The term “loosely connected systems” popped out during a talk with a friend about the Transition Town phenomenon. Curious, I traced the concept back to a paper by Karl E. Weick during the heydey of systems thinking i 1976. I’m not sure whether Rob Hopkins and the other co-originators were aware of loosely concepted systems when they were developing Transition. However, in retrospect, it appears to be a perfect organizational architecture. It goes a long way toward explaining the rapid adoption of the model throughout the world. // For comparison, I’ve included some excerpt/links about other contemporary loosely coupled systems.

Click on the headline (link) for the full text.

Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage.

Transition Towns: Local networking for global sustainability?

Jonathan Balls, University of Cambridge via Energy Bulletin

The Transition Model has advanced a pathway towards ‘local sustainability’ distinct from previous sustainability models in a clear and important way: it is a grassroots, non-governmental model and also a networking movement. Still in its infancy, and with little academic attention so far having specifically focused on it; there is a clear gap in understanding of the Transition Model’s role in relation to (local) sustainability, which this research has sought to bridge. …
Transition Towns in Context

… While local sustainability has become a politically important discursive goal, in practice neither top-down governmental nor grassroots community models have gained widespread uptake or success: the former have failed to connect with or involve a grassroots public; the latter generally have few resources and limited capacity.

It is in this context that the Transition Model is interesting. A non-governmental community-led model: Transition advances an action-based approach, comparable to community sustainability models. Yet, with a fast growing network of Initiatives, Transition is much closer to the top-down governmental models. Transition combines the advantages of an organic support base, with the capacity and resources of a networking organisation.

… Social Movements and Networking:

Social movement theory helps explain how the Transition Model has built up grassroots support, bringing in new community-based Initiatives at an exponential rate across space and time.

… Pepper (1984) speaks of the period in the late-1970’s to early-1980’s when a series of ‘drop-out’ communities formed, seeking to re-establish close and fundamental ties with nature and ‘mother-earth’. Transition is in many respects ideologically and theoretically comparable to such models; however it differs in that it has spawned a network, becoming a ‘viral social movement’.

… Through this research, I have come to understand that the internet is crucial for networking. On this issue, the work of Gary Alexander (2000, 2004) was useful. He sees online tools facilitating a ‘sustainable collaborative economy’; where the internet is shifting the economy towards collaboration and community, based on trust and with respect for the environment, rather than competition and individualism. Central to this in his view, are “grassroots and civil society initiatives linking together.” (Alexander, 2004:2), which through the internet are “beginning to form a network of networks, a co-operative of co-operatives.” (Alexander, 2004:14). …
(Apr 3 2010)

Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems
Karl E. Weick, Administrative Science Quarterly
In contrast to the prevailing image that elements in or-ganizations are coupled through dense, tight linkages, it is proposed that elements are often tied together frequently and loosely. Using educational organizations as a case in point, it is argued that the concept of loose coupling incorporates a surprising number of disparate observa-tions about organizations, suggests novel functions, creates stubborn problems for methodologists, and gen-erates intriguing questions for scholars. Sample studies of loose coupling are suggested and research priorities are posed to foster cumulative work with this concept.1

… POTENTIAL FUNCTIONS AND DYSFUNCTIONS OF LOOSE COUPLING It is important to note that the concept of loose coupling need not be used normatively. People who are steeped in the conventional literature of organizations may regard loose coupling as a sin or something to be apologized for. This paper takes a neutral, if not mildly affectionate, stance toward the concept. Apart from whatever affect one might feel to-ward the idea of loose coupling, it does appear a priori that certain functions can be served by having a system in which the elements are loosely coupled. Below are listed seven potential functions that could be associated with loose cou-pling plus additional reasons why each advantage might also be a liability. The dialectic generated by each of these opposi-tions begins to suggest dependent variables that should be sensitive to variations in the tightness of coupling. The basic argument of Glassman (1973) is that loose coupling allows some portions of an organization to persist. Loose coupling lowers the probability that the organization will have to-or be able to-respond to each little change in the envi-ronment that occurs

… A third function is that a loosely coupled system may be a good system for localized adaptation. If all of the elements in a large system are loosely coupled to one another, then any Loosely Coupled Systems one element can adjust to and modify a local unique con-tingency

… Fourth, in loosely coupled systems where the identity, uniqueness, and separateness of elements is preserved, the system potentially can retain a greater number of mutations and novel solutions than would be the case with a tightly coupled system. A loosely coupled system could preserve more “cultural insurance” to be drawn upon in times of radical change than in the case for more tightly coupled sys-tems. Loosely coupled systems may be elegant solutions to the problem that adaptation can preclude adaptability. When a specific system fits into an ecological niche and does so with great success, this adaptation can be costly. It can be costly because resouces which are useless in a current environment might deteriorate or disappear even though they could be crucial in a modified environment. It is conceivable that loosely coupled systems preserve more diversity in respond-ing than do tightly coupled systems, and therefore can adapt to a considerably wider range of changes in the environment than would be true for tightly coupled systems.
(Mar., 1976)
The classic paper.
Karl E. Weick (Wikipedia)
Relfections on the paper by Weick

Summary of the Weick paper

Keith Rollag, Babson College
In this paper Weick uses the US educational system as an example of how loosely coupled systems are both prevalent and important for organizational function. Understanding an organization as a loose coupling of actors, rewards, and technology may help better explain how organizations adapt to their environments and survive amidst uncertainties.

Weick observes that manifests of loosely coupled systems often are:
* situations where several means can produce the same result
* lack of coordination
* absence of regulations
* highly connect networks with very slow feedback times

While these manifests appear negative, they actually may help the organization by:
* allowing the organization to temporarily persist through rapid environmental fluctuations
* improving the organization’s sensitivity to the environment
* allowing local adaptations and creative solutions to develop
* allow sub-system breakdown without damaging the entire organization
* allow more self-determination by actors

In general, loosely coupled systems probably are cheaper to coordinate, but are very difficult to systematically change.
(no date)

Web 2.0 and Permaculture – making the connections

Sequoia Hax, Shower in the Dark
Dedicated to Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture

Tim O’Reilly’s 8 Web 2.0 design patterns:

… 3. Users Add Value – The key to competitive advantage in internet applications is the extent to which users add their own data to that which you provide. Therefore: Don’t restrict your “architecture of participation” to software development. Involve your users both implicitly and explicitly in adding value to your application.

4. Network Effects by Default – Only a small percentage of users will go to the trouble of adding value to your application. Therefore: Set inclusive defaults for aggregating user data as a side-effect of their use of the application.

5. Some Rights Reserved – Intellectual property protection limits re-use and prevents experimentation. Therefore: When benefits come from collective adoption, not private restriction, make sure that barriers to adoption are low. Follow existing standards, and use licenses with as few restrictions as possible. Design for “hackability” and “remixability.”

6. The Perpetual Beta – When devices and programs are connected to the internet, applications are no longer software artifacts, they are ongoing services. Therefore: Don’t package up new features into monolithic releases, but instead add them on a regular basis as part of the normal user experience. Engage your users as real-time testers, and instrument the service so that you know how people use the new features.

7. Cooperate, Don’t Control – Web 2.0 applications are built of a network of cooperating data services. Therefore: Offer web services interfaces and content syndication, and re-use the data services of others. Support lightweight programming models that allow for loosely-coupled systems.

… David Holmgren’s 12 Permaculture design principles (paraphrased):

1. observe and interact – engage in continuous observation and reciprocal interaction with the design subject
2. catch and store energy – use existing wealth to make long-term investments in natural capital
3. obtain a yield – use captured and stored energy to maintain the system and capture more energy, i.e. to obtain a yield
(24 July 2007)

WikiLeaks and Hacktivist Culture

Peter Ludlow, The Nation
In recent months there has been considerable discussion about the WikiLeaks phenomenon, and understandably so, given the volume and sensitivity of the documents the website has released. What this discussion has revealed, however, is that the media and government agencies believe there is a single protagonist to be concerned with—something of a James Bond villain, if you will—when in fact the protagonist is something altogether different: an informal network of revolutionary individuals bound by a shared ethic and culture.

According to conventional wisdom, the alleged protagonist is, of course, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and the discussion of him has ranged from Raffi Khatchadourian’s June portrait in The New Yorker, which makes Assange sound like a master spy in a John le Carré novel, to Tunku Varadarajan’s epic ad hominem bloviation in The Daily Beast: “With his bloodless, sallow face, his lank hair drained of all color, his languorous, very un-Australian limbs, and his aura of blinding pallor that appears to admit no nuance, Assange looks every inch the amoral, uber-nerd villain.”

Some have called for putting Assange “out of business” (even if we must violate international law to do it), while others, ranging from Daniel Ellsberg to Assange himself, think he is (in Ellsberg’s words) “in some danger.” I don’t doubt that Assange is in danger, but even if he is put out of business by arrest, assassination or character impeachment with charges of sexual misconduct, it would not stanch the flow of secret documents into the public domain. To think otherwise is an error that reflects a colossal misunderstanding of the nature of WikiLeaks and the subculture from which it emerged.

WikiLeaks is not the one-off creation of a solitary genius; it is the product of decades of collaborative work by people engaged in applying computer hacking to political causes, in particular, to the principle that information-hoarding is evil—and, as Stewart Brand said in 1984, “Information wants to be free.” Today there is a broad spectrum of people engaged in this cause, so that were Assange to be eliminated today, WikiLeaks would doubtless continue, and even if WikiLeaks were somehow to be eliminated, new sites would emerge to replace it.
(October 4, 2010 edition)

Loosely Coupled: A Term Worth Understanding

John Hagel, Viewpoint
Loosely coupled – if you’re a technology person, chances are pretty good that you are familiar with the term. If you’re a business manager, you’re probably at a loss when confronted with this term. Yet, this is a term that will reshape the business world in profound ways over the next several decades.

… A good working definition: loosely coupled is an attribute of systems, referring to an approach to designing interfaces across modules to reduce the interdependencies across modules or components – in particular, reducing the risk that changes within one module will create unanticipated changes within other modules. This approach specifically seeks to increase flexibility in adding modules, replacing modules and changing operations within individual modules. …

Three things stand out from this definition. First, it assumes a modular approach to design. Second, it values flexibility. Third, it seeks to increase flexibility by focusing on design of interfaces.

This concept is widely practiced in computing architectures.

… But the notion of loose coupling doesn’t stop there. It also begins to reshape organizational design and behavior. Think about the organizational equivalent of component-based software or modular product design. Rather than traditional hierarchies driven by command and control management styles, we are likely to see relatively independent organizational modules brought together to perform one set of processes and then different arrangements of modules to perform other processes.
(October 9, 2002)
More on loosely connected computer systems:
Loose coupling (Wikipedia)
SOA – Loosely Coupled … What?