Modularity: Small Pieces Loosely Joined

by Howard Silverman

In this issue of P&P, Brian Walker writes “a resilient world consists of modular components (such as a forest with discreet habitats).” Each habitat is defined by close relationships among plants, animals and so on. But when crossing over to a neighboring habitat, these connections weaken.

Is a forest like a computer? Consider the design of the artifact in front of you. Keyboard, monitor, microprocessor: each with an internal function, yet each a component of the whole. In Design Rules: The Power of Modularity, business theorists Carliss Baldwin and Kim Clark ascribe the computer industry’s rapid growth and innovation to its modularity, its decentralization of both engineering and economic organization. Similar principles are notable in the end-to-end architecture of the Internet and the small-pieces-loosely-joined nature of the Web.

Ecological Design
Modularity is one of a handful of factors – including feedback, diversity and redundancy – that bolster social and ecological resilience. Discreet habitats can reduce risk to the forest as a whole, such as when one burns, while others remain unscathed. Tight feedback loops mean that consequences of actions are near in space and time. Diversity means that different species and individuals provide for redundancies in how important functions are performed.

These factors are analogous, either as observable phenomena or as design principles, across a wide range of disciplines. The Wikipedia entry for modularity lists: biology, mathematics, network theory, organizational theory, cognitive studies, media studies, engineering and software design (as well as ecology, which I just added). Do principles of modularity, feedback and so on apply to the organization of societies as a whole? What would this look like?

Diversity and Feedback in Social-Ecological Systems
I’m reminded of an award-winning 2003 series in the Sacramento Bee called, “State of Denial.” The state in the header refers to California and the denial to the growing gap between its production and consumption. “You can't have a rational forest policy without admitting we use wood products,” observes William Stewart, chief of California’s Fire and Resource Assessment Program. “The more we don't produce here, the more it will come from other areas. We're just shuffling our environmental impacts somewhere else.”

As Stewart points out, bringing production of environmental goods and services closer to home can improve feedback about social and environmental impacts, cues that often go missing in the global commodity system. In the five years since “State of Denial,” the growing popularity of local food has begun to offer an example of a more modular, diverse, community-nourishing alternative. One paper recently published by the Resilience Alliance finds that a diversity of farm types and farming practices can reduce the vulnerability of food production to changes in climate.

At the risk of getting ahead of myself, here are three clarifications: (1) There are other ways to improve feedback, such as ensuring that prices better reflect the true costs of production and by increasing use of product labeling and certification; (2) Regionalization (i.e. localization) of production facilitates, rather than ensures, the transparency that improves feedback; and (3) Global trade both provides benefits based on the natural advantages of regions and facilitates an internationalization that has enormous value.

The Very Nature of Things
Biomimicry is gaining well-deserved attention for the proposition that there is value in designing with nature as a model, mentor and measure of success. While applications of biomimetics have largely focused on industrial ecology and materials technology, this article draws from the writings of the Resilience Alliance folks to outline a case for biomimicry on a larger social-ecological scale.

In summary: (1) Modularity is an observable natural phenomenon, at scales from bodily organs to ecosystems; (2) As a design principle, modularity can heighten technological and business innovation; and (3) There are reasons to believe that social-ecological modularity, meaning increased localization and regionalization in the production of environmental goods and services, can boost resilience through factors such as greater diversity and tighter feedback loops.

Moral Principles
One last pair of questions: Are there larger lessons to be found in the idea of learning from nature? Are the principles of nature’s design in some sense moral principles?

One person that has engaged these questions is architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander. In 1996, the popularity of Alexander’s pattern language among software programmers earned him an invitation to keynote the Object-Oriented Programming, Systems, Languages, and Applications conference. (The modular characteristics of pattern languages are on display at the Ecotrust website: Patterns for a Conservation Economy.) In his talk, Alexander reflects on his own “moral preoccupation with the need for a good environment” and urges the audience to strive not merely for technical efficiency, but for a “morally profound” creativity.

In the 2002 book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined, David Weinberger comes to a moral conclusion as well. Weinberger explores numerous ways in which people use the Web to connect and, without employing metaphors from nature, he finds: “The Web’s architecture itself is fundamentally moral.” It is moral, he says, because it enables authentically social behavior.

Much to explore. But I’m going to wrap up this post in hopes that you will share your thoughts as well.



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  • Modularity and Local Food Systems

    Great article. Modularity is a very broad concept, the utility of which will undoubtedly grow as the turbulence of our times increases. In my own work in local food system development and biomass energy production, the modularity principle has helped organize my thoughts and actions, so it is a treat to have the concept brought to light in this forum, not only in esoteric journals. When I 'map' the modularity and resilience concepts onto local food systems, a couple of questions remain unanswered. The 'conventional' global food system has had such a successful run the past 60 years (and for argument's sake, success = growth), in part, because it was triumphant in turning food into interchangeable commodities that could be sourced far and wide, as long as it 'met the spec', so to speak. By creating processed food items from 'modular' components (ingredients) global food firms created internal resilience against disruptions in the local growing regions of its suppliers. To use computer jargon, the more a food product was composed of 'hot-swappable' components with multiple suppliers of equal quality and cost, the more resilient was the enterprise selling the product to the misfortunes of any particular growing region where their suppliers were located. As the desire for authentic and unique food products grows, especially products where known origin is a key attribute, the firms reliant on these 'non-hot-swapple' (unique) ingredients may be dimishing the resilience of their enterprise should some misfortune befall the local suppliers they rely on. So, my question is: will the resilience bolstering effects of increased modularity at the food system level (i.e. discrete 'foodsheds' of locally-adapted food production that are largely uncoupled from the global food system) be outweighed by the resilience eroding effects of decreased interchangeability (increased uniqueness) of the food products grown in the region? Are expanded, or more finely parsed, definitions of modularity required to answer this?

  • from Carliss Baldwin

    [I received this note via email from Carliss Baldwin. - Howard]

    Thank you for this email and the link to your article. I found it very thought-provoking. Was especially glad to see the reference to Christopher Alexander, who is one of my heros.

    I was also very intrigued by the connection you made to moral behavior. Of late I have been very much concerned with the financial crisis. The architecture of the present financial system is the antithesis of modularity—see this link: The Flawed Architecture of the Financial System

  • I like this idea. i link it to market formation stages, cooperation (negotiating one offs like traffic is a modular approach) and coordinations (when connections and reactions become fixed and automated) like trains on a track. modularity allows for cooperation when its appropriate and coordination later.

This discussion has been closed.