VISTA Enterprise Network - Successful Implementation, World Class Support

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Principle 1: Organic Order, part 1: The Three Kinds of Order

Dear Reader,

Alexander diagnoses a nearly universal illness in our systems of architectural planning: we use master plans to try to guide our development, to plan for the future:

. . . master plans, are intended to coordinate the many hundreds of otherwise independent acts of building . . . to make sure . . . that the many acts of building in a community will together gradually help to create a whole, instead of merely making up an aggregation of unrelated parts, a chaos.

. . . the master plan, as currently conceived, cannot create a whole. It can create a totality, but not a whole. It can create totalitarian order, but not organic order . . . although the task of making sure that individual acts of building cooperate to form a whole is real, the conventional master plan - based on a map of the future - cannot possibly perform this task . . . because it is too rigid to do so - and because, in addition, it creates an entirely new set of other problems, more devastating in human terms than the chaos it is meant to govern.

It's not enough to replace chaos with order. Order can be worse than chaos.

The problem with chaos is that the "whole" (really just a collection) is less than the sum of the parts. The entire reason for planning is to do better than this, but master plans only give us chaos's opposite: totalitarian order, when the parts are designed to support the whole. The problem with totalitarian order is that the parts don't adequately support themselves or each other, only the whole, and the whole doesn't support the parts, only itself.

Seen with a clear understanding of what we really want in the world, chaos and totalitarian order strongly resemble each other, because they both lack what we most need. What we're striving for isn't a compromise between order and chaos; it's nowhere on that spectrum, because that spectrum doesn't take into account what really matters.

What we need is what Alexander calls "natural order" or "organic order":

We define organic order as the kind of order that is achieved when there is a perfect balance between the needs of the parts, and the needs of the whole.

In an organic environment, every place is unique, and the different places also cooperate, with no parts left over, to create a global whole - a whole which can be identified by everyone who is a part of it.

This kind of order is called natural because it's the kind of order nearly universally created by natural processes, and only rarely by artificial ones. Living processes result in parts that are fully, distinctively, amazingly themselves and yet are equally completely part of and contributing to a greater whole.

The balance between the needs of the parts and the needs of the whole allows the parts to be simultaneously highly specialized, optimized to do their jobs as well as they can be done, while simultaneously helping to create a healthy whole that couldn't exist without those parts.

Consider the relationship between the parts and the whole in the human body. A stomach and a brain are astonishingly different, each highly adapted to its job - if you had to know how to digest an apple you'd starve to death, and we all know what happens to people who try to think with their stomachs - yet each organ fully contributes to the success of the whole. You need them both to live. They're indispensably part of a whole, yet wildly different from each other.

Or consider an ecosystem. A cheetah is an amazing creature. Watch a film of a cheetah chasing down prey and you can hardly believe what you're seeing is possible. It gives every appearance of being a completely original, independent design, a master at what it does. And yet, it is simultaneously utterly dependent on its ecosystem for its survival. Without enough habitat and prey, the cheetah cannot survive. Likewise, without the cheetah, its prey overpopulate and strip bear the vegetation, causing ecological collapse and the widespread death of its prey.

In both examples, the relationship among the parts and between the parts and the whole are nothing like those relationships in a chaos or a totalitarian order.

The parts in a collection (chaotic order) are unrelated, random things. They rarely work as a whole, and never for long; they work against one another at least as often as they work together.

The parts in a totality (totalitarian order) are cogs in a great machine, all resembling each other because they're designed by the same designers. They break down readily because they do not support themselves or each other, only the whole. Place a living thing within such an order and try to use it as a part and it soon perishes because nothing in a totality fully supports the needs of the part.

The parts in a whole (organic order) look very different from one another, each highly adapted to its situation in order to be great at what it does, but if you study them long enough you begin to see the subtle common principles of their designs and to understand the ways in which they're all dependent on one another and contribute to a common whole that in turn strengthens each of them as parts.

Put another way, in organic order each part is also a whole, identifiable and supported by its own parts, by the other wholes around it, and by the whole of which it is just a part. Conversely, each whole stands for more than just itself; it also contributes to the health of its own parts, to the other wholes around it, and to the greater whole they make up together.

This quality is what makes living systems so much more scalable than artificial ones. Each scale of organic organization supports not only itself but also the greater and lesser scales. This is why as totalitarian structures get larger they get weaker - the increasing demands of the whole parasitically sap the strength of the parts - but as organic ones get larger they get stronger - the existing whole and its parts strengthen each new part added to it, and each new part in turn strengthens the other parts and the whole.

This is why the cosmos creates wholes and parts that are so vastly more complex than anything made by man, and yet those systems of wholes and parts last for millions or billions of years instead of the mere decades and centuries we manage. Chaotic order and totalitarian order may be sufficient for the trivial levels of complexity and brief time frames people usually work in, but if you need to create something vastly more complex to last for much longer, then only organic order will do.

VISTA is at that scale of complexity and longevity. It only exists because it was created using living processes that resulted in natural order, and it's precisely because VA turned away from those processes toward more totalitarian ones that it lost the ability to effectively manage or develop VISTA.

Organic order is the grail. This is what you want, and nothing less. It's a key to everything in VISTA. It's what Alexander in later works refers to as a living system, what he uses in his new definition of life in The Nature of Order. Understanding what organic order is, learning to detect its presence or absence, figuring out why it matters so much and how to create it - these are the central challenges in becoming a great VISTA manager.

Yours truly,

Postscript: Throughout this exploration, I refer to the principal author as a shorthand for the team of authors who developed these ideas and wrote this book. To set aside expediency for a moment and give credit where credit's due, here's the full bibliographical entry on this book:

The Oregon Experiment. Christopher Alexander, Murray Silverstein, Shlomo Angel, Sara Ishikawa, and Denny Abrams. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. ISBN 0-19-501824-9. Volume 3 in a series from The Center for Environmental Structure.


Die Anyway said...

re:"'s precisely because VA turned away from those processes toward more totalitarian ones that it lost the ability to effectively manage or develop VISTA."

I see it and you see it so why don't the ivory-tower, pointy-hairs see it? Or do they see it and ignore it because they have an entirely different agenda?

In any case, as a biologist and programmer I like the idea of organic design even if it did originate in those pre-historic times of the mid '70s.

Eat well, stay fit, die anyway!

Rick Marshall said...

Dear Die Anyway,

You ask a good question. For my answer, see my post of 15 September 2009, "Interlude: Why Some People Just Don't See It."

Yours truly,