Do we need new rules for managing large scale societal structures?

When we manage structures the size of cities, countries and even the world, should we investigate rules that protect not just the individual, but the fabric of society, and its...

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March 24, 2021
  • Globalization and urbanization have exponentially enlarged the scale of human structures, while humans have only been ‘programmed’ to function at the scale of 150 people.
  • The problem is that we have designed rules for these structures at the level of the individual, failing to protect the fabric of society and its context (nature).
  • An extra challenge is that structures that favour society over the individual tend to be highly undemocratic in nature.
  • Could we learn lessons from natural systems like a flock of birds where highly complex behaviour is the result of a few simple rules of engagement?

150. According to anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar that’s the maximum number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships. That number was actually inspired by Bill Gore, Founder of W.L. Gore (developer of waterproof, breathable Gore-Tex fabrics). He had figured out that once a factory contained more than 150 people they were less likely to work together as a team. Dunbar was intrigued by his assumption, started researching it and did find similar results in other communities such as Native American tribes, military units and Amish communities. And so Dunbar’s number saw the light (which is just as much Gore’s number, really).

Image from

Dunbar's number

150. That’s a lot, right? Especially in these pandemic times where we’re not allowed to meet more than 10 people at a time (in Belgium at least), and then only outside. But it’s also a very small amount compared to the 7.8 billion humans that roam the earth, the 2.2 million employees of Walmart or even my still pretty modest 4,036 LinkedIn followers.

This disconnect probably is one of the biggest reasons why we’re experiencing the collapse of so many of our human systems, from democracy to our social networks. Human structures work great at the scale of 150 but beyond that often lies failure. Oh yes, we have been able to create enormous companies, ecosystems, technological system and continents that seem to work at first sight. But it’s safe to say that a lot of them are deeply flawed in their impact on society and environment. And the management systems we use to govern them are as well.

Many other species thrive at large scale, though. Soak in this clip for a while and you’ll understand what I mean:

Complex adaptive systems

This flight of starlings is a fantastic example of a complex adaptive system. The magical part is not just the mesmerizing movement. It’s the fact that these ultracomplex patterns of behavior emerge from three basic and very simple rules:

  • separation: nearby birds move further apart
  • alignment: birds align their direction and speed,
  • cohesion: and more distant birds move closer.

We have computer scientist Craig Reynolds to thank for these, who uncovered them back in 1987 by means of a computer simulation he called ‘Boid’.

When you look at this intriguing collaborative “Flock Logic” project from Princeton’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department and Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts, you’ll immediately spot the lack of elegance and efficiency:

Of course, humans can simulate these kinds of flock movements, but only when they are highly trained. And even then, their movements are based on calculated synchronicity rather than on spontaneous waves. It’s a bit like the difference between rule based artificial intelligence and machine learning where the system learns to imitate by itself. When humans imitate flocks they clearly work by rule based systems: the result may look impressive but it’s also limited in many ways.

I’m not going to analyze the differences, like the fact that humans can only move on one plane and birds can do so in 3 dimensions. Because the comparison is really not the point here.

What I do want to talk about, is that the simple rules described made me think of our current COVID-19 situation. Had we been well versed in the flocking logic as described above, we might have been able to function perfectly at scale in the pandemic.

A flock of supermarket buyers

Imagine people walking in a supermarket and performing the same beautiful ballet of separation and cohesion - each always at least 1.5 meter apart - that we saw in the first example of the starlings. Close your eyes (not now, obviously, read the paragraph first) and really try to see how that would work and how that could free us from certain risks and fears. And then think of the actual stress that we experience today when we are trying to reach for something on the top shelve in a supermarket with a guy with an improperly applied face mask (ah, the nose people) grabbing for something that’s just 20 cm away from us.

The supermarket flocking is just a simplistic fantasy, of course, nothing to do with reality. At least not when it comes to bodily movement. But what if we applied these simple rules to human relations? To how we communicate and behave towards others?

Rules for the whole, not the part

Most human rules - at least on a societal level, which is one of the most complex forms of human systems - focus on the individual. Just to offer a few lines from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an example:

  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
  • No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

While these lines seem to reflect on large groups – “everyone” – at first sight, the result is also that only one person, an individual can rely upon these rules if he, she or they feels that their rights have been infringed. And when you manage at scale, (far) beyond the number of 150, only focussing on individuals rights may be a flawed approach.

So, does that mean that I believe that we should not protect the individual? Does that mean that I’m a “damned communist”, who believes that individuals are subordinate to the system they are functioning in? No. (And certainly not if that system is a commercial one.) But I also believe that we need some kind of different rule book for society. A rule book for the whole of society and its context, the planet, not just for the individuals of a nation. We need ‘rights’ and rulebooks for both.

Society and nature need just as much protection as you and me. This does already happen in crises, of course, when individuals put aside their needs for that of society as a whole. Like in a pandemic, when “human health” or “the economy” have been put before the individual. But that’s only when we feel we have no choice. It is not a systemic approach.


True, some societies are more centred upon the system than on the individual. China, for instance, has a culture which fixates more upon relationships between people than on the individual nodes. This should not come as a surprise, as China is the largest country in the world by population and it has understood that you cannot manage scale properly by focussing on every part of the whole. It’s mathematically unsound and highly disfunctional.

The drawback of organizations that manage for the whole (rather than for the individual) and for scale is that they tend to be undemocratic in nature. And though democracy is flawed, it’s still the friendliest system of rule that we have.

But what if we zoomed out even further? True, societies like China do concentrate on social capital. But it’s also a very specific form of “us versus them” relationship.

Bonding and bridging social capital

Let me explain by making a detour to the views of political scientist Robert Putnam about social capital which is what he calls the “connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” According to Putnam, there are two forms of social capital:

  • Bonding social capital: the value assigned to social networks between homogeneous groups of people. Between friends, neighbours, family, members of the same religion, Star Wars fans etc.
  • Bridging social capital: the value assigned to social networks between socially heterogeneous groups.

Societies that not only focus on bonding social capital (the most common form) but pay great attention to bridging social capital are known to fare better and be more democratic. Ancient Rome (obviously before the fall), is a great example of that.

China however, even if it does attach more importance to the system and its connections than to the individual, is also more oriented towards ‘bonding social capital’. You only have to think of how its government treats the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority of the Uyghurs in the “transformation-through-education” camps in Xinjiang or the fact that it bans external platforms like Facebook and Twitter to know that that is at least partly true.

The problem is design

The biggest problem of our current societies is that they function at scale - globally - but are designed for the individual, or at least for in-groups and ‘bonding social capital’ (like in China’s case).

And this design is a lot more crucial than people give it credit for. The backlash from technological systems like Facebook and Google may have been unintended, but it also flows directly from how they have been specifically designed to trigger radical emotions and offer more of what we have shown to like. Just like that, if you design your laws, courts and governments to protect the individual, then society’s (and nature’s) best interest will not be met. And your systems will clearly fail at scale.

I’ll just leave you with a quote from Mule Design co-founder Mike Monteiro here, who may not always be very nuanced in his beliefs (though he is right about many things) but really nails the heart of our problems in this passage:

“The combustion engine which is destroying our planet’s atmosphere and rapidly making it inhospitable is working exactly as we designed it. Guns, which lead to so much death, work exactly as they’re designed to work. And every time we “improve” their design, they get better at killing. Facebook’s privacy settings, which have outed gay teens to their conservative parents, are working exactly as designed. Their “real names” initiative, which makes it easier for stalkers to re-find their victims, is working exactly as designed. Twitter’s toxicity and lack of civil discourse is working exactly as it’s designed to work.”
“The world is working exactly as designed. And it’s not working very well. Which means we need to do a better job of designing it.”

Becoming a superorganism with the hive switch

If you think that all of this talk about ‘flocking’ is highly theoretical and far removed from reality, I’d like to call attention to the fact that humans are programmed to “shut down the self and create a temporary superorganism”, according to veteran and historian William McNeil. He called this tendency “muscular bonding” which describes how individuals engaged in synchronous movement often experience feelings of euphoria and connection to the group.

If you’ve ever been at a techno party, dancing and jumping frantically together with hundred or thousands of people to the same beat until you begin to feel part of something bigger than yourself (oh, how I miss those), you’ve experienced this muscular bonding. Other examples are soldiers marching around a drill field in close formation or the awe you feel at the vastness of nature while walking in a forest. Or the perhaps even the performers shown above that imitate a flock with their arms.

This muscular bonding, or interpersonal entrainment, is said to have evolved as some kind of a group-level adaptation that helped early human groups outcompete other groups. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls this ‘the hive switch’ and he believes that “human beings are conditional hive creatures”. The operative word being conditional: the hive switch is an ability to "lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically)" to come together in an "all for one, one for all" mentality. No need to explain that the hive switch has a dark side too, if we think about the storming of the United States Capitol in January.

But this muscular bonding, hive switch or interpersonal entrainment is temporary, not structural. And it seems to be biased towards bonding social capital. And it’s not really useful when applied to the complexity of our global and national systems. But the good news is that the “biological software” towards ‘We before Me’ thinking is there, though it’s mostly dormant. We ‘just’ need to integrate it in the design of our societies, in a structural manner and in a way that it does not turn dark. And start thinking about rules that protect the whole (society and the planet) as well as its parts (the individuals).

The rules of the flock

I have absolutely no idea how this would work concretely, but maybe the ultra-simple rules of flocking as described above, could inspire us to design rules for the whole and at scale. I’ll leave them here, replacing the words ‘birds’ with ‘humans’:

  • rules of separation: nearby humans move further apart when they are in danger of colliding,
  • rules of alignment and synchronicity: humans align their direction and speed,
  • rules of cohesion: and more distant humans move closer.

This piece is a repost from Laurence Van Elegem’s bi-monthly personal newsletter ‘The Questions’.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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March 24, 2021