Defying the rules: How self-regulatory social systems work

Lead Research Organisation: University of Hull
Department Name: Business School


In nature, systems self-regulate and self-stabilise through non-centralised bottom-level rules. A system that is able to adapt to (internal and external) feedback and context is self-regulatory. The dynamics of such a system modifies the environment in which it is evolving. This therefore represents a feedback loop which is an emergent structure, since it is the result of the dynamics, which in turn is determined by the interactions at the bottom-level. The feedback loop can be pictured as an engine that allows the system to develop and eventually reach sustainability through self-regulation. The seed, or the spark for the engine, is given by the rules at the bottom-level in context. These as referred to as generic rules.The aim of this project is to identify the generic rules, feedback and context that allow systems to develop and reach sustainability through self-regulation. This will be achieved by contrasting the social behaviour in three different systems, a biological social system where we know we have emergent behaviour, an artificial social system where we have full control, and human social systems where observable data is available.The biological system that we will investigate is ant colonies. This is tractable from the microscopic individual-level to the macroscopic social level. The inferred bottom-level rules will be explored and verified in totally controlled experiments with robots. This will allow us to develop a conceptual and theoretical framework for self-regulatory social systems.The theoretical framework will serve as a foundation to design self-sustainable bottom-up programmes for community regeneration and control methods for automated manufacturing.This is very timely since in the case of rural and urban regeneration, the limitations on traditional mechanistic top-down approaches to socio-economic development have been widely documented. Sponsoring multinational agencies, like the World Bank and United Nations, have recognised the importance of shifting the paradigm of development to more holistic approaches, empowering and supporting communities to lead and self-regulate their main development agendas. However, the effort made in practice has not yet achieved that goal.In the case of the manufacturing industry, the efficiency is limited due to the low performance of existing methods for controlling large collaborative multi-robot systems. Traditional, centralised, top-down algorithms are generally preferable in small systems as they can identify globally optimal solutions. In large systems, however, it is not possible to identify optimal solutions due to the complexity of the problem. As a result, behaviour-based, distributed, bottom-up algorithms which employ some form of individual learning from experience, have been studied extensively and they have been shown to have superior performance.The establishment of generic rules, giving rise to self-regulatory systems, will initiate new research worldwide. The developed conceptual and theoretical framework will provide a new approach for understanding the behaviour of dynamical systems. The potential applications within such a framework are limitless, and span over a variety of fields, for example, nanotechnology, evolutionary theory, synthetic biology, and social systems.
Description 1. The researcher successfully work as part of a highly interdisciplinary research team and - as a group- we were able to find a common language and analytical tools to talk about self-organisation in social systems from different realms: biological, social and artifitial: we managed to jointly identify some generic patterns of interaction (Arcaute et al, 2009); to agree and to share observable (variables) within different experimental domains (biological, social and artificial) (Espinosa et al, 2011 awarded Emeraldi Literati Most commended papers).

2. The PI lead an action research project in an Ecovillage in Ireland - with the support of the funded PhD student- to observe and reflect on self-organisation in a community aiming to improve their long-term sustainability, using the agreed distinctions, observables and analytical tools (Espinosa & Porter, 2011; Espinosa & Walker, 2010; Cardoso, 2009, Espinosa et al, 2011).

3. We contributed to the development of theory in complexity and sustainability: a) with the invited research monograph 'A Complexity approach to Sustainability: Theory and Applications', (Imperial College Book Series on Complexity) explaining the main theoretical, methodological and practical implications of using different approaches to self-regulation in social systems (i.e. Paucar-Caceres & Espinosa, 2010; Espinosa & Leonard (2009); Knowles & Espinosa, 2009; Espinosa et al, 2008; Espinosa et al, 2007; Espinosa & Harnden, 2007 ); Also we developed and tested a methodology to support self-transformation in sustainable communities and/or communities working in regeneration projects (Cardoso, 2011, Espinosa & Walker, 2010, Espinosa & Walker, 2011).B) a collection of papers explaining different aspects of the theory - see Appendix 1-.

4. We contributed to national and international ongoing debates in the development of theoretical and practical applications of complexity sciences, in particular in the field of organisational and management studies (see below).
Exploitation Route In non academic contexts, the research is particularly useful as we tried to develop tools that are easily adopted by non experts. The example of the Ecovillage in Ireland -where the ideas and tools were adopted- demonstrate that this is possible and desirable. Both the methodologies and analytical tools developed and tested in the project have a wide range of applications for community projects, social entrepreneurs, and networks of people aiming to develop sustainability or development projects.

The results have been published in several academic journals, a research monograph, and presented in several conferences and seminars. The results can be put into practice by any interested researcher or practitioner that have access to the published material.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Environment

Description My findings have been used by practitioners for improving their viability and sustainability in the context of an eco-community in Ireland, the Permaculture Association in the UK, a multinational corporation in Latin-America. They have had positive impacts in viability and performance in these organisations
First Year Of Impact 2009
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Creative Economy,Environment
Impact Types Cultural