An Idea With Tentacles

Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin trained as a marine ecologist but was working as a science adviser for a member of Congress when Washington began to take on strange traits.

It was 2002, and as Sagarin walked the sidewalks and Congressional corridors in the post-9/11 city, he saw it sprout uniformed police officers, Jersey barriers, and metal detectors. Mail arrived late after being screened for bombs and anthrax, and chemical masks were stored under desks. He saw Washington as an ecosystem, not that different from the tidal pools he had studied near Monterey, Calif.

“Frankly, I was becoming quite alarmed at what I was seeing,” says Sagarin, now an assistant research scientist at the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment. What bothered him was not the heightened security, but the rigid nature of it. When he viewed the federal government as an organism, he saw it reacting to a past threat rather than increasing its ability to adapt to new threats. The government was doing a bad job in its given ecosystem.

Sagarin eventually assembled a working group with biologists and social scientists of different stripes alongside warfare experts, security analysts, and spies. He asked a simple question: “What can we learn about security in society from security in nature?”

The answers to that question have blossomed into two books, the more recent of which is being released this week: Learning From the Octopus: How Secrets From Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease (Basic Books).

Sagarin may not have spawned a new discipline, but he has started an interdisciplinary discussion. “For those of us who have studied military history and theory for long periods, the application of biological principles to human security is fresh, challenging, and exciting,” writes Gary Hart, a former U.S. senator and co-chair of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, in a foreword to the book. “It is a big idea in a realm where they are especially scarce.”

The big idea is, essentially, to take the principles of how organisms adapt to the threats in their environments and apply those principles to the organizations responsible for protecting countries from hurricanes, emerging viruses, and suicide bombers. Most important, the idea is that countries need to prepare for threats they have not thought of yet.

The preparation, Sagarin suggests, should be done not by elaborate planning, but by building extensive, decentralized observation-and-response networks. Those networks would report back to a central brain, or leader, but would still maintain a great deal of independence and the ability to respond to changes before the brain gives them permission.

As the title of his book indicates, Sagarin is fond of the octopus, with its sharp eyesight and eight tentacles layered with suckers that can both feel and smell. When an octopus blends into the background, Sagarin says, it’s not because its brain is “saying, Arm one, turn this color; arm two, turn this color.” Each arm has its own ability to create camouflage.

Likewise, he says, security measures should be decentralized and should increase uncertainty for enemies, rather than reduce uncertainty by creating a fixed set of screening measures. Terrorists who know that liquids will always be suspect when they get on a plane will simply carry explosives through as powders and then rehydrate them.

There’s lots of grist for academic research in the biologically inspired security idea, Sagarin says. Scholars could do case studies of how businesses adapt to changes in their environment, just as some researchers have already studied how insurgent populations overcome greatly superior firepower despite suffering high casualties. (The insurgents who survive are really smart and evasive and find ways to inflict damage on occupying troops.)

Contrary to popular belief, he says, scholars and organizations are more likely to learn from studying successes than from studying failures. Studies of the government response to Hurricane Katrina tended to overlook one of the few successes: How the Coast Guard contained a nine-million-gallon oil spill. Focusing on that success and expanding upon it, Sagarin says, would have been useful in the Gulf’s next big disaster: the British Petroleum oil spill, in 2010.

Organizations that want to survive, he proposes, need to set up “adaptable cascades” that use all of the traits he admires in nature and create a tendency to become more adaptable. A cascade, he explains, uses a decentralized form of organization and “accelerates learning by selecting for success.”

When trying to learn from successes or failures, he says, organizations tend to use small groups of people from central management. Instead they should rely on people from different backgrounds who are widely distributed throughout an organization and who can deepen understanding of the problem and potential solutions.

An adaptable cascade also has “useful redundancy,” or many ways of problem-solving instead of one. Adaptable organizations, says Sagarin, issue not orders but challenges. Orders come from the elites and create a rule by force. Challenges can be shaped by leaders but are open and sincere calls for help to solve problems.

Sagarin has adopted his adaptable-cascade style to the classroom. At the beginning of courses he teaches, he rips up the syllabus, which he has to create for the university’s sake, and hands out two index cards to each student. He asks them to put on one card what they want to learn about the course topic and on the other card what they can share from their experience that will help others learn about the topic. Then the students begin to contribute to a wiki, a shared Web site.

“I found I never had to pull teeth to get the students to talk,” Sagarin writes. “They not only owned the course but also a little piece of every class meeting.”

Whether the ecosystem is a classroom or the Department of Homeland Security, Sagarin believes the octopus metaphor applies: The tentacles are more important than the brain.

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