May 7, 2009

Future Proof: The Future Comes From the Edges

In software architecture circles, there's a rather curious term in vogue called "future proofing". Typically, when you are putting together an architecture, especially an enterprise level architecture, one of the major goals is to insure that, once laid down, it won't be necessary to come back in ten years time, tear the whole thing out and start from scratch. In essence, you want to set up the architecture so that, no matter what the future brings, the application or system can adapt.

It's a laudable goal in theory, but in practice, it's seldom an achievable goal. Part of the reason for this is that while architecture tends to be a top down imposition of ideas and structure, the future is notoriously bottom up. It creeps in through the cracks, like weeds pushing up through concrete pavement ... before you know it, the concrete has been reduced to rubble, and the seemingly soft and fragile weeds and saplings have become a wilderness.

This is a part of the reason that many very good architects - whether of buildings or of software - tend to have a touch of Zen master in them. They do not see the future as the enemy, but rather as a wild and unknowable force that, nonetheless, can be redirected to work the least amount of damage (and perhaps even to improve upon the existing infrastructure) over time. What this means is not anticipating the future per se - that really is an exercise in futility - but in understanding the characteristics of change and to build with these in mind.

Such thinking applies just as readily to urban planners, managers, and decision makers as it does to architects - too many choose to "make their mark" upon the future without realizing that doing so is an exercise in hubris, and usually doesn't end well.

I am beginning a series of essays on "predicting" the future that looks not at trends or even critical technologies to watch but rather that look at "techniques" - where to look for innovation, how to understand the growth and decline of systems, understanding how to pull the relevant from the irrelevant and so forth. Fans of systems theory will recognize most of these, as in general anticipating the future usually involves understands how trends and energy flows interact with one another and how layers of abstraction can be modelled and consequently separated from one another without losing out too much of the behavioral glue that nested abstractions bring about.

Each article in this series will be labeled as Future Proofing. Click on the Future Proofing keyword to see a list of all articles in the series and check back frequently, more will be added on a daily basis.

The Future Comes From the Edges

Any given structure that you build by its very existence establishes boundaries. So long as those boundaries remain inviolate, the structure will stand. However, those boundaries are also under near continuous bombardment as the outside world interacts with these boundaries. For instance, every day, a house's walls (and more especially its roof) are attacked by insects, by mold, by water, pollen spores, and other agents that are quite fully capable of interaction with these boundaries. Water pools under roof tiles, slowly dissolving nails and glue, until eventually a heavy wind rips one or two of these away.

Once the integrity of the house has been breached, the invasion mounts. Ants and termites get in, mold develops within wood beams and along exposed paper, increasing the breach and reducing the integrity even more. Stressed beams pop as rusting nails and staples crumble, sheet-rock and drywall become powdery and fragile, even mortar for bricks will eventually disintegrate. This process doesn't happen quickly, but it does happen - most houses constructed today, when left unmaintained, will become unlivable within a couple of decades, and will disintegrate completely within a hundred years.

The same process occurs in society, though it usually happens much more quickly because the boundaries involved are far more ephemeral in nature. Governments arise in order to insure that collective actions of a specific group can take place with as little organizational impedance as possible. While it is possible that the group is involved consists of all people within a given geopolitical boundary, in practice, governments usually serve to mediate conflicts within the most powerful members of the society - landowners, for instance, or investors, with the decisions to support other that are not in that group being made because of the potential that these non-group members have to disrupt the society.

However, these non-members also represent agents of change, for good or for ill. If they don't have representation in the group but the group has some effect upon their lives, then they will agitate for ways to gain representation. They operate at the margins - protests, work stoppages, subverting the dominant media, "terrorist" actions, warfare, interbreeding. The societal structures will remain change so long as the integrity of those structures remain solid, but eventually, at some point, a chink will develop. The organization/government/consensus must either adapt, integrating these new members and/or ideas, or it will disintegrate if the invaders have a more efficient mode of operation (more force or a better ability to exploit the existing environment).

From a system architect standpoint, this means designing architectures so that natural channels exist. If formalized mechanisms exist for recognizing and incorporating change exist, this makes the process less disruptive in the long term. This is called flexibility. Design so that the system can adapt to stress, perhaps even utilize it. People are beginning to experiment with building hi-rise towers that not only bend in the presence of high winds or earthquakes, but that can actually extract energy from the building as it does so to use for other purposes. Many social networks actually get their value from the change within their channels.

From a future watch perspective such edge considerations should therefore be subject to especially close scrutiny. Most intermixing of ideas occur at the boundaries (think of such boundaries as the edge of turbulence, where the inside environment mixes with the outside. When two cultures meet, they have to resolve differences, define new interfaces between one another, try to work out which works best on either side. This is the basis for innovation. However, it is also the place where the greatest strife is occurring, and the biggest threats to the company, as illustrated above. Look at mashups, where two unrelated technologies are combined in novel ways. Look at mergers, where the two organizations are roughly of the same size (same abstraction level, as discussed in the next section). Look at organizations that are on the verge of going from one abstraction level to the next (up or down). Look in cross discipline studies, where people from different disciplines begin comparing notes. This is always a good place to start when trying to assess the future.

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