also to serendipity, could be extremely innovative a posteriori.

… if the goal is to reward the most talented persons (thus increasing their final level of success), it is much more convenient to distribute periodically (even small) equal amounts of capital to all individuals rather than to give a greater capital only to a small percentage of them, selected through their level of success – already reached – at the moment of the distribution. On one hand, the histogram shows that the “egalitarian” criterion, which assigns 1 unit of capital every 5 years to all the individuals is the most efficient way to distributed funds,

The model shows the importance, very frequently underestimated, of lucky events in determining the level of individual success. Since rewards and resources are usually given to those that have already reached a high level of success, mistakenly considered as a measure of competence/talent, this result is even a more harmful disincentive, causing a lack of opportunities for the most talented ones. Our results are a warning against the risks of what we call the “naive meritocracy” which, underestimating the role of randomness among the determinants of success, often fail to give honors and rewards to the most competent people.

Robert Reich does a good job of highlighting the systemic dysfunction, but I cringe when I hear the undercurrent of the American Dream of “getting ahead” by working hard and the related myth that capitalism can be fixed by appropriate levels of regulation and democratic oversight. It seems no one dares to tell the truth to US audiences.

Critical social scientists regularly point out that the entire discipline of psychology is best understood as the study of human behaviour in WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic) cultures. Its identical twin is the discipline of marketing. The cultural bias is extreme. Here is just one example of the flaky foundations and of the bias. I have started to extend WEIRD to WEIRDT : Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic Theatre. Everything in this theatre is about perception – there is no substance or connection to the physical and ecological context outside the theatre.

But the world outside the theatre still exists. This commentary from Noam Chomsky and the timeless quotes from David Hume apply. The notion of governance as perception management and of politics as a theatre of opinions is what I try to highlight in this article on the CIIC blog. Noam Chomsky is correct in pointing out that in the super-human scale democratic theatre the power lies with the governed once the veil of secrecy is blown away. This is extremely important to realise in our society of ubiquitous surveillance and security agencies from state actors. As Noam Chomsky points out, security agencies are designed to secure the interests of the theatre and not the interests of the population. Anyone who still believes that any security agency or secret service is doing a useful job for any society has been conned by the theatre.

Transparency is the ultimate disinfectant in the digital era. But as long as the population believes in the myth of the necessity for state secrets and corporate secrets – which by definition are secrets with super-human scale / scope, the power of transparency will remain dormant. All super-human scale secrets are instruments of systematic abuse. The sooner this is widely understood the sooner the theatre can be confined to the dustbin of history. My dad worked in the diplomatic service, and even though I was one or more levels removed from the content, the ridiculous and delusional self-importance of the diplomats and their ignorance of physical reality was obvious to a 10-year old. As Douglas Rushkoff observes, “Operation Mind Fuck was too successful, but there is a way to bring back a little bit of hope into what we are doing.”

Beliefs in money, debt, institutions, and systems are better thought of as behavioural patterns (habits) than as beliefs that people are genuinely comfortable with. Even most actors within the theatre are suffering from severe cognitive dissonance. Habits that don’t serve us well are usually referred to as addictions. The challenge for the people stuck in the theatre within corporations and other super-human scale institutions lies in overcoming addiction and story withdrawal symptoms.

When the majority of people start to understand that all our super-human scale organisations are part of the theatre transparency can be deployed as a disinfectant for social diseases.

Human scale

The operating models of Buurtzorg and other non-hierarchical and distributed collaborative organisations like S23M are concrete examples of understandable and relatable human scale organisations.

The fact that human scale social operating systems can be constructed on top of corrupt infrastructure is a powerful message. In particular autistic people are increasingly asking me about S23M’s transparent operating model, and I am more than happy to assist them in setting up neurodiventures that provide them with some level of protection from the toxic and delusional theatre around them. By focusing on the human scale outside the theatre we can reconnect with the physical and ecological niche that supports our human needs.

The book project I am working on won’t provide all the answers – that is impossible – but it can equip small groups of people with:

  • critical thinking tools and a language framework that encourages creativity and that assists learning and discovery,
  • as well as an ethical framework that promotes collaboration and knowledge sharing instead of competition.

As part of the project it is necessary to provide an unvarnished account of human history to date. The table of content provides an indication of scope and framing:

  1. Human origins
  2. Human scale patterns
  3. The human lens
  4. Learning
  5. Super-human scale patterns
  6. Loose end : Loss of control
  7. Work-around : Automated labour
  8. Industrial society
  9. Loose end : Exponential growth
  10. Work-around : Computing
  11. Information society
  12. Loose end : Loss of tacit knowledge
  13. Work-around : Busyness
  14. Liquidation society
  15. Loose end : Loss of semantics
  16. Thought experiment : Knowledge society
  17. Addressing the loose ends
  18. Human scale patterns, second edition
  19. Transitioning to human scale
  20. Conclusion

Tools for creating learning organisations

If individual learning seems difficult at times, organisational learning seems elusive or impossible most of the time. In my experience the following tools allow knowledge to flourish at human scale – in the open creative spaces between disciplines and organisational silos:

The SECI knowledge creation spiral is a useful conceptual tool for understanding and improving learning and knowledge flows within organisations. The four SECI activity categories (socialisation, externalisation, combination, internalisation) can be used to describe learning at all levels of organisational scale.


MODA+MODE is a conceptual framework for creating learning organisations that extends the concepts of continuous improvement and the SECI spiral into the realm of knowledge intensive industries, transdisciplinary research and development, and socio-technological innovation. MODA+MODE uses the SECI knowledge creation spiral to release the handbrake on tacit knowledge and creativity by focusing on:

  • sharing and validating knowledge,
  • making knowledge explicit and accessible to humans and software tools,
  • combining shared knowledge in creative ways,
  • transdisciplinary research and development across organisational boundaries.


Open Space Technology is a very simple and highly scalable technique for powering a continuous SECI knowledge creation spiral that breaks through the barriers of organisational boundaries, established silos and management structures.


The human lens provides thirteen categories that are invariant across cultures, space, and time – it provides a visual language and reasoning framework for transdisciplinary collaboration. The human lens allows us to make sense of the world and the natural environment from a human perspective, to evolve our value systems, and to structure and optimise human economic endeavours.


The human lens is comprised of:

  1. The system lens, to support the formalisation and visual representation of knowledge and resource flows in complex socio-technological systems based the three categories of resources, events, and agents (the REA paradigm, an accounting model developed by E.W. McCarthy in 1982 for representing activities in economic ecosystems). The system lens can be applied at all levels of organisational scale, resulting in fractal representations that reflect the available level of tacit knowledge about the modelled systems.
  2. The semantic lens, to support the formalisation and visual representation of values and economic motivations of the agents identified in the systems lens. The semantic lens provides a configuration framework for articulating economic, ethical, and cultural value systems as well as a reasoning framework for evaluating socio-technological system design scenarios and research objectives with the help of the five categories of social, designed, symbolic, organic, and
  3. The logistic lens, to support the formalisation and visual representation of value creating activities and heuristics within socio-technological systems. The logistic lens provides five categories for describing value creating activities: grow (referring to the production of food and energy), make (referring to the design, engineering, and construction of systems), sustain (referring to the maintenance of production and system quality attributes), move (referring to the transportation of resources and flows of information and knowledge), and play (referring to creative experimentation and other social activities). The logistic lens can be used to model and understand feedback loops across levels of scale (from individuals, to teams, organisations, and economic ecosystems) and between economic agents (companies, regulatory bodies, local communities, research institutions, educational institutions, citizens, and governance institutions). The categories of the logistic lens assist in the identification of suitable quantitative metrics for evaluating performance against the value system articulated via a configuration of the semantic lens.

The 26 MODA+MODE backbone principles provide a baseline set of thinking tools to avoid getting entrapped in a single paradigm. Thinking tools are the mental image schemas, frames, and reasoning tools, and also the behavioural patterns that help us to validate knowledge, ask new questions, and form and explore new ideas – the hugely diverse set of tools that different people tap into as part of the creative process. The backbone principles have been sourced from a range of sciences and engineering disciplines, including suitable mathematical foundations.


The 8 prosocial core design principles developed by Elinor Ostrom, Michael Cox and David Sloan Wilson guide the application of evolutionary science to coordinate action, avoid disruptive behaviours among group members, and cultivate appropriate relationships with other groups in a multi-group ecosystem. The pro social design principles provide a good starting point for implementing concrete policies and systems that are specifically adapted to the needs of neurodiverse groups of people and collaboration in transdisciplinary research and development environments.


Neurodivergence is at the core of creativity.

At the moment too many organisations and people are either completely paralysed by fear or are running around like headless chickens as part of busyness as usual. Last weekend I found this great clip from Jonathan Pie in my Twitter feed. You can laugh and cry at the same time.