Prometheus Ascends Olympus: How Bottom-Up Systems Win Out Every Time


One of the fundamental principles that the Startup Societies Foundation examines is competition in governance. What we mean by “Competition in governance” is the ability of citizens to leave the government (Or other societal body) they are currently residing in without undue cost to themselves. This is a fundamental principle of a free market: keeping producers accountable by being able to withdraw patronage at any time on grounds of unsatisfactory service is one of the key ways a market can naturally select for high-quality service and product providers.

It is no coincidence that we used the words “Naturally select”, given that there are plenty of similarities to be noted between market competition and the biological process that is often incautiously labeled as “survival of the fittest”. Namely, both of these systems are inherently self-organizing, bottom-up methods of determining the most adaptable unit in a system – be it a biological species in an ecosystem or a business model in a market. In an ecosystem, the more adaptive species overcomes the simply largest, strongest and fastest. In a similar manner, the innovative and adaptive business model with high levels of flexibility effectively usurps the hegemony of larger companies.

We arrive at the altercation between those who subscribe to the opinion that intelligently designed systems are superior to self-organizing systems and vice-versa. We shall call them “Top-downers” and “Bottom-uppers”, respectively. Those of the former opinion do have a point: After all, how can we expect to design complex machines, contracts, products and projects without a leading figure – be it in the form of a CEO, lead engineer or parliament? The leaders and innovators in a field are the ones that set into motion the chain of events that result in new developments.


Examples of top-down organizational structures are: A scientific experiment in which the scientist is in control and all variables are accounted for, a socialist centrally planned economy, military command structures, some democratic countries and even theistic theories of the intelligent design of life forms. Intrinsic in all of these is a prime mover that occupies the top of the hierarchy, and through this intelligent executive do the changes in the system take form. A central organizational bureau decides the economic development route a country will take, in the example of the Soviet and Yugoslavian five year plans.

There are plenty of self-organizing systems to choose from as well: ecosystems will naturally select for the most adaptable species, free markets make sure that the producer that serves consumer demand in the most complete way gets the most market share and even naturally-occurring phenomena are (if one does not believe in theistic theory of intelligent design) perfect in their self-assembly.


Self-organizing systems compared to top-down directive produce more adaptive, tenacious and quick-witted units in a system. We can list unending examples: The dinosaurs were outdone by more complex, but incomparably smaller creatures. In much the same way, tech startups snatched away the innovative edge from larger companies, relying on the same principles the mammals did so many millions of years ago. This is not to say that top-down systems have no place in the world. Businesses, families, communities and a plethora of other societal structures will be top-down organized for the foreseeable future. There will be top-down systems organized within a larger bottom-up system. In other words: every organism in the ecosystem is top-down in the way that it makes its own decisions pertaining to its survival, but the ecosystem is bottom-up organized. The ecosystem will make certain that only the most adaptable system survives, which applies in a market environment as well. Businesses will, of course, not resort to the bloodied-claw tactics that animal species will, but the theory stands: there are objective qualities that a unit in the system must have in order to prosper in the system.


If current trends continue, it would be safe to assume that our globalized world is heading toward a decentralized model; one of numerous digital nomads traveling the world and being engaged in temporary work and living arrangements, complemented by temporary stay arrangements with the local government. If such a system becomes mainstream – one of highly mobile professionals delivering value in short bursts to various areas worldwide – we may begin to see the early development stages of a true free market in governance. As we have noted before, a true free market in any product results in the adaptive, flexible and customer-serving business model winning out in the long run.

The near future will see the stage of a new Prometheus stealing the proverbial fire from the gods: Small, nimble and daringly innovative governments will welcome the coming generations of high-value people through market-led incentives. The modern leviathan nation-states will be starved for quality talent and will slowly but surely become uncompetitive in the global market. Another fire shall be stolen from Mount Olympus, never to be returned again.

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