This is really intended as a side-bar to draw together a few related concepts: Gaia theory, fractals, and complex adaptive systems. If you’re already familiar with all three, you may want to skip this post and go read this, instead.
Benoît Mandelbrot famously coined the term fractal in 1975 to describe shapes or patterns which replicate at different scales, so that each part contains a representation of the whole.
It turns out lots of patterns in nature are fractal and lots of patterns in human behaviour and human organisations are also fractal.
For example, the process of project management is essentially fractal. The five main process groups for a project are defined in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK), as:
- Monitoring and controlling
And projects tend to be iterative, so we can apply these five process groups to any part of the project, as well as to the whole project.
As Dr Mandelbrot points out in the video above, a cauliflower is also fractal.
This does not imply that a project is a cauliflower, or vice versa.
In his 1979 book, Gaia: a new look at life on earth, James Lovelock proposed a way of thinking of the earth as a complex collection of interdependent elements working together to maintain the planet in a healthy dynamic equilibrium.
In effect, this is very similar to thinking of the earth as a single living ecosystem or organism. Just as a body has organs, sensory systems, immune systems, neurological systems, all working together to keep the body healthy, so we can think of ecosystems in the same way.
Complex adaptive systems
In it’s most basic form, if we think of a single animal or plant as a complex collection of cells, then we think of a large group of animals and plants together to form an ecosystem, we find that the single animal and the ecosystem both have quite a lot of characteristics in common – both may be described as a CAS.
Similarly, when large numbers of human beings group together to form an organisation, a market, a nation, or something bigger, that’s also a CAS.
It’s interesting to note all these theories emerged in the ’70s, within a few years of each other. Maybe this is an example of the 100th monkey phenomenon, or just an emergent property of going to rock concerts during the ’60s.