Designing freedom – principles for a cybernetic university

24 min read

I feel it necessary to begin with a reminder of what I’m talking about when I refer to cybernetics. Since ‘cybernetic’ can evoke a range of ideas which might include cyborgs (human-machine hybrids), systems and control, general technology and the Internet, robots or perhaps just a replacement of human interaction by machines. But when I’m talking about cybernetics what I mean is a view of the world as interactions of complex dynamic systems. Some of those dynamic systems are man-made and artificial, much of our environment is ‘natural’ and populated by evolved (and evolving) living things.

What I’m getting towards in this post is to consider what a university might be like if it were designed using cybernetic principles. But before doing that I need to put forward some of the underlying principles and ideas of cybernetics to help you to think in a cybernetic way and key to this is the dynamic system.

Dynamic Systems

A very general account of what a dynamic system involves considering the universal system, i.e. the universe, as a dynamic system of matter and energy. The universe consists of subsystems which are not only dynamic systems of matter and energy in their own right, through the universal dynamic system they are in a constant state of interaction with the universe and other systems. The subsystem can be characterised as an entity, as having form, but in cybernetic thinking these are the outputs of the subsystem and not its processes.

Stafford Beer highlighted this distinction: that dynamic systems can be seen as an entity, that is its ‘form’ in terms of its outputs, or it can be seen as a ‘dynamic system’ of behaviours and processes (Beer, 1974). The dynamic system view emphasises more strongly the relationships and interactions between systems since they are part of a universal dynamic system of matter and energy. The classical view of entities seeks to understand the relationship between the form of those entities, this is the case with Newtonian physics. Quantum theory presents us with a dynamic and stochastic system.

So far, I have described what we could call the ‘natural’ world or at least insofar as to say the parts of the world that are not alive. Living things are special kinds of dynamic systems. They have evolved to become self-conscious and self-aware – I don’t profess to say that all living things are self-conscious and self-aware, I just want to present a definition of living things as a process. The process leads to agency and that is an ability to perceive self-control and a claim to have some degree of conscious control over the natural world and environment.

Consciousness also leads to production, to manufacture and fabrication; we are able to make tools and imbue in the form of those tools a design. Tools are artefacts with purpose. As well as the significant material tools such as the wheel or the pulley system, humanity has created the immaterial and intangible tools and systems to organise and systematise language, thought and society. We have created an artificial world based on our collective experience of living in that world, but one that has become increasingly abstract and alien to dynamic systems, but which remains, paradoxically, – because it is part of the natural world – a dynamic system.

I have classified the world into three types of dynamic systems: the natural world, the living world and the artificial world.

Dynamic systems must adapt to the changing environment in which they exist, otherwise they do not survive, they do not remain viable. Stafford Beer illustrates a non-surviving dynamic system as a wave approaching a beach. It demonstrates the principles of fluid dynamics, it might be said that the wave obeys the principles of hydrodynamics, but ultimately it becomes unstable and ‘breaks’.

Organisations and institutions must remain viable, while also being dynamic systems. Here, I am going to consider Stafford Beer’s idea of the viable system model (VSM) to consider how a university might remain viable within a changing environment.

Viable systems model (VSM) and human society

A VSM is a dynamic system that is capable of adaptation to a changing, complex or unpredictable environment. Living things are demonstrably consistent with VSMs, that is they can adapt to and respond to a complex social and physical environment. Dynamic systems are viable because they can deal with and respond to complexity. It is no surprise that Beer developed the VSM with reference to living things.

Human beings use a culturally compiled and genetically embedded capacity to identify patterns in complexity to help them respond to their environments – to allow them to steer their way. Humanity, for something of the order of 10,000 generations, has been psychologically, anatomically and physiologically adapting in response to its environment. It has passed on information genetically and socially to allow the next generation to adapt more effectively (Harries-Jones, 2010). As civilisation has emerged, this adaptation has also had to respond to a world created by the imagination of humanity, the dynamics systems of government and institutions: the hierarchies, structures and systems of society and its organisations, institutions and firms.

The capacity for pattern matching to guide individual action relies on the 100 billion neurons in the human body. What we sense is an incomplete picture of the world, it is the excess or redundancy of neural networks that allow the construction of an excess of different patterns which may complete the partial picture of reality and match that to what is in memory and embedded in our DNA. Pioneering cybernetician, Warren McCulloch, developed an account along the following lines:

Redundancy ensures that any element in the neural network is repeated, and repeated, and repeated. Instead of being a supernumerary feature of the neural network, the very primacy of its redundancy ensures an extremely high chance that whatever information the nervous system receives is coincident with something in the world… (Harries-Jones, 2010, p. 2368).

The individual human being is equipped to be a VSM with their capacity to respond to a complex and changing environment. Collectively, human beings with even a primitive form of communication, have a greater collective power as a VSM. The implementation of a system of power and hierarchy results in structures that potentially limit the viability of subjugated individuals or groups, because they are then subject to abstract rules. We can see here how a Hobbesian social contract emerges, where the individual concedes a degree of liberty in order to accept the security of the state. This also assumes that the ‘untamed’ human is a savage and it is a necessity that order prevails. Hobbes sees the exchange of liberty as natural and necessary. From a cybernetics perspective we can see civilisation and belonging to a state compromises the VSM. While people living in civilised society can do so healthily and productively, there are groups and individuals that will become unstable. Contrast this with Rousseau who believed in the creative completeness of the free individual, that humankind is not savage au naturel.

According to Marx, it was the division of labour, the artificial formatting of society in response to the dynamics of capitalism that leads to alienation.

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.

Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature (Marx, Comments on James Mill, 1844).

The compromise of individual viability as a result of our attempts to organise society in abstract ways represents a cybernetic account of alienation. Instead of using our intuitions to navigate our place in the world we are subject to an artificial hierarchy in which we are engaged in a rational puzzle, where the rules of the game are defined by those with privilege and power. When we get to the subunits of society, departments and institution, we see the same system of hierarchy and control.

VSM in organisational design

Beer was a successful post war operational researcher in the UK’s newly nationalised industries. It was in the steel industry under an economy actively managed by the state, broadly under the principles put forward by Keynes, that Beer began to develop a cybernetic model of organisational design.

An important observation for Beer was that it was not the steel rolling mill’s output that was the defining feature of the mill, it was its processes and the way in which it could respond to external changes. His interest in developing ‘variety’ to respond to the context led him to some early experiments in biocomputing. He attempted to use iron filings to act as an interface with pond life to provide a living neural network. This failed but was pioneering work in the field.

The VSM was a later iteration for Beer, his model for the organisation of a firm was based on the human body. It had five hierarchical systems, but not hierarchical in the same sense as many organisations are currently formatted, where there is a system of rules and controls. The hierarchy in Beer’s cybernetic design was based on information flows rather than rules or constraints.

Figure 1 Metaphorum’s simple VSM

System 1

System 1 represents the operational aspects of the organisation. In the above example, this is a commercial enterprise involving the buying and selling of commodities (there may be some transformation as part of that process).

For the two decades or more, we have increasingly seen the student and the researcher as funder, as a customer. Whatever the framing the university’s primary function is to provide education, scholarship and research for the benefit of society. Metrics have become increasingly important in a marketized higher education system. This metrification and datafication of complex systems like health and education can create really perverse incentives in the operation of university departments. While there are industries whose operations are reasonably quantified, the information about the process in a university must primarily be qualitative to reflect the complexity. There is a need to manage spending of course but to what extent does this need to be related directly to the process of research and teaching, apart from to say how much each programme is allocated?

System 2

System 2 represents the information channels and bodies that allow the primary activities in System 1 to communicate between each other and which allow System 3 to monitor and co-ordinate the activities within System 1.

A small faculty or department can have informal channels of communication and systems of communication. The social life of the department is hugely important in allowing these channels. Communication must have face-to-face embodied engagements to allow individuals the opportunity to communicate at an emotional level as well as in communicating rational detail. System 1 and 2 are operational and should be autonomous. It is the perspective of proximity that individuals and groups in localised operations that make them best placed to make decisions about their operations. The point at which information must go to system 3 is when there are events and experiences that are outside the usual range of operation. This is the cue for systems 3, 4 and 5 to compare this experience with what is happening across the organisation and in the wider context.

As with system 1 there is an increasing datafication of these communications, a range of indicators and performance figures must be compared with other departments and benchmarks. The performance in system 1 operations becomes limited to the targets and benchmarks, rather than attending to the more open-ended operations of teaching and research. In England we have the REF (research excellence framework) and more recently the TEF (teaching excellence framework). These ‘performance-related’ measures present a narrow definition of research and teaching and in respect to the REF, research funding is allocated on the basis of performance in it. It is of little wonder that the faculty or department discuss targets, performance indicators, unit costs and quantifiable outputs at length but pay little attention to the actual processes or in understanding the organisation. Strategy in the contemporary institution is about hitting targets rather than developing an adaptable institution. Metaphorum make some further observations about system 2.

System 2 deals with the inevitable problems which emerge as a number of autonomous, self-organising operational parts interact.  There will be conflicts of interest which must be resolved. System 2 is there to harmonise the interactions, to keep the peace, to deal with the problems (

It is possible to imagine a university department or faculty made up of a number of teaching and research system 1 sub-units and system 2 providing the links and organisation between them. The emphasis in Stafford Beer’s work is that system 1 operations must have maximum autonomy. These are self-organising and self-managing units but linked together through system 2 communications.

System 3

System 3 is the first layer of management and is concerned with synergy. It surveys the interacting operational units from a more detached position, it is looking to find ways in which operational units might collaborate more effectively. It is not looking to manage performance but to seek opportunities in which operational units can collaborate or work together more effectively.

System 4

Has an outward looking perspective, it is looking to provide information about changes to the environment, i.e. threats and opportunities. System 4 provides the means to cope with a changing environment.

System 5

Is the highest level of management in an institutional subunit. Its role is to develop the values and vision of the system through the development of policy. It creates identity, ethos, ground rules under which everyone operates. In my own faculty, this would likely be the Faculty Board.

The recursive university

The VSM is a recursive model where viable systems contain viable systems which use the same principles. So in the University of Cambridge, we might see a faculty or department as a system 1 to 5 VSM. At school level, as a collection of departments and faculties, a higher-level VSM with a system 1 to 5 model, where system 1 operational units are the faculties and departments. A further layer is required at university level. A university involves at least three tiers of VSM.

The politics of VSM

Before contrasting this proposed cybernetic design for education with the current model, I want to deviate into the political perspectives. Because the way in which I have presented the VSM is as hierarchical, that is in spite of me stressing the autonomy of operations, it is fundamentally about rules and subordination. Or at least that’s how it might look. Swann sets out to rehabilitate cybernetics to consider (as I am attempting to do here) the potential for radical and alternative forms of organisation (Swann, 2018). Swann looks to an anarchist cybernetic, but first distances anarchism from characterisations of chaos and disorder, but as a doctrine that seeks emancipation. Moreover, anarchism became established as an emancipatory movement but contrasting with statist socialism that was a significant interpretation of Marx. There is in anarchism a strand that emphasises the self-determination of the individual and small groups, which rather resonates with the cybernetic empowerment of the adaptive individual. The question is, how do we build systems of government and institutional organisation to maximise the liberties of the individual? For Hayek, this was largely an impossibility and that market exchange should be the organising principle. Since this exchange deals at a stroke with uncertainty and unknowability. We have been through a forty-year period where this ideology has been dominant and we now, hopefully, see it at an end; as the scale of inequality, fraud, corruption and damage to society and communities becomes increasingly evident. The cybernetic view is that individuals can and do know, just not in the abstract sense of a pure knowledge, but in the process of action and decision-making within contexts, much as in the tradition of the pragmatists, C S Peirce, William James and John Dewey.

In Chantal Mouffe’s recent book Toward a Left Populism, she repeats an earlier motivation she held with her collaborator Ernesto Laclau:

…to question the belief held by some people on the left, that to move towards a more just society, it was necessary to relinquish liberal-democratic institutions and to build a completely new politeia, a new political community from scratch. We asserted that, in democratic societies, in our view could be carried out through a critical engagement with the existing institutions (Mouffe, 2018, p. 39).

What Mouffe is putting forward is to use both the raw political force of direct action and left populism but to build within this a radical redesign of existing institutions, to give them a strong democratic foundation and that promotes human flourishing. It is likely that the design work has been initiated and developed by Stafford Beer. And it is a good point to be reminded that Beer’s hierarchy is a structure of communication and not a structure of power and control.

Beer tells the story of his first meeting with Salvador Allende, elected President of Chile in 1970 and the world’s first elected democratic socialist. Beer presented his VSM model to Allende, who had trained as pathologist. Beer explained how Allende understood completely the analogy of human physiology in organisational design. When Beer pointed to the system 5 element, he said he expected Allende to say “El Presidente” but instead he said, “El pueblo” – the village. Allende perhaps envisaged the inclusive democratic and community orientation of the VSM. It is likely that instead of seeing the VSM as a top-down autocratic and bureaucratic, it was a model driven by people for the people. At least this is how Beer recalled it. Beer went on to develop Cybersyn to manage the economy in Chile, this was halted when Allende was murdered in a coup in 1973 which was supported and most likely orchestrated by the CIA.

But on Mouffe’s principle of populism, direct action and radically reforming institutions, what is there in this as a political project? There are two dimensions to this the first to push back against the existing capitalist hegemony, since this is the system that provides the conditions in which our institutions become increasingly hierarchical and underpinned by power and control. Populism has the force to highlight this as an injustice and to expand a social movement, direct action can be used to force negotiations by using a mass force to redress the imbalances of power that would want to retain the status quo. But beyond this we do need to construct possible futures and the key one is how we organise our institutions and workplaces.

About two years ago I was thinking about what the key features should be in political action in our institutions to force change. I came up with three themes: democracy, scholarship, activism and solidarity (Watson, 2017). Thinking about cybernetics has allowed me to develop these themes further:

  • Democracy – is the participation of individuals in society and their contribution to shared decisions. The VSM provides a blueprint for an organisation of not just institutions and firms, but also of society.
  • Scholarship – this is the intellectual engagement; a cybernetic view of the world lights up all sorts of possibilities in terms of scholarship. While this might continue to be basic research, the practical, the real-time and the applied become live and real.
  • Activism – one can be an even more motivated activist when there are possibilities and those possibilities are realisable.
  • Solidarity – just as with activism, there is a sense that these four aspects of political action are all connected and none of these processes can work without a deep sense of solidarity and collectivism.

Concluding remarks

It has been a long and speculative journey for a blog post. In its writing, I have clarified some of my thinking and left some areas unexplored, notably I have not yet endeavoured to contrast the current operations of the University of Cambridge, for example, with the cybernetic views. That became too big a project for this post. This might be because, I couldn’t get away from thinking about the institution in wider society, there felt something unreasonable in trying to redesign an already privileged institution. However, there is an opportunity to think about what Cambridge does in leading society and part of what it must do is think about how its institutions might use VSM to model this for society and be a part of radical changes in society and the world. But at the moment it is ground down by the risk averse culture that is being used as a disciplining force, which in my view is making it less stable and limiting its genuine contribution to making the world a better place.


Beer, S. (1974). Designing freedom. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.

Harries-Jones, P. (2010). Bioentropy, aesthetics and meta-dualism: the transdisciplinary ecology of Gregory Bateson. Entropy, 12(12), 2359–2385.

Mouffe, C. (2018). For a left populism. London ; New York: Verso.

Swann, T. (2018). Towards an anarchist cybernetics: Stafford Beer, self-organisation and radical social movements. Ephemera: Theory, Politics and Organization, 18(3), 427–456.

Watson, S. (2017). A manifesto for control: democracy, scholarship, activism and solidarity. In L. Rycroft-Smith & J.-L. Dutaut (Eds.), Flip the system UK: a teachers’ manifesto (pp. 68–75). London: Routledge.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.