Organic Design manifesto

From Organic Design wiki

The Organic Design Manifesto represents our ongoing effort to describe our ideal of a values-based organisational system, openly accessible to all and applicable to all scales of operation. Umberto Eco said that sometimes you have to speak because you feel the moral obligation to say something, not because you have the scientific certainty that you are saying it in an unassailable way.[1] This expresses how we feel about our manifesto.

The structure of this document is as follows: We begin by discussing the values we believe should guide organisations, then turn our attention to what kind of organisation we would like to see emerge, along with the kind of structure it might exhibit. In the third section of the document, we introduce a way to assess the alignment of any organisation with the values introduced at the beginning. We propose that this is achieved by using certain criteria that are an expression of those values and can be assessed with relative ease. In conclusion, we introduce our work to develop a prototype organisational system that puts these ideas into practice and address some frequently asked questions.

The OrganicDesign charter is a condensed version of this document. Our current work toward implementing these ideals is described in full detail within the Platform specification page.


Looking at the problems in the current mechanisms in place we've noted that there are common patterns that boil down to an inverted set of values, whereby the financial system (and the mechanism of centralisation of power in general) is dominant rather than moral values.[2] Clearly, we need something other than financial imperatives to inform our choices. We need a foundation of moral values. Historically, philosophers and spiritual leaders have shared such values with the people, around which the major philosophical and spiritual traditions have been formed.

Our intention is to base our system on values that are agreeable to as wide a spectrum of people as possible, so as a starting point we looked at the concepts that appeared most commonly throughout all major traditions. We don't need to cover a whole list here, because only a small set of fundamental ones imply, or derive the others. Some of these common reoccurring concepts are; the golden rule, awareness, compassion, honesty, selflessness, egolessness, non-attachment and self-improvement. All of these values boil down to three key values. If someone were to sincerely follow these values, they would be a harmonious and productive member of society. If we want to apply these values to an organisation we must first think of organisations as people and look at the values from that perspective.[3]


All traditions encourage the raising of awareness, it allows people to see situations objectively with clearer understanding, and to appreciate things they may otherwise have missed, as well as to better overcome problems by addressing them while they're still in their early stages of development.

For an organisation, awareness refers to how objective and complete the information it maintains about its state and its interactions with others is. This allows the organisation to become more efficient and adaptive, to maximise the opportunities available to it and to learn from past mistakes. The ultimate goal is a kind of multi-dimensional energy accounting[4] where the dimensions involved are all the forms of energy and resource which are affected by the organisations operations. Such a mechanism would also naturally give rise to an increasing global energy-awareness, which is exactly what is needed to address the issue of sustainability with the required diligence.

The Golden Rule

Awareness allows us to maximise the options available to us, and to assess which are the most efficient in terms of energy cost, but we mustn't fall into the trap of making this the bottom line of decision-making. If we did, then we'd just be replacing one form of financial oligarchy with another (albeit a better one).

The golden rule (ethic of reciprocity) essentially means to put oneself in the place of another. It is the foundation of human rights and is central to practically all moral systems, spiritual traditions and religions. It therefore forms an overall context within which decision making should be carried out in an organisation that intends to be founded on spiritual values. The organisation must account for both sides of every interaction, so the courses of action considered to be most optimal are those for which there are balanced gains for both sides.

The golden rule implies more than just not harming others; it's saying to actively be nice, helpful and supportive toward others. So it really is a rule with wide coverage, directly implying many of the common values such as honesty, selflessness and egolessness.

Self improvement

Having the two values above in place is a good start, they compliment each other by one expanding the available potential and the other providing a moral basis by which to selectively actualise it. But without an honest effort toward improving one's alignment with these values, they will eventually degrade to little more than slogans or token gestures.

For an organisation to exhibit the ability to improve, any aspect of it must be able to be changed in response to feedback from operations amongst its parts.

In an organisation, the will to improve is defined in procedures which test how well it performs its own services and ensure concerns from those affected are routed to effective responses. The degree to which an organisation is improving can be assessed via the adherence to a set of criteria, these contain the means for any stakeholder to enquire into the progress their organisation is making toward alignment with the criteria. By extension, they make visible the degree to which an organisation is committed to self-improvement. For more information on this aspect, see the section entitled The Learning Organisation below.


We define a group of people with a number of shared goals and values who use a system, or mechanism, to work toward a set of defined objectives, as an organisation. There are of course many different kinds of objectives an organisation may be set up to achieve, giving rise to many different kinds of systems to cater for them. For example the most optimal system for an organisation set up specifically to maximise the profits of its shareholders will not be an appropriate system for a group of people who have joined together with the intention of maximising the use of their combined expertise and resources.

Our focus will be on the latter kind of organisations, ones that form in response to the needs of groups rather than some financial imperative. Instead of using the term "member" or "employee" to refer to the people in an organisation, we use the term stakeholder[5] because this reflects the bottom-up perspective, specifically that all the people who are affected by an organisational system can potentially be a source of feedback that can change said system.

An explicit description encompassing all the aspects of the operations the organisation carries on is important, and it becomes essential when the organisation scales to multiple departments and branch offices. The system is a set of documents describing their high-level values and vision, the kinds of work the organisation will undertake, the departments and roles that are required to do it and what procedures and knowledge it will employ to organise and account for it.

Within an organisation it is important to follow these descriptions in the daily work being done; failure of the employees, and in some cases stakeholders, to comply can lead to a chaotic and fragmented organisational culture which lacks consistency and productivity and in many cases will be doomed to failure. Top-down, financial bottom line focused organisations generally have less difficulty enforcing compliance than grass-roots, bottom-up type organisations or small businesses, who in many cases lack even a clear definition of the organisation.

We aim to offer remedy for this issue by making available tools and templates that are easy to implement and collaborate on, thereby giving the stakeholders a sense of ownership, resulting in commitment to organisational procedures and policies.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking.svg
Some of the elements
systems thinkers consider

Before we can discuss the merits of one kind of system over another, we should first cover a little bit about systems in general. Systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed over the past fifty years, to make the full patterns [of change the organisation is subjected to] clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively.[6]

Mark K. Smith[7] introduces systems thinking as follows:

"We learn best from our experience, but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions, Peter Senge (1990: 23) argues with regard to organizations. We tend to think that cause and effect will be relatively near to one another. Thus when faced with a problem, it is the ‘solutions’ that are close by that we focus upon. Classically we look to actions that produce improvements in a relatively short time span. However, when viewed in systems terms short-term improvements often involve very significant long-term costs. For example, cutting back on research and design can bring very quick cost savings, but can severely damage the long-term viability of an organization. Part of the problem is the nature of the feedback we receive. Some of the feedback will be reinforcing (or amplifying) – with small changes building on themselves. ‘Whatever movement occurs is amplified, producing more movement in the same direction. A small action snowballs, with more and more and still more of the same, resembling compound interest’ (Senge 1990: 81)"

Smith quotes Senge (1990:2) as follows:

"The systems viewpoint is generally oriented toward the long-term view. That’s why delays and feedback loops are so important. In the short term, you can often ignore them; they’re inconsequential. They only come back to haunt you in the long term."

Systems thinking is not an easy discipline to acquire, it involves learning to see a different way, to be able to spot and communicate about various patterns, or as Senge calls them, "systems archetypes", as they manifest slowly, sometimes over the course of years, within and around the organisation. In the long run it will be rewarding for all stakeholders to become systems thinkers, however, because the degree that they master this discipline will determine the degree with which they can understand the evolution of the organisational systems they are partaking in and the degree to which they will be able to actively and consciously shape that development.

Collaborative Ontology

Hypothetical collaborative ontology

In philosophy, ontology is the study of the nature of reality. In information technology it refers to a formal representation of a set of concepts and the relationships between them. The ontology we refer to here is of the informational kind, but is also much closer to the philosophical kind than usual because it concerns reality. This is because it contains information not only defining the organisational system, but also its history, plans and current state. i.e. it is a description of our entire organisation and its information in a universally usable format.

There is a continuous feedback loop between this ontology and reality. As the stakeholders carry on their operations in alignment with the agreed-upon structure, they see where it is functional and where it needs to be improved.

Such feedback implies that the stakeholders have a way of collaborating on the ontology. It needs to be contained within a so called "web 2.0" (web-based collaborative) software system. This doesn't necessarily imply that it can be publicly viewed and manipulated, as access can easily be restricted to the stakeholders. Here the stakeholders can access and modify the information they need for the day-to-day running of the organisation, such as suppliers, clients, departments, products and services, and it also contains the documentation and procedures that the organisation uses. For more details on this, see the Wiki Organisation article.

The use of ontologies is one of the defining aspects of the emerging semantic web or Web3, technology. It's this technology that brings us the universal usability aspect mentioned previously.

As we apply Web3 technology within an organisation, our ontology becomes easily moveable into other software systems, so that it can't be disrupted by technological changes (such as the company that develops our software going under or being bought up) and is easy to give to other people, so that if someone, for instance a client, is interested in using the same system for their own work, they can easily copy the whole structure and use it within their own software system.

With such structured descriptions becoming more common, people will find it easier to share and re-use organisational patterns, giving rise to large collaborative organisations within which the stakeholders can still retain their identity.

Web3 can seem like an intimidating jump, but the most important step is thinking in systems terms and developing an ontology - this can be expressed as simply as a tree of files, or a multilevel bullet list. It doesn't need to be described in an official web3 language right from the beginning. As long as certain criteria are observed, migration of various aspects to different protocols and standards can be done later with little difficulty. These criteria are discussed in more detail below.


A classic hierarchical organisation

Panarchy is a conceptual term first coined by the Belgian political economist Paul Emile de Puydt in 1860, referring to a specific form of governance (-archy) that would encompass (pan-) all others.[8] In the twentieth century the term was re-coined separately by scholars in international relations to describe the notion of global governance and then by systems theorists to describe non-hierarchical organising theories.

Since there is no definitive agreement on the meaning of the word "panarchy", we should elaborate by saying that we have adopted the modern meaning used in systems theory which essentially means transcending hierarchy. It's still a system which makes heavy use of hierarchies, but there are multiple, interlinked, dynamic hierarchies which evolve under feedback from stakeholders at grass roots level. Very generally speaking, the difference between a classical hierarchy and a panarchist structure is that hierarchies are structures used to control the people, while panarchies are structures in service of the people.


The idea of panarchy has been studied for a long time, however only recent technological advances have made it feasible to implement it as an organisational structure. What is required for the emergence of such a structure is direct communication amongst widely distributed participants. More specifically, the technology that really makes panarchy thrive is the one just discussed; collaborative ontologies. The collaborative aspect is required so that individuals are able to communicate amongst each other directly, and the ontology aspect is required because the content they're communicating about and collaborating on is systemic, or about the structure, meaning they are continually evolving the system they use to work together. This means all members of a panarchy need access to standards which define the structure, as well as access to detailed information regarding the state of the organisation they form as a whole.

Panarchies are scale-independent, which means they are directly applicable to single individuals for the purpose of personal organisation, or personal mastery,[9] but also apply at the level of large-scale industrial and governmental structures. At each distinct scale we will find repeating patterns that arise as a result of dynamic self-organisation. For a more detailed discussion of a possible way to visualise and implement such a structure, please see our Panarchy Specification document.

Large scale structures can be run very reliably and effectively this way,[10] as is demonstrated by numerous community developed projects such as Wikipedia and GNU/Linux, and also by many large corporates who are using the same solutions and software. We've even implemented our own MediaWiki based system for some of them.

We believe that the most effective and attainable solution to the current global problems is for the people to unite into a global self-governing panarchy. The global panarchy would be formed from many global-scale panarchies operating together like the departments of a large organisation. These "departments" would represent the great mechanisms of society such as spirituality/religion, education, politics, sanctions, industry, administration and the financial system.[11] These great mechanisms operating as panarchies are defined by, and work in the service of the people from the bottom up, but yet form a framework of order and economy of scale, these being the benefits of the hierarchical approach. The mechanisms are fluidly adaptable so that they can deal with the changing requirements of the people and the inescapable momentum of change.[12]


We have discussed the values panarchical organisations should work in accord with and the kind of structure they need to have, now we will discuss some specific attributes such organisations should have. These attributes can also be thought of as criteria because they will always be present, and eventually we will be able to use them to test an organisation's compliance with the values, and other specific practices and conventions defined in its ontology. We do not have such tests currently but we know what kind of tests are required and will develop these as the concept, and models of, panarchist organisations are developed. Taken together, the goal of the criteria and the ability to test for their adherence, is to have an objective measurement of how harmonious an organisation is and whether this is increasing. We believe that if organisations are to compete with each other, it should be about which can be most harmonious!


In an organisation openness refers to the knowledge and information about the organisation and its state being made accessible and usable by the stakeholders. In terms of the values, it relates to awareness because an organisation's awareness comes from it's members comprehension of the organisation. Generally one should strive for increasing awareness because most problems only persist due to lack of insight, once the problem is known, something can be done about it. It's only through openness and accessibility that knowledge can undergo refinement and improve, hence the saying, "Good science is open science".[13]

There is a large movement which has successfully applied the principle of openness, it is the open source software development movement. This movement has brought us the Linux operating system, the Firefox web browser and the Apache web server software amongst many other things. An advantage of the open source approach is that people can use each others work and extend and refine what is already there rather than having to reinvent the wheel.

We apply the notion of open source development to the system description of organisations, this is a more general application, therefore we use the word "openness". Applying openness to systems descriptions which are independent of any particular organisation or technological environment is more akin to an open standard like HTTP or XML than to an open source software application, and indeed the Internet protocol suite is slowly expanding to define higher and higher conceptual layers of operation. For example, the Google Wave Federation Protocol[14] is a new entry to this suite and expands the standard conceptual framework of the Internet into the realm of document collaboration and revision control. Soon these standards will expand further into the high level realms of organisation, trade, industry and government.

Some scholars have defined various kinds of freedoms in relation to openness[15] however we feel that it would be preferable to define and strive to follow an organisational criterion that enshrines openness as a value. This is because openness applies more generally than something like the four freedoms of free software. Apart from that, it seems preferable to pro-actively define openness rather than defending freedoms from those who would take them away.

Striving for openness does not imply giving up privacy. The openness doesn't necessarily apply universally, but rather is there to ensure that the decisions making processes are accessible to all those that are affected by them. An organisation that upholds the value of increasing awareness should have a general tendency towards openness concerning all general information which can be of use to other organisations performing similar operations.[16]

An organisation that strives for openness will make increasing amounts of its description available for assessment by stakeholders and the public. These efforts include making sure that usage information like manuals or procedures or how to set similar organisations up are available to an increasing audience. An organisation fails the openness test if it does not declare what it is keeping secret and why,[17] or is making no effort to help people access and use the operational knowledge it uses itself. If information is to be withheld, it should be done under consideration of the spiritual values outlined previously.


An organisation should strive toward ever-increasing completeness of its self-description because any aspect of its operation that is not included in the description is not easily scalable and can't be shared. A complete description must include all initial set up procedures and therefore can act as a kind of seed for producing more of the same kind of organisation. In nature seeds are packages of potential structure which are activated when in the presence of nutrients. For an organisation, this structure of potential is in the form of procedures and the nutrients are people to fill the roles, as well as resources such as hardware or materials. It's important to note that the seed aspect can only function properly in a context of openness.

This criterion is also related to the value of awareness. Activities the organisation engages in that have not been mapped or defined will result in unexpected effects and problems such as lack of accountability. Having undefined activities means it is difficult to assess the impact of the organisation on peers and the environment in general. This obviously makes it difficult to assess whether a specific decision will increase or decrease harmony within and around the organisation.

We distinguish between functional completeness and ontological completeness. Functional completeness will result in the members of the organisation being able to use the description to go about the daily business of the organisation. This is a natural starting point and can be achieved with simple tools, even on paper if need be. The key issue is that an up-to-date description needs to be easily accessible by the stakeholders. This can be developed in a very organic way, whereby every time someone needs to stop and think about what to do because the activity is not described anywhere, the activity is recorded as a procedure and added to the functional description of the organisation, to be developed further within it.

Ontological completeness is the ultimate goal, this is provided by a dynamic structure representing the organisation which can be viewed and dissected from a number of perspectives for decision-making. Achieving this level of completeness is more difficult and not required for the seed effect to emerge, therefore we will focus on achieving functional completeness first.

There are simple and common-sense ways to deal with this issue, which can potentially be somewhat daunting to solve. After all, how can we know about what we don't know? Fortunately, the concept of feedback offers a solution: A stakeholder can test for the degree of completeness by simply asking to be shown where a specific resource, activity or policy is described and how that specific thing relates to the organisation as a whole. In an organisation striving for completeness, the inability to answer to such a question would trigger procedures designed to capture and integrate new items into the ontology (or description) of the organisation.

Think Global, Act Local

The Geoscope allows all
to be involved in decision-
making at the global level

The criterion of Think Global, Act Local (TGAL) must be fulfilled if an organisation is to apply the golden rule. It implies the ability for all stakeholders in an organisation to assess the situation of the whole in terms of an objective accounting system, so that it can immediately be obvious when parts are trying to take resources from the whole, or when they are trying to change the whole in their favour. This addresses issues such as corporations internalising profits while externalising costs, as well as the tendency for powerful corporations or conglomerates to bend the law in their favour.

It can be deduced from what was said previously, but it should also be stated explicitly: TGAL is only possible within a shared system. A shared system is necessary so that accounting can take place across organisational boundaries and give a clear picture of the whole. As we discussed previously, such a shared system will have the structure of a panarchy, within which organisations (these also being panarchies) are being developed. Given that there will be data collected across various scales of organisation and numerous, interconnected hierarchies, this could get very complicated indeed without robust organisational infrastructure in place.

Does implementing TGAL imply that people wade through enormous amounts of financial spreadsheets and reports? The question is valid, how does one interpret such masses of data? Current attempts at solving this challenge revolve around creating virtual representations of the world, over which various kinds of data may be overlaid. Buckminster Fuller proposed the Geoscope concept in the 1960s to bring about shared vision at the level of nations and the whole world. Using such a device, all citizens of the world would be able assess the actual state of resources and partake in decision-making and management, via debates and voting, rather than just a select few at the top of the decision chain.[18]

The acting locally means that the actual decision making takes place locally and is carried out by those that the decision directly affects. It also refers to the idea that organisations or individuals should not attempt to force change onto others. Rather, they can apply changes to themselves to set an example for others to follow if they choose. Having the means of objective accounting system that gives rise to awareness, the stakeholders can then use such awareness to apply the golden rule, to increase harmony between the whole and parts, i.e. the organisation and the stakeholders, as well as between the organisation and the environment.

An organisation striving to implement the criterion of TGAL has a multi-dimensional accounting mechanism in place and provides access to the data gathered with such mechanism for the stakeholders. It changes itself in accordance with the golden rule, based on the information supplied by the accounting mechanism, so that decisions can be linked back to the basic values, and stakeholders can see how and when those values were adhered to or violated by the organisation.

All Aspects Changeable

This criterion requires that any aspect of an organisation can be changed if necessary. In order to incorporate feedback and respond to change we require the organisational will and ability to change any aspect of self. Further, this needs to be possible for all stakeholders from the bottom up, via the collaboration tools provided by the web2 movement.[19] All aspects changeable (AAC) is required for an organisation to follow the value of self-improvement and to further the implementation of all the other criteria discussed.

An organisation striving to implement the criterion of AAC will be able to present a clear path to changing any of the aspects of the organisation, even though there may be some safeguards or vetting processes the stakeholders have agreed upon which must be adhered to before the change takes place. In some cases (that is, when the proposed change does not affect others) AAC can be fulfilled by allowing the stakeholder to change personal preferences for a specific part of the organisation, in accord with TGAL.


An organisation must dedicate time to the specific task of ensuring that operations are being carried out in accord with the values, criteria and also to the best practices defined for each specific role. If an organisation is truly serious about upholding its values, then it must exhibit procedures to regularly evaluate its performance in regard to them.

On a day-to-day level, alignment refers to the accuracy of peoples adherence to the best practices defined for the role they're working as. For example, if people in the organisation are observed performing operations that are not defined in the standard procedures for their role, or they're not conforming to the associated best practices, then it's the Alignment role's responsibility to find the cause of the problem and implement an appropriate solution. A solution could be notifying the member of the error, booking them in to a training seminar or refining the procedures or best practices if investigation finds them to be lacking.

Alignment must also ensure that the people filling the roles are meeting their obligations, performing the tasks required of them and not performing tasks outside their role. The latter is an important point to be aware of because it's this lack of clear boundaries between the roles that causes most of the conflict in many organisations and projects. The Alignment role can act as an arbitrator in these situations and assess which roles domain the decision is most strongly associated with.

Related and Compatible Values Statements

Related concepts

See also

Notes and References

  1. Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays, 1st ed. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986)
  2. In the Canadian documentary “The Corporation” (2003), Joel Bakan, Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott assert that multinational corporations behave like the equivalent of a dysfunctional individual, they go as far as saying that corporate behaviour is “psychopathic”, and they present a great deal of evidence to support this statement.
  3. David Korten, in "The Post-Corporate World, Life After Capitalism" (pp.185-6), has the following to say on corporate personhood: "In 1886, in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a private corporation is a person and entitled to the legal rights and protections the Constitutions affords to any person. Because the Constitution makes no mention of corporations, it is a fairly clear case of the Court's taking it upon itself to rewrite the Constitution."
  4. Although a fully automated energy accounting system is still only theoretical, we use the term to mean merely the aspect of accounting for the energy, not of distributing it which would be handled by people as usual
  5. See also: Stakeholder theory and Stakeholder analysis.
  6. Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday New York, 1990
  7. Smith, M. K. (2001) 'Peter Senge and the learning organization', the encyclopedia of informal education. Last update: October 01, 2008
  8. P. E. de Puydt, Panarchy, first published in French in the Revue Trimestrielle, Bruxelles, July 1860.
  9. In the Senge sense
  10. For a deeper analysis of this aspect, see The Cathedral and the Bazaar
  11. Thomas Robertson's 7 layer model, see Human Ecology
  12. Resilience Alliance,, Here the equivalent of a bottom-up system is referred to as a "Panarchy": "Levels of organization at different scales could be seen as a hierarchy that arises as a consequence of biological evolution. Two features enrich the notion of a panarchy in a manner that distinguishes it from traditional hierarchical representations. The first is the inclusion of the dynamics of the adaptive cycle which takes place at all scales following different internally arising and externally influenced rhythms. The second is the connections between levels."
  13. Steven Fry, in his "Happy 25th Birthday GNU" speech,, refers to the principle of openness in a number of ways, stating amongst other things, "Good science is open science".
  14. See our Wave article for more information on Google Wave and XMPP for the standard that the Google Wave federation protocol extends. To see a video of the Wave functionality in action, follow this link: Google Wave Developer Preview at Google I/O 2009 on YouTube.
  15. Richard Stallman,, outlines the four freedoms that apply to free software, software that cannot be restricted or controlled by the developers, thus respecting the four freedoms Stallman defines
  16. The concept we refer to as "Public notion, private instance" describes the idea that people can have privacy within a system while aggregate usage statistics and general procedures used by organisations are commonly available.
  17. We call this idea "Open secrets"
  18. Buckminster Fuller proposed a "World game", whereby people would collaborate on various simulated scenarios using the data provided by the Geoscope. Obviously, nowadays this would happen within a dynamic, computer modelled 3d world which contained representations of the world's resources and organisations. Governance would then occur through debating objective scenarios presented such that non-specialists could understand them and contribute to them.
  19. There are technical requirements that need to be met, for instance that any software tools or systems are defined in such a way that all instances of them used by people around the planet are actively linked to "global" definitions, so that when that definition is updated, their local versions are also updated. This idea comes from object-oriented programming and refers to the use of global classes, which are the things undergoing refinement from feedback in the field. This approach is being used for the movement from simple bullet-list ontologies to "proper web3 ontologies" here on Organic Design. We use wiki templates as our global classes, all articles based on them are updated when the templates are updated.