Life beyond economics

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

People talk about a global ecological crisis, a climate crisis, an economic crisis, an institutional crisis, a pandemic, and a mental health crisis. These crises are highly interconnected.

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of human potential and limitations is not possible from within any single discipline. Not only is each discipline focused on specific aspects of human behaviour, but the different disciplines that examine human behaviour rest on mutually contradictory assumptions about human nature.

Understanding the co-creation of values

Economist Mariana Mazzucato points out that the activities that societies consider “productive” or “valuable” are subject to significant shifts over the decades and centuries. She observes that GDP is a hodge-podge that invites lobbying rather than reasoning about value and that the continuously evolving values within society need to become part of economic reasoning for the discipline of economics to remain relevant.

Mariana Mazzucato also explains why we shouldn’t try to go back to “normal” after the pandemic, but should instead rethink how governments can work together with businesses in partnership to solve big problems. She advocates making use of multi-dimensional metrics to track progress towards desirable goals. Trained in contemporary economics, she does however rely on the implicit assumption that markets are essential tools for coordinating human activities at scale.

It requires a transdisciplinary understanding of human collective behaviour to realise that fungibility of abstract metrics (the currencies that are used to coordinate activities within markets) is a major problem, especially as long as individuals have radically different levels of access to fungible currencies.

The mathematics that optimise markets are blind to externalities, and as long as market based incentives are used, people will look for ways to circumnavigate or co-opt any regulatory constraints to invent new competitive games, thereby shifting or obfuscating rather than reducing externalities.

Understanding humans

Michael Tomasello has spent many years working with children and with chimpanzees to understand the evolution of collaborative behaviour, and to explore how human behaviour differs from the behaviour of other primates. From a recent interview on the foundations of human cultural capability:

“When children produce sweets collaboratively they feel they should share them equally… So if you look at all the things you think are most amazing about humans – we’re building skyscrapers, we have social institutions like governments, we have linguistic symbols, we have math symbols, we have all these things – not one of them is the product of a single mind. These are things that were invented collaboratively…”

A range of simple experiments show that in contrast to chimpanzees, human babies and young human children are highly collaborative, which may come as a surprise to many economists.

However, to understand human creativity and collective intelligence beyond the most basic forms of collaboration, we must look beyond the experiments conducted by Michael Tomasello and his colleagues. To appreciate the full range of human collaborative ability we need to consider the influence of individual neurological variability on sensory processing and social motivations. Unfortunately on this topic Michael Tomasello’s understanding of autistic people is limited to literature references and “autism research” conducted under the pathology paradigm.

In this article I dive into the cultural evolutionary pressures that allowed autistic traits to proliferate and persist, and I rely on personal experiences to illustrate (a) why autists collaborate in ways that differ from “normal” expectations and (b) why we are uniquely equipped to act as catalysts and translators between different cultures and groups.

The innate collaborative human tendency demonstrated by Michael Tomasello is also supported by anthropological research.

Samuel Bowles is an economist that has spent his career researching the origins of economic inequality over the last 100,000 years, and he comes to very interesting conclusions that are consistent with my own understanding of human cultural evolution and my observations on the new forms of collaboration and communication that have become possible in a digitally networked world.

Designing complex collaborations and flows

Our future depends on the adoption of new forms of creative collaboration. The kind of mathematics that can assist us in reasoning about dynamically evolving value systems and the coordination of non-trivial circular resource flows involve groups and graphs rather than numerical calculations.

The ecological lens is a modelling language for evolving ecosystems. It connects the human lens and the evolutionary lens via the activity of play and a critical perspective/motivation. The ecological lens catalyses diversity within the living world from an ecological perspective.

The evolutionary lens is a modelling language for collaborative niche construction. It consists of five categories that correspond to core elements of modern evolutionary theory (selection, variation, replication, understanding, and sustaining). The evolutionary lens allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into the living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems.

The human lens is modelling language for human social behaviour that allows us to understand living systems and to reason about such systems. It consists of thirteen categories that are invariant across cultures, space, and time. The human lens provides a visual language and reasoning framework for transdisciplinary collaboration. The human lens allows us to make sense of the world from a human perspective, to evolve our value systems, and to structure and adapt human endeavours accordingly.

Within the human lens the logistic lens provides five categories for describing value creating activities: grow (referring to the production of food and energy), make (referring to the engineering, and construction of systems), care (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 agents (companies, regulatory bodies, local communities, research institutions, educational institutions, citizens, and governance institutions).

From wealth to good health

The categories of the logistic lens assist in the identification of suitable quantitative metrics for evaluating performance against a multi-dimensional value system articulated via a configuration of the semantic lens (the five categories of social, designed, symbolic, organic, and critical).

In the transition from a paradigm of economics based on competition to a to an ecology of care based on collaboration we will incrementally discover valuable metrics of health, well being, and waste flows, and we will become less and less concerned about abstract and potentially misleading metrics of wealth accumulation.

In an ecology of care the focus shifts from speculative investments for profit (where the people actively involved in a venture are viewed as tools towards a profitable “exit”) to investments in the health of ecosystems and people (where the people actively involved in a venture are co-investing in each other, resulting in a network of trusted relationships that connects the venture into an ecosystem of multi-dimensional resource flows between suppliers, customers, and partners).

Our society faces the unprecedented challenge of making a transition towards significantly different values within a single generation. This is the real challenge, rather than finding our way back to a state of “normal” that only ever worked for a very small minority.

From an ecological perspective waste flows are destined to emerge as the most critical flows that need to be tracked and quantified meticulously. It will also make sense to quantify selected biological health metrics, but it may not make much sense to attempt to quantify all aspects of well being.

Reading list

Beyond the articles and talks referenced in the article, below is a list of related books and background articles:

Atkins P. W. B. et al., Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups, Context Press, 2019

Babák D., Management of People: Weird and Feared, Da Vinci Institute, 2013

Bauwens M. et al., Peer to Peer : The Commons Manifesto, University of Westminster Press, 2019

Benyus J., Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, William Morrow Paperbacks, 1997

Bowles S. and Gintis H., A Cooperative Species : Human Reciprocity and its Evolution, Princeton University Press, 2013

Bowles S., The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution, Cambridge University Press, 2012

Costanza-Chock S, Design Justice : Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, MIT Press, 2020

Eisler R. et al., Nurturing Our Humanity : How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future, Oxford University Press, 2019

Everard M., The Ecosystems Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016

Graeber D., Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Melville House Publishing, 2011

Kropotkin P., Mutual Aid : A Factor of Evolution, 1902

Mazzucato M., The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy, Public Affairs, 2018

Milton, D., On the ontological status of autism: The “double empathy problem.”, Disability & Society, 27(6), 883–887, 2012

Milton, D., Embodied sociality and the conditioned relativism of dispositional diversity, Autonomy, the Critical Journal of Interdisciplinary Autism Studies, 1(3), 1–7, 2014

Milton, D., Autistic expertise: A critical reflection on the production of knowledge in autism studies, Autism, 18(7), 794–802, 2014

Paul R. A., Mixed Messages : Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Society, University of Chicago Press, 2015

Pluchino A., Biondoy A. E., Rapisardaz A., Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure, [physics.soc-ph], 2018

Reinhartz-Berger, I. et al., Domain Engineering : Product Lines, Languages, and Conceptual Models, Springer, 2013

Saijo T. et al., Future Design: Incorporating Preferences of Future Generations for Sustainability, Springer, 2020

Schumacher E. F., Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Harper Perennial, 1973

Stanish C., The Evolution of Human Co-operation : Ritual and Social Complexity in Stateless Societies, Cambridge University Press, 2017

Tomasello M., Why We Cooperate, Boston Review Books, 2009

Tomasello M., Becoming Human : A Theory of Ontogeny, Harvard University Press, 2019

Wahl D.C., Designing Regenerative Cultures, Triarchy Press, 2016

Wilson D. S., Does Altruism Exist?, Yale University Press, 2015

Wilson D.S., This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, Pantheon Books, 2019

Yergeau, M., Authoring autism: On rhetoric and neurological queerness, Duke University Press, 2017

Collaboration for dummies

Photo by Pepe Reyes on Unsplash

In a W.E.I.R.D. social world where anything that requires an attention span beyond 5 minutes is ignored in favour of short memes, silver bullets, and artificially “intelligent” systems, this article intends to provide an emergency brake to slow us down to a speed that allows critical self reflection.

Replace the toxic language of bu$yness

Instead of telling people what you think they would love to hear, tell people what they need to know. Step outside the box of the established social and economic paradigm by adopting a life affirming working definition of collective intelligence that is not confined to the distorted characterisation of human potential that dominates in W.E.I.R.D. cultures.

The journey towards a healthier relationship with the ecosystems which we are part of starts with the most powerful tool at our disposal, the introduction and consistent use of new language and new semantics. Additionally the insights encapsulated in the 10 Design Justice Principles can assist in learning how to unW.E.I.R.D. our societies.

Note: This recommendation must be applied literally. Continuing to use the old language when interacting with established institutions and the dominant culture renders the effort useless.

Think long-term

Instead of aiming for “low hanging fruit”, build trusted relationships around long-term goals.

It can be helpful to learn from outsiders and members of minorities. Onondaga Chief and Faithkeeper Oren Lyons describes a collaboration between indigenous nations that has a history that predates European “discovery” by over thousand years, and that has survived until today. The culture he describes is one example of a number of indigenous societies that have traditionally operated with a 150 year or longer look-ahead time horizon. 

Recently I was delighted to read about a company here in Aotearoa that operates on a 500 year time horizon. S23M, our employee owned NeurodiVenture is 19 years old. Our measure of success is tied to a 200+ year time horizon.

Note: Time horizons shorter than 150 years encourage tribalism and counter-productive competition between groups.

Enjoy interdependence

Instead of generating “profit”, nurture relationships at human scale – with humans and with other forms of life.

The notion of disability in our society is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence”. Humans have evolved to live in highly collaborative groups, with strong interdependencies between individuals and in many cases between groups.

In our pre-civilised past all human groups were small, and interdependence and the need for mutual assistance was obvious to all members of a group.

The tools of civilisation, including money, have undermined our appreciation of interdependence, and within the Western world have culminated in a toxic cult of competitive individualism, which ironically leads to extreme levels of groupthink.

Evolutionary biologists consider small groups to be the organisms of human societies. This has massive implications for the gene-culture co-evolution that characterises our species.

Humans are not the first hyper-social species on this planet. Insects such as ants offer great examples of successful collaboration at immense scale over millions of years. Charles Darwin and other early proponents of evolutionary theory appreciated the role of collaboration within species and between species, but many of these early insights including related empirical observations have been suppressed within the hyper-competitive narrative that has come to dominate industrialised civilisation.

Note: Robin Dunbar’s observations on human cognitive limits apply. In a transactional world, collective intelligence goes down the drain. Hierarchical organisations with several thousand staff tend to act less intelligently than a single individual, and as group size grows further, intelligence tends towards zero.

Clamp down on meritocracy

Instead of establishing a “meritocracy“, catalyse the emergence of an egalitarian culture.

All forms of meritocracy result in toxic in-group competition and prevent knowledge from flowing to places where it can be put to good use.

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” – David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson (2007)

Remove all incentives for in-group competition. Share risks and rewards equally, and encourage people to share their individual competency networks, without aggregating the data to determine rankings that interfere with the emergence of collective intelligence.

“Pay for merit, pay for what you get, reward performance. Sounds great, can’t be done. Unfortunately it can not be done, on short range. After 10 years perhaps, 20 years, yes. The effect is devastating. People must have something to show, something to count. In other words, the merit system nourishes short-term performance. It annihilates long-term planning. It annihilates teamwork. People can not work together. To get promotion you’ve got to get ahead. By working with a team, you help other people. You may help yourself equally, but you don’t get ahead by being equal, you get ahead by being ahead. Produce something more, have more to show, more to count. Teamwork means work together, hear everybody’s ideas, fill in for other people’s weaknesses, acknowledge their strengths. Work together. This is impossible under the merit rating / review of performance system. People are afraid. They are in fear. They work in fear. They can not contribute to the company as they would wish to contribute. This holds at all levels. But there is something worse than all of that. When the annual ratings are given out, people are bitter. They can not understand why they are not rated high. And there is a good reason not to understand. Because I could show you with a bit of time that it is purely a lottery. – W Edwards Deming (1984)

The notions of management and leadership are entangled with the anthropocentric conception of civilisation. In a hierarchical structure most people abandon their sense of agency and the need to think critically on a daily basis.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― Buckminster Fuller (1975)

The path to escape the box of a sick society involves rediscovering timeless and minimalistic principles for coordinating creative collaboration in the absence of capital and hierarchical structures:

  1. Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
  2. Unlock valuable tacit knowledge within a group.
  3. Provide a space for creative freedom.
  4. Help repair frayed relationships.
  5. Replace fear with courage.

Note: As long as an organisation describes itself with a pyramidal organisational chart it projects a not-very-subtle-at-all signal that management by fear is to be tolerated by and is expected of anyone who joins.

Avoid distractions

Instead of “competing in the market”, build trusted relationships with other human scale groups.

Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus (homo) is the genus that includes all cultural species.

The main difference between modern emergent human scale cultural species and prehistoric human scale cultural species lies in the language systems and communication technologies that are being used to coordinate activities and to record and transmit knowledge within cultural organisms, between cultural organisms, and between cultural species.

Collaborative niche construction allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and results in resilient social ecosystems. A few statistics from the Wikipedia list of oldest companies should provide food for thought:

  • According to a report published by the Bank of Korea in 2008 that looked at 41 countries, there were 5,586 companies older than 200 years. Of these, 3,146 (56%) are in Japan.
  • Of the companies with more than 100 years of history, most of them (89%) employ fewer than 300 people.
  • A nationwide Japanese survey counted more than 21,000 companies older than 100 years as of September 30, 2009.

Note: The fragile economic mono-cultures that emerge from competition are prone to boom and bust cycles – the net effect is a waste of precious time and scarce resources.

Share knowledge

Instead of hoarding and “monetising information”, distil patterns from your human scale environment and use an advice process to filter out the noise – only share trustworthy knowledge.

In a good company coordination and organisational learning happens without any need for social power structures. Before making a major decision that affects others:

  1. A person has to seek advice from at least one trusted colleague with potentially relevant or complementary knowledge or expertise.
  2. Giving advice is optional. It is okay to admit lack of expertise. This enables the requestor to proceed on the basis of the available evidence.
  3. Following advice is optional. The requestor may ignore advice if she/he believes that all things considered there is a better approach or solution. Not receiving advice in a timely manner is deemed equivalent to no relevant advice being available within the organisation. This allows everyone to balance available wisdom with first hand learning and risk taking.

Note: When all your trusted collaborators engage in this practice, the result is a growing network of individual competency networks.


The real opportunity for human society and human organisations lies not in the invention of ever “smarter” forms of in-group competition, but in the recognition of human cognitive limits, and in the recognition of the priceless value that resides in competency networks.

For the first time, the age of digital networks enables us to construct cognitive assistants that help us to nurture and maintain globally distributed human scale competency networks – networks of mutual trust. It is time to tap into this potential and to combine it with the potential of zero-marginal cost global communication and collaboration.

A simple advice process establishes the vital feedback loops that enable organisations to learn and adapt in a timely manner, even in a highly dynamic context.

If you replace the toxic language of bu$yness, think long-term, enjoy interdependence, clamp down on meritocracy, avoid distractions, and share knowledge, you can relax. No one is in control. Mistakes happen on this planet all the time.

Like bees and ants, humans are eusocial animals. Through the lenses of evolutionary biology and cultural evolution, small groups of 20 to 100 people are the primary organisms within human society – in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our civilisation are profound, a topic that I explore in detail in my new book The beauty of collaboration at human scale – Timeless patterns of human limitations, which is now in the peer review stage.