The current crisis brought about by the COVID 19 second wave in India has thrown us all into a state of chaos. We all are grappling with questions on where did this come from and if we could have avoided it? However, given the extent of its impact the immediate task on hand is to provide relief to those getting affected by it and do so in a timely manner.
An emerging realization is that many individuals, social groups, philanthropies, NGOs have started acting in their own capacities to respond to the current crisis (see examples here , here & here). This is happening in absence of a given mandate or a protocol. Something interesting and worthwhile is shaping up here which we must identify and remember. The theory of “local solutions for complex global problems” (i.e. complex self adaptive systems have the potential to self govern themselves) is in action. The current situation is showing the power of distributed control of self adaptive systems.
Wikipedia defines a distributed control system as “a system with many control loops, in which autonomous controllers are distributed throughout the system, but there is no central operator supervisory control.” (see here) This essentially means that the system is autonomously governed through the local interactions. It is the local interactions which maintains the health and performance of the system. Important to note here that there is very little role of central command. It is to do with remote monitoring and supervision. This concept of Distributed Control System is rooted in industrial processes and manufacturing methods. But if one can shape his/her imagination then they can see its relevance in our social system.
People are self organizing themselves in their local spaces (also across regional and national spaces thanks to internet and social media connecting platforms) to respond to the immediate needs of others infected by COVID. They are well aware that the resources they have at their disposal may not be sufficient to meet the needs. But an effort is being made to re-allocate resources in an efficient and just manner. A promise that remains to be fulfilled by free markets. (While instances of hoarding and black marketing continue to remind us of the perils of maximizing monetary gains. See examples here , here) As people are coming together it is giving the system more agility. Response time is shortened, there is an increase in information flow, coordinated actions are leading to generation of information platforms (see examples here , here , here) and there is a common goal in the backdrop which is guiding this effort. It is important to note that this common goal is not a written statement that people endorse or sign upon. Still it is generating commitment and action without the need for them to show dedication to comply. Something that organized groups demand with great certainty from their members.
This humanitarian response is not an outcome of a predetermined design but rather an emergent outcome through self organization of people. These are agents which are managing very complex situations on ground with minimum resources and pressing time constraints. The question to be asked is what if this was not only a response to a crisis. What if the system was enabled to harness the power of distributed control. To leverage the benefits in autonomous management of local systems in local places by the local actors. With support and inspiration from authority for better alignment and purpose driven unification of the sub systems. Here the goal of the central authority shifts towards listening and aligning itself with what is emerging on ground. Shaping a higher purpose and making sure the actors and local systems are glued with each other.
Wikipedia further says, “The key attribute of a DCS is its reliability due to the distribution of the control processing around nodes in the system. This mitigates a single processor failure. If a processor fails, it will only affect one section of the plant process, as opposed to a failure of a central computer which would affect the whole process.” This brings resiliency to the system. No one central authority commands control over the system and thus it cannot run the risk of system collapse if the central authority fails. Many local control loops have to be established in order to self govern their health and existence. We have to draw inspiration from the success of industrial processes and manufacturing methods that provided a breakthrough improvement in production processes. These are not just engineering concepts restricted to machine industry. A social system is a network of individual agents and nodes (society, groups, cult) which are driven through a purpose to achieve local action. We have to leverage their agility, speed of communication and local know how if we have to build a more resilient system. The way forward should be to shape the system such that there is distributed control, autonomy and the local interactions produces fewer system level failures leading to a resilient system.