The Flat World of Revolution: Complex Adaptive Systems in Action

“Anyone wanting to teach a course in 21st-century politics should begin in Egypt, where the power of real-time flat Web-savvy organizations over ponderous hierarchies has just been illustrated.” Roger Cohen, New York Times, February 11, 2011

Much will be written about the origins and the consequences of the decisions made by the organizers of the Tahrir Square uprising that changed not only Egypt, but the world. Although the Cairo revolution has now achieved its initially implausible goal of ousting Hosnir Mubarak from his tyrannical post, creating a democracy in the wake of this week’s events is another matter entirely.  We can only watch and cheer on the fledgling democratic spermatozoa as it seeks its illusive unfertilized egg in hopes of creating a zygote with some potential for sustainable life.

Among the many astonishing lessons the Tahrir demonstrations teach us about strategic approaches to change in complex adaptive systems (See Complex Adaptive Systems: Why Hierarchy is Dead), one is the power of the flat organization.  Hierarchies bent on retaining power require cumbersome bureaucracies of command and control which are dependent on the coercive influence of individuals in each descending level of the organization.  Individuals recoil at the loss of their freedom to choose.

In contrast, flat organizations are motivated by far more powerful influences than fear.  Autonomy, purpose and mastery are more influential by far than holding on to a position or the pay grade one occupies.  (See Daniel Pink’s Drive.)  Hierarchies work through the status they confer and the ascending emoluments of power they create.  All that crumbles in the face of flat organizations where all are empowered equally and given autonomy to achieve greater purposes than maintaining the status quo.

This dynamic shift in power in Cairo was achieved in the two weeks leading up to January 25, 2011.  Emboldened by the amazing events in Tunisia following the fall of a cruel dictator and his culture of fear, a dozen young Egyptians outwitted the feared security forces of Mubarak as they planned a demonstration which was “off the grid”.  As reported by the Wall Street Journal, it was a secret rally that sparked an uprising.

Meeting in the living room of one of the young revolutionary’s mother, the planners created a diversionary tactic which dispatched the President’s security forces to 20 sites across Cairo. The police were sent to dispel “flash mobs” of protesters organized to gather following prayers at pre-established sites near mosques around the city.  However, the site which was not publicized for the benefit of security force reaction was a candy store near a slum section of the city.  The poor youth gathered unmolested by police and marched on Tahrir Square which was unsuspected and unprotected.

A revolution was born.  The power of flat was demonstrated.  Hierarchy was unable to catch up and ultimately has succumbed to its ponderous reliance on the status quo and the coercive use of power.  The hope of democracy has been ignited into a spark of life.

Go spermatozoa, go!


One Response to The Flat World of Revolution: Complex Adaptive Systems in Action

  1. Deborah Denson says:

    I watched with anxious anticipation day after day, not only because the courage and conviction of the Egyptians was so mesmerizing, but also because my nephew was there. He is a teacher in Cairo and was determined to stay and watch the miracle. (

    I was filled with conflicting emotions… I wanted to support his enthusiastic desire to participate AND I wanted him to leave so I would know he was safe. Both were true. I was floating around with strong feelings on a daily basis.

    Jewel’s song “Life Uncommon” rang through my heart: “No longer lend your strength to that which you want to be free from. Fill your hearts with love and bravery, and you will lead a life uncommon.” I prayed… I prayed for strength and courage. I prayed for the people’s voices to matter… for freedom and autonomy to matter.

    I share your concerns about the road ahead for Egypt, so I will continue to pray. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.


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