From Change Control to Adaptation

Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) are non-linear, self-organizing systems that have the ability to adapt to changing conditions through changing the rules that organize the random autonomous interactions between agents in the environment. This adaptation takes place through gradual gained experience that is reflected in the agent’s behavior. Interacting agents that are described in terms of certain rules generate complex temporal patterns. Emergent higher level patterns can arise out of parallel complex interaction between local agents. Emergent systems are rule governed systems; their capacity for learning and growth and experimentation is derived from governing decentralized level local rules. Acknowledging that giving up top-down control, giving systems a margin of freedom to govern themselves bottom-up as much as possible and letting it learn from and build on their experience is essential to understand emergence in CAS. Applying this framework to case studies from informal settlements around Cairo, we identify several innovations in governance that emerged in this program and demonstrate how complex adaptive system thinking can be useful in understanding how governance can enhance resilience.

The complex adaptive systems approach shifts the perspective on governance from the aim to control change in resources through a rigid prescriptive sociopolitical systems that is assumed to be stable, to enhancing the capacity of social-ecological systems to learn to live with and shape change and even find ways to transform into more desirable directions. Adaptive management of environmental resources presents a challenge to traditional government, with its reliance on bureaucratic procedures, the lengthy processes of legislative deliberation, and the often arbitrary nature of judicial decision making.

Self-governance and self-organization in social organizations

“Self-organization” and “Self-governance” are two different strategies for behavior management. Self-organization is a system of autonomous subsystems acting jointly under the influence of a unifying agent but without supervision can achieve apparently purposeful and coordinated activity.

During the occupation of Tahrir, neighborhood self-governance became a necessity. Neighborhood committees appeared throughout the entire country within the matter of a night. People came down from their apartments to the streets in the midst of a mobile phone and internet blackout and set up checkpoints and communications systems to defend their neighborhoods.

Within Tahrir premises, an autonomous community emerged as have been illustrated by the image published by the BBC. During the 18 days of the sit-in that ended by throwing Mubarak off the throne of Egypt, several manifestation of self-organization existed. A fresh state united towards one single goal, was being formulated within a dying political system. This state had its borders, medical and waste management and even a street network urban patterns emerging between protesters tents and informal markets that supply the daily basic needs as shown in these images annotated above. The lesson learnt from Tahrir Square protesters, as Dr. Dina K. Shehayeb describes it. was one of harmonious self-governance in a flat mesh-like structure rather than the control-oriented hierarchical model. Lateral coordination came easily when participants were diverse enough across qualifications to complement each other, held equal respect for each member, and focused on a shared goal.

As for self-governance, it brings the sort of flexibility that allows not just quick response, but immediate adaptation and it the capacity to carry out complex, temporally extended plans. The difference between self-organization and self-governance is a difference in how the system as a whole manages its activity.

No installed gas service or insufficient water and electricity grids to cover the needs of the inhabitants of these areas are among several typical problems that informal areas such as Ard Liwa’ and other settlements developed without a coordinated urban plan suffer from. This is partly because these areas are either registered as farm or desert land or not recognized as residential. Added to this, there are no public hospitals or schools. There only exist private schools and community clinics that serve middle class. As for the poor majority they have to send their children far away to public schools in Muhandeseen or Imbaba. There are not even police stations or fire stations for emergencies. The existence of these critical issues over a long period of time and up until now is evident for the inadequacy of existing governance system to take care of these problems.

In reaction to Communities this inadequacy, have turned to solutions such as establishing new autonomous administrative entities. Ard Liwa’ is an example of autonomous administrative units that exists within the city of Cairo. An elected official of this popular (sha’bi) settlement elaborates on the autonomous nature of this area: Ard Liwa’ is an independent local unit. This settlement was originally a farm land within the village of Mu’tamidiya. People started to settle in this area during the 1970s. Ard Liwa’ is considered as a slum (’Ashwa’iyat) or self-made and unregistered residential neighborhood that encircles the business district of Al-Muhandeseen and merges with working class neighborhoods of Imbaba and Mit ’Uqba.

Shown in the video above is a significant initiative in this area where the inhabitants self-organized and constructed a connection to the ring road that passes by the area. What’s interesting is that the government completed the works and finished it in an example of recognition of self-organized informal action.

Concerning the issue of waste management and utilities, as there is no proper waste management or trash collection system (like most of Cairo), Mu’tamidiya is one of six recycling neighborhoods form a ring around the city of Cairo. This mentality of self-organization forms the basis for every development in the informal settlements.

Emerging new process for governance

Traditional ideas about governance involve a top-down hierarchy under a single central controlling authority. In contrast, a CAS is characterized by interdependent network clusters under distributed control, with an open boundary and shared authority. The goals of agencies in traditional governance are ideally clear with defined problems. The goals in a collaborative CAS are various and changing. In traditional governance, planning is linear and the criterion for success is the attainment of policy goals. In a collaborative CAS, planning is nonlinear and the criterion for success is the realization of collective free action by the agents.

In the long term, governance strategies for resilience may require a combination of strategies depending on the context such as the Mu’tamidiya case. Another example of this balance is evident in the underground market in the pedestrian underpass near the bosphorous in the area of Karaköy, Istanbul in Turkey where the municipality acknowledged the informal markets emerging in the underpass and organized it in a win-win situation where the state raised a valuable amount of money from renting this spot and mutually the vendors make use of the flow of tourists on their way to the bosphourus trip. In contrast, the vendors in Cairo, Egypt are chased by the police and treated violently as criminals and thugs, and in the end their products get kicked and thrown in the garbage.

This emergent model of self-governance and self-organization experienced in liberation squares all-over Egypt during the first days of the revolution and before that for more than six decades within the informal settlements all around Cairo in response to incompetence and corruption of the political and governance system can be more resonant with effective approaches to adaptive management that enhance resilience for resource management than traditional government practices.

Note: This article has been originally published (bi-lingual) in the inaugural issue of Zawia Magazine. The title was originaly inspired from this article.

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The people from the barrio built the city twice: during the day we built the houses of the well-off. At night and at weekends, with solidarity, we built our own homes, our barrio.

  —Andrés Antillano, resident of Caracas, April 15, 2004