CTNSP Brown Bag Series: Summary- Learning from the Octopus (June 12, 2013)

(by Dora Mugerwa and Amy Gorman) On 12 June 2013, the Center for Technology & National Security Policy and the Africa Center teamed up to host a Brown Bag with Dr. Rafe Sagarin from the Institute of the Environment, University of Arizona.  Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst with a PhD in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology (University of California) at the Africa Center in National Defense University. The work he shared specifically involved how to implement biology and its adaptable systems in a Missionary and Command context, answering the overarching question, “What can we learn from nature about how to be adaptable?As “biology is all about living with risk, in an unpredictable world”, Dr. Sagarin emphasized 5 actions (Observe & Respond, Communicate, Identity/Identify, Expand, and Iterate) that occur in nature and how the Department of Defense can incorporate in its working environment.

Observe & Respond: Decentralization increases adaptability. Nature observes and responds to changes through a decentralized process, using redundancy to be effective. “Centralization (common in the DoD) stifles adaptability in organizations,” thus increasing the risks to unforeseeable consequences in an unpredictable world.  By using a decentralized and redundant process, many different agents are allowed to sense and respond to threats quickly and effectively, a lesson that empowers subordinates to problem-solve.

Communicate: To increase understanding and intent between individuals, groups, and agencies (two key factors in General Martin Dempsey’s “Mission Command” White Paper of 3 April 2012), it is essential to communicate changes.  Animals, for example, communicate in the language of their adversaries to mitigate risk, a technique to be applied to command activities to thwart the efforts of an adversary.

Identity/Identify: Identity (how animals in nature identify the self and the non-self and how culture helps humans do so) helps humans to identify who is with us and who is against us. The concept of tribalism (often thought as the “Root of Conflict”), which, in the context of Missionary and Command, can be overcome by finding “the openings where [we] do not have to give up [our] view.”  This is the common ground where mutual interests lie and would enable opposite sides to come to a “yes.”

Expand: How to be adaptable by learning to expand once we run into limits. Animals in nature do this through symbiotic relationships to “vastly increase adaptability,” where two organisms form an unlikely partnership with unpredictable outcomes. This is an approach that could encourage the DoD to initiate collaboration and cooperation between non-traditional entities.

Iterate: Finally, we need to keep adapting to new situations by learning from previous successes.  An important aspect to being adaptable as an organization is by not giving orders but issuing challenges.  This form of  leadership allows the leader to set boundary conditions, incentives, and direction but encourages diverse organizations to solve problems in unexpected ways and adapt to those new working environments.

To learn more, check out Dr. Sagarin’s “Learning from the Octopus” Prezi: http://prezi.com/zesryxkcrk9t/ndu-learning-from-the-octopus/

Learn how to adapt: www.adaptablesolutions.org;

Latest Books: www.learningfromtheoctopus.com; www.observationandecology.com

Updates on science and art: www.rafesagarin.com


About startides

TIDES Research Assistant Intern
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