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The most adaptable and successful organisms, though wildly diverse in appearance and behavior, are all organized in a similar manner. According to paleobiologist Geerat Vermeij, they avoid the trap of centralized, top down control by giving wide ranging power to multiple independent sensors to observe and respond to environmental change and threats. Organisms have done this by evolving specialized organs, developing highly sensitive sensory mechanisms, specializing functions into differentiated clones, and organizing nerve cells into networked clusters operating closest to the environmental interaction.

Consider an octopus--it can use millions of innervated skin cells throughout its body change color and form almost instantly to match its immediate environment without a lot of deliberation from the central brain. Our own immune system—in which independent cells patrol the body and instantly identify invaders and mount killer responses specifically targeted to the particular type of invader—is an essential example of decentralized, adaptable response. However, this natural organization is not a complete free for all. A central body still provides the resources and the key challenge that the multiple independent agents must solve—no matter what color it is, an octopus is still and octopus and our immune system doesn’t report to our central brain, but it keeps our brain and out body alive.


By contrast, many of our security responses trend towards increased centralization. The most prominent security response after 9/11 was to create the massive Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which quickly displayed its shortcomings in response to Hurricane Katrina, the worst post-9/11 security breach in the US. An organization like this might work fine in carrying out a planned set of tasks that continue routinely day after day. It’s like an early circuit board with a finite number of pathways through which the energy of decision-making can pass. But security problems are such precisely because they are not routine—they are highly variable and unpredictable.

Or consider the gap in adaptability between soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and the centralized Department of Defense. These soldiers, acting as linked, independent sensors, quickly observed that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were the biggest threat to their survival. But even after public embarrassing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (who replied, non-adaptably, “you go to war with the Army you have”), it took three years and over 1500 American lives before mine resistant vehicles came to Iraq. By that time, the IED threat was already well on the decline, thanks to symbiotic partnerships between soldiers and local populations. When these massive vehicles were shifted to Afghanistan they proved to be too cumbersome to move on most terrain there and became easy targets for a growing IED threat along the few roads to which they were restricted.


Small bands of activists, innovative corporations and government agencies are starting to recognize the benefits decentralized organization.  Independent of our biological perspective, a number of sources have recognized the adaptability of decentralized organization in the context of business, social activism, and international governance. Google, Inc., uses a decentralized system for encouraging development of many of its products, which are then tested by billions of independent internet users. For example, Google Flu Trends analyzes search behavior by internet users, specifically focused on flu-related search terms such as, “flu symptoms” and “flu remedies” under the assumption that more people will search such terms when flu is becoming more prevalent. Google Flu Trends show remarkable similarity to official U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) flu trend reports (which are compiled and published by CDC from doctor and hospital surveys) with one major exception; Google Flu Trends are available one to two weeks prior to the release of centrally controlled CDC data.

Adopting an adaptable organizational system does not require a complete reorganization of our security bureaucracies. Almost any organization can inculcate adaptable systems by shifting from giving commands to issuing challenges—essentially open contests to solve a clearly stated security problem. Most security practice today is designed by a small number of experts and implemented through a central authority issuing orders to civilians (e.g., surrender your bottled water to TSA officials in airports) or contractors (e.g. design an aircraft that does X for Y amount of money). By contrast, challenges essentially create adaptable security organizations by encouraging multiple independent agents to find the best solution to a problem, then rewarding the most successful agents, and in the best cases, repeating the challenge to replicate and improve on the best designs from the previous iteration. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has run a number of successful public challenges that have helped develop defense products and strategies much faster and cheaper than typical Department of Defense contracts.