Your immune system is smarter than your government

Your immune system is smarter than your government

Last month, a mother died in front of her daughters, crushed by a tree in São Paulo, Brazil, whose pruning was requested months before. The death had a sad statistical flavor: thousands of trees fall yearly in the city without being properly pruned or even inspected. In a country making global news for a covidocide, examples like this are unfortunately common.

I contend the management model adopted by worldwide governments is one of the causes behind such problems. It leads to rigid structures that presuppose a linear and controllable world, a fiction increasingly eroded by an indomitable reality.

I also contend we should look at complex adaptive systems (CAS, for short) found in natural and biological worlds for inspiration in designing better governmental structures. Examples of CAS include colonies of social insects and our immune system.

CAS produce astounding levels of efficacy based on the behavior of simple agents following simple rules, with no central coordination. In contrast to the typical rigidity in sense making found in public organizations, they have active mechanisms to seek and process information in a timely fashion.

Consider our immune system. In essence, it is a dynamic network comprised by defense cells, vessels, organs and tissues. This network acts as a super algorithm that processes information, creates patterns, learns and evolves.

We are exposed to something like 200 to 300 colds over a lifetime, and this is only part of the history. In fact, billions of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens, a true microverse, have always been a constant threat to human health and a powerful evolutionary force in the history of our species.

Evolution, in turn, gave us two types of immune responses: one innate and the other acquired from the continuous exposure to pathogens and, very recently, vaccines.

Of course, our immunity is far from perfect. Before vaccination, basic sanitation and public health services, human mortality was sadly high. Furthermore, even today the threats we face from the microverse are not always trivial, may be insurmountable, and are part of a continuous evolutionary war.

It is a war indeed: while evolution favored the development of well-coordinated immune responses, pathogens have leveraged mutation as their major weapon to escape and strike back.

Viruses are also complex adaptive systems, as researchers Ricard Solé and Santiago Elena demonstrate in a recent book (Viruses as complex adaptive systems). Their artillery may be heavy and surreptitious, as is the case with HIV.

We also face the threat of super bacteria, expected to enact a toll greater than covid-19 in a few decades, as research and development are underfunded and, contrary to common knowledge, antibiotics are not that profitable for Big Pharma.

Lessons

This view of complexity helps in suggesting some principles to inspire better governments.

First lesson: we still rely excessively on hierarchies in public organizations, failing to understand how networks can produce agility and responsiveness. If it is not possible to dispense with any type of coordination, it is still advisable to employ mixed structures to explore the best of both worlds, decentralizing power with accountability and focus on learning.

The second lesson is the importance of constantly scanning the environment to identify threats and opportunities. CAS employ active sensors to search for what is, basically, information to be processed. We can learn a lot from the leukocytes in our blood.

Third: all systems need a good mix of randomness and determinism. Your body never knows which pathogen is going to invade it and, thus, millions of lymphocytes are born every day following a random pattern to produce receptors to potential antigens. In the same vein, it is common knowledge in the systems thinking field that only the internal variety absorbs external variety, the so-called Ashby’s law.

Fourth: CAS-inspired management requires an intelligent “waste” of resources. Not only is redundancy common in complex systems but also they embed the exploration of parallel paths, affording resources dynamically according to the ongoing prospects of success in each track. Errors are part of the game.

Fifth and final lesson: complexity requires the combination of focused and unfocused processes. An example of former case is the mobilization of bodily resources when an infections sets in. A useful example for the latter is the advice Intel founder Andy Groove gave when asked about planning in businesses: tear the plans up and copy the mindset of a good fire department. In other words, be prepared in advance for a multitude of situations.

In sum, CAS-style management is inevitable if we are to tackle the unprecedented challenges in this century, not to mention the ones that we should have learned to address eons ago, such as the deadly falling trees in my home city.