The Attributer’s Blog – Adaptive

Here we take another Business Attribute from the SABSA Business Attributes Taxonomy, looking this time towards the lessons we can learn from the history of the human race. We refer the reader to some research on a number of related topics: (1) Panarchy – see for the article by Molinari, On the Production of Security; (2) Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) – see We shall also engage with some more familiar concepts: evolution, ecosystems, entropy and the second law of thermodynamics.

So how, you asking yourself, are these six concepts inter-related? Our starting point is the Attributer article from IB 2012 Issue 8 on the attribute ‘collaborative’ – how humans need to find ways to collaborate and exchange value so as to build a society for the benefit of all. To do this they need to work hard. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that the entropy (the level of chaos and disorder) of an isolated system will tend to increase over time. If you’ve ever kept a garden you will have experienced this in action. You pull the weeds, cut the grass and trim the hedges – a few weeks later it’s back to chaos. To build and maintain orderliness you need to input ‘work’ from outside the system to reduce the entropy and increase the energy of the system.

Now look at the other key concepts. We often mistakenly talk of ecosystems as being in fine balance, as though they will maintain this balance over time. The reality is that whilst in a snapshot moment an ecosystem appears balanced, the balance is continuously changing as time passes. This process is known as evolution. Evolution can be very slow (as in the evolution of new life species), medium pace (as in climate changes) or very quick (as in the evolution of our modern technocratic society and the technologies that drive it). It is with regard to this latter example that we focus our attention in this article. Our human society is a complex ecosystem with many socio-economic and technological characteristics that are in a constant state of change. The rate of change of opportunities and threats becomes ever quicker – so what strategy can we adopt to manage these emerging and evolving risks?

Panarchy is a theory all about the need for government in society and can best be described as ‘the rise and fall of empires’. The theory proposes a socio-ecological system lifecycle that follows four phases. (1) An opportunity gives rise to exploitation and the build up of capital value and an increase in the connectedness of the ecosystem. (2) The capital value is conserved and enjoyed as more and more elements become connected. (3) The system degrades (entropy increases) as increased connectedness presents more threats and challenges and it becomes too much work to maintain the socio-economic value. Eventually the value collapses, sometimes catastrophically, sometimes gradually. (4) Usually something new emerges, during a renewal and regeneration phase, moving on to the first phase again, taking advantage of new opportunities to build new capital value, but often with new stakeholders.


Panarchy provides a credible theory for modeling society, but where shall we find the means to apply controls? This is where we might draw on the research done on ‘complex adaptive systems’. A CAS is both complex and has the capability to self-adapt to a changing environment. The science of CAS is immature and not widely applied, but with several pundits in the cyber crime world predicting a catastrophic collapse in the current approach to cyber security, maybe we should be paying more attention to how these concepts might be applied in the cyber world. If the ‘bad guys’ are adapting and evolving more quickly than the ‘good guys’, then we must explore ways to reverse that tide in the interests of society as whole. Traditional fixed frames of reference such as standard controls libraries are continually degrading in their usefulness. SABSA thinking opens up a completely different approach – one in which risk (both opportunity and threat) is constantly being re-assessed and addressed with innovation. Thus the attribute ‘adaptive’ may be a critical success factor for the future of business.

The Attributer

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