How can we build a sustainable society?

Global warming, peak oil, over population, resource depletion and poverty. Just some of the challenges facing us today. Government, societies, individuals and various other groups and organisation have made numerous attempts to try and fix these problem, with varying level of success yet they still remain. But have you ever wondered why we have these problems in the first place?

When we look around we do not find any one organisation, person or government responsible for the world we live in. No one has set out to cause global warming, poverty or any other of the problems we face. So how do we get all these problems?

Today’s problems emerge from the interactions of a number of factors such as the way we run industry, the way we organise ourselves and the way government interact. We, as individuals, live in a complex world where our personal choices interact with those of other people. Companies make their choices to maximise their profits. Governments make their choices to serve the best interests of their people. Out of all this interaction, as a by-product, comes the world we live in, for better or worse.

If we understand the world in terms of interactions, we can see the world we live in as an emergent system. Thus, we can say that things like global warming, over population, poverty and even peak oil result from the way we do things; from our socioeconomic system. It then follows that if we wish to address today’s problems then we need to address our socioeconomic system.

To tackle the problem we need to get to the cause rather than the symptoms. We need to tackle our socioeconomic system. Now, as a general rule, we can’t fix a problem through doing what we did to cause that problem. So, we won't fix problems of global warming or peak oil through the methods of our current socioeconomic system. We need to look at an alternative way of doing things. We need to look at an alternative socioeconomic system.

Here’s one part of an idea along that line; a holonic society for the future. It forms part of a larger idea for the future of society called technocracy, as developed in Europe. The whole of society run under such an idea is referred to as a "Technate". But first, we need to look at holons …


The word "holon’’ comes from the Greek "holos,'' meaning 'whole', and "-on,'' meaning 'part'.  The word aptly captures the duality of entities which are at once single, distinct en­tities, and at the same time parts of a more comprehensive whole.   For exam­ple, a cell in your body falls under the holon category. Cell exists as a distinct, living entity; it has inputs, out­puts, and a distinct cell wall defining its interface with the rest of the world. A cell, however, consists of smaller and more fundamental parts, such as RNA, DNA, mitochondria etc. Each component can be studied as a separate entity; however, each component can be broken down further - into molecules, atoms, and ultimately to quarks. This decomposition of cells is characteristic for a holonic organisation.

We can also go the other way, and see that cells group togeth­er with other cells to become organs.  Organs, in turn, form parts of the human body.  Here, we see that holonic organisation also supports composition as well.

We can find many other examples of this part-whole relation­ship in the world around us.  Ants, for example, exhibit such characteristics. We can study ants as separate entities in their own rights; but, they also form parts of a society. Trees and forests as well as people and cities form other examples. More artificial examples would include agents that have been used in Distributed Artificial Intelligence and even the humble sub routine in a program.

Characteristic of Holons and Holonic Systems

In addition to the part-whole characteristic, holons have a number of other characteristics:

01 Each holon can function autonomously. It means that each holon carries out its own activities without the direction of oth­er holons; yet, it still forms a part of, and contributes to, the overall functioning of a larger system.

02 Holons naturally form distributed systems. This comes on from the autonomous attribute.

03 Each holon has a simple, singular task to perform and con­centrates exclusively on that task.  The system accomplishes larger  scale  tasks  through  the  combination of a number of holons, either through combining them together to form a larg­er  holon,  or  through  cooperation  or  competition  between holons.

04 Although holons function autonomously, their interaction with other holons may yield complex flows of information in order to achieve each interacting holon’s goals. Therefore, a holon must process and respond to in-bound data from exter­nal sources, as well as provide other holons with requested information.

05 As holons interact, the sum of their actions could become greater than the action of the individual holon.  Some exam­ples could include ant hills, where a number of ants cooperate to construct a mound, yet no single ant would have the capa­bility to achieve the construction individually.  The construction of cities forms another example. The shapes of many of the world's cities were not the result of centralised plan­ning.  Nonetheless, the organisation and interaction of a num­ber of people and organisations has resulted in some of the most spectacular cities on Earth, such as San  Francisco,  New York, Rome, and others.

The Advantages of Holonic Systems

Holons are particularly well suited for complex and/or dis­tributed systems. Some reasons follow:

  • Scalability  As each holon has the property of being au­tonomous, it can function with little or no knowledge of other holons.  Thus, we can add additional holons to the system, de­pending on the system in question, without affecting the oper­ation of the previously existing holons.  As additional holons are contributed to the system, a coherent organisation will tend to form naturally, such as a hierarchy where higher-lev­el, more abstract holons manage lower-level, more detail-ori­ented holons.  Consider, as another example, any plant or ani­mal, which starts as one cell, but which divides and grows to many cells, forming organs along the way.
  • Robustness  Robustness also results from the autonomous na­ture of a holon.  Just as we can add holons, we can also re­move them without, in general, affecting the functioning of other holons or the system as a whole. For example: human body can lose many cells without even noticing it. It can even survive the loss of a substantial por­tion of the body, such as a limb.
  • Simplicity of control As each holon has a simple, usually singular, task to accomplish, it only needs a simple control mechanism, which can be understood more easily when compared to a centralised control system.

Disadvantages of Holonic System

Distributed and autonomous holons, for all their advantages, also have some disadvantages compared to centralised mechanisms.

  • Tragedy of the commons  The autonomous attribute can lead holons to consume shared resources without consideration for others, and end up taking more than their fair share.  This could limit the ability of other holons to work, and may even bring an end to the common resources. Example: a farmer allowing his cow to eat all the common grass, preventing other farmers from grazing their cattle.
  • Losing their way  We can see another problem with the autonomous attribute. Autonomous holons could conduct activi­ties that do not contribute to the overall goal of the system. They could even conduct activities that are contrary to the overall goal.  Cancer cells would form an example of holons that have gone out of control and became a danger to the sys­tem as a whole.

The root cause of the first deficiency we can usually at­tribute to a lack of negative feedback in the holon’s opera­tion.   For example, if the farmer knew a priori of the impact the cow would have on the field, and therefore other farmers, he would take steps to alleviate the problem before it got out of hand. The farmer would need a bigger picture to achieve this in­sight. However, this leads to one possible solution, where a higher-level holon could administer lower-level holons. Not an ideal situation. It is pre­ferred that the other farmers communicate with the offending farmer, so that issues are resolved locally and quickly.

We may, however, have difficulty understanding the cause for the latter deficiency, since there is a number of issues to consider. For in­stance, simple miscommunication or misunderstanding may result in an erroneous interpretation of the holon's goal. Indeed, scientists have traced most causes of genetic defects that, in a sense, we can consider as miscommunication in genetic programming of the cell.  We could see another cause as the autonomous nature of the holon, which could deliberately decide to change its own goals.  The "bait-and-switch’’ manoeuvre that con-artists and other petty criminals use exemplify this.

A Holonic Structure for a Future Technate

Peak oil could mean that future societies need to localise to reduce energy consumption, as future societies may well have less energy available than present-day societies.  Climate change could mean that future societies may need a high level of cooperation to handle an increasingly hostile world.  This could mean a social structure that has both the characteristic of being composed of parts and the characteris­tic of networking.  This would represent a different form of organisation from our current national, centralised system. Holons represent a different approach towards governing systems that has the characteristic of being composed of parts. Thus, a holonic structure represents a potentially vi­able form for future society.

As a means of allowing this organisation, we propose the fol­lowing holoarchy:

  1. Individuals
  2. Groups
  3. Areas
  4. Zones
  5. Sectors
  6. Proto-Technate or Technate

The author intends the proposed structure to form the founda­tions for a technate/proto-technate; but, as an experiment, it should also form the structure of NET. Thus, the top holon becomes the technate/proto-technate.

Individuals form the basic building blocks of societies, and each individual has his/her own goals and objectives as well as skills and interests.  Any social structure should take this into account. The author hopes that the holonic structure would allow people to utilise their interests and skills to achieve their own desires in such a way as to con­tribute to the whole structure.

To achieve this, individuals form interest groups, such as research, medical, and food production. Individuals who have skills and interests in common with a specific group could choose to join that group. However, not all groups would have specialised interests; some groups would have a more mixed membership.  This would depend on the size of the group and the number of members.

Groups maintain goals and monitor projects. The goals of any group should be compatible with the overall goals of the technocracy. Likewise, the projects within the group should contribute, in some way, to the group and thus to the imple­mentation of technocracy.

Some projects, of course, may turn out to be too large for a single group to undertake (e.g., repairing the Golden Gate bridge or the construction of an airplane).  To deal with this, groups can form areas, where areas act in sim­ilar ways to groups.  Instead of being composed of individu­als, however, areas are comprised of groups (think of a consortium or standards organisation, like OSI, OMG, and ANSI). Areas cooperate with each other to fulfil the goals defined for each area. Those goals, like the goals of groups, are compatible with the goals of technocracy.  And, of course, the projects run within areas will have similarity to the projects of groups in that they would also contribute to the goals of technocracy but on a larger scale.

Again, like areas, sectors form the next level up in the holoarchy and run larger projects. Areas compose sectors.

The technate/proto-technate forms the final layer of the holoarchy.  This layer runs large scale projects over the whole operational area of the technate and has goals in accordance with technocracy's goals.

Thus, the whole system becomes a gestalt - one composed of individual, goal orientated parts that use projects to achieve their goals.  As each part lines up with other parts in the holoarchy, through cooperation, the system achieves the over­all goals of the technate.

Control and Direction in the Holoarchy

As each group, area, or sector can act autonomously, the sys­tem has the potential to develop some problems, as noted above.  Some of the holons could end up repeating work that other holons have conducted and other holons could conduct work that does not contribute to the whole.

To prevent such problems, we propose a hierarchical structure that lays on top of the holoarchy. This overlapping structure would have the following goals:

   1. Maintain direction of the system

   2.  Act as a communications channel to facilitate cooperation between holons

   3. Ensure efficient utilisation of resources, thus preventing unnecessary repetition of work

The proposed structure would follow the classic Technocracy, Inc. sequence structure with a board at the top which acts to direct the whole system.  A number of functional sequences would then form under the board, with the director of each se­quence being represented on the board. For example, the structure could have functional sequences for health, research, manufacturing, mining, recycling, energy, transporta­tion and space.

Each sequence would have a sub-sequence for each sector.  So, for example, the Sequence of Research would have a number of Sector Sequences of Research below it.  Each sector sequence would then have area sub-sequences below it, and the area se­quences would have group sub-sequences below it.   Each sequence at each level would have a director.  For example, the Sequences of Research would have a Director of the Sequence of Research and the various sector research sequences would have various Directors of Sector Sequences of Research and so on for areas and groups.  We can see this as being analogous to a commercial company in present-day economic systems, where you have a Chief Technology Officer, Director of Research, with indi­vidual project directors below them.

This means that an individual would have membership both in a group and a sequence and, hopefully, will actively participate in a project.

Roles of Directors

Directors of each sequence have overall responsibility of ensuring that each holon contributes to the overall goal of technocracy.  Thus, the directors at each level have to approve each project, and can cancel a project if that project has wandered away from the goals of technocracy.  The director can also cancel a project if it is in conflict with another project; for example, if two holons attempted to do the same pro­ject.  However, once a project has started, and so long as it remains compatible with the goals of technocracy, the director has no control over the project in keeping with the autonomous nature of the holon.

Each project would have a project manager. The project manager has the administrative responsibility of running the project, including the allocation of resources, time schedule, etc. The manager runs the project without any inter­ference of the directors as long as the project remains within the goals.

For projects that involve cooperation or coordination between a number of holons, the holon director has the responsibility of ensuring communication with other holons. For example, within an area the Area Director must ensure that all holons have adequate communications in order to allow them to conduct their projects.  Thus, the sequences act as a communications channel for each holon.


Goals become the most import attribute of the above structure. Goals give direction and purpose to the system as a whole.

Technocrats have the following top level goal:

The highest standard of living for the longest time possi­ble.

To achieve this goal, sequences and holons may have other goals, but those other goals must contribute to the overall goal.  For example, the Sequence of Research could have the goal of conducting an energy survey and may run one or more project to achieve that goal.  However, the goal of the energy survey also contributes to the overall goal of technocracy in that it determines the kind and quantity of resources available and the energy re­quired to build a sustainable society that has a high standard of living.

Find out More

This is really just scratching the surface. For more have a look at:

References Holon (philosophy)

VISA (credit card)

Distributed computing


Agent  Based  Manufacturing:  Advances  in the Holonic Ap­proach.  S M Deen (Ed). ISBN 3540440690

Beyond Business Process Reengineering: Towards the Holonic Enterprise. Patrick McHugh. ISBN 0471950874

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software. Steven Johnson. ISBN 0140287752

Emergence: From Chaos to Order.  John  H.   Holland.  ISBN 0192862111

The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex. Harold J. Morowitz. ISBN 019513513X

An  Introduction  to  Multi-agent  Systems.   Michael   J. Wooldridge. ISBN 047149691X

Multi-agent  Systems:  Introduction to Distributed Artifi­cial Intelligence.  Jacques Ferber. ISBN 0201360489



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