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Utopian Discourses Across Cultures

Scenarios in Effective Communication to Citizens and Corporations

Edited By Miriam Bait, Marina Brambilla and Valentina Crestani

The term Utopia, coined by Thomas More in 1516, contains an inherent semantic ambiguity: it could be read as eu topos (good place) or ou topos (no place). The authors of this volume analyze this polysemous notion and its fascination for scholars across the centuries, who have developed a variety of visions and ways to explain the «realization» of utopian discourses. The experts in the fields of sociology, political science, economics, computer science, literature and linguistics offer extensive studies about how utopian scenarios are realized in different cultural contexts.

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Self-adaptive Organisms: The Evolution of Organizational Models and Systems

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Paola De Vecchi Galbiati

Self-adaptive Organisms: The Evolution of Organizational Models and Systems

1.  Self-adaptive Organisms

A Self-Adaptive Organism is a system able to reconfigure its own structure and change its own behaviour during the execution of its adaptation to environmental changes. (Zhu 2015)

The function of a self-adaptive organism can be described in a recursive way: this entity updates its results, means and processes by thinking and acting, recycling knowledge to solve problems both inside and outside of itself.

Self-adaptation is an observable phenomenon: nature provides numerous examples of self-adaptive organisms. These models are used in biology, physics and chemistry as metaphors to create reference systems and metrics that allow us to improve and enhance organizational solutions in social and economic contexts.

2.  Self-Adaptation in biology

When observing adaptive organisms, biology focuses on processes at the sub-organism level. Adaptations of organisms to environmental stresses are studied and developed using the latest molecular and physiological tools. Regulatory mechanisms are understood, including genetic constraints, physiological plasticity and the evolutionary history of the responses of organisms.

In biology, the sheer multitude of self-adaptive solutions implemented by natural organisms is overwhelming: plants, animals and micro-organisms convey crucial information for understanding the effects of an environmental change on the organisms, as well as the effects of organisms on the environment change.

This information together provides insight into how different communities (plants, animals, microorganisms) are interrelated and interdependent within an ecosystem, and how they determine the resilience of communities to environmental stress (Folke et al. 2007).

3.  The Brain is a Self-adaptive Organism

Brain plasticity refers to the innate ability of the brain to adapt by forming new neural connections and strengthening synapses between existing neurons during ← 61 | 62 → the course of our lives. This occurs in response to experiences, acquiring skills and learning. This also includes the exchanges of information between people and their cultural environment (Chiel and Beer 1997).

The ability to adapt allows us to assimilate new information and to create new memories. The most interesting aspect of the brain’s plasticity is its ability to “put knowledge into operation”, using everyday situations as catalysts for self-adaptation (Scott Kelso 1997).

4.  Self-adaptation in Design and Engineering

Solutions in automation, robotics, bioengineering, artificial intelligence and information technologies replicate self-learning and self-organization – abilities that can be observed in natural organisms.

Designers and engineers imitate the behavior of autonomous organisms in designing and developing self-adaptive products and services. These systems are developing and autonomous structures that are able to store behaviors and situations, to exchange information with the environment and with other systems, and to select data and use it in appropriate contexts (Schönera et al. 1999).

Industrial automation has evolved so far that equipment and machinery are able to perform self-diagnosis and self-repair. These systems are equipped with artificial intelligence that can store and play behaviors due to experiences stored and shared continuously during their operations.

If we think about the technology services with which we interface daily, we see that they collect our behavior incrementally. Through data mining and user interfaces, they self-adapt themselves to us; digital media suggests products and services that match our tastes or our interests.

5.  Self-adaptation in Sociology

Self-adaptive models are also being used in business organization and management. During these last five years, new organizational models for managing teams and projects have been designed and implemented (Zamaraeva and Pankratov 2013).

By applying biological models to changing organizations, we have seen that self-determination, self-regulation and self-control of individuals can increase rapidly in certain conditions. And by thus achieving a high level of autonomy, each person becomes a catalyst for self-adaptation skills in their entire group.

In my research, I have considered three different approaches to evaluate self-adaptation in sociology: ← 62 | 63 →

Self-adaptation of groups when the environment changes.

Self-adaptation of groups when objects and services change.

Self-adaptation of groups when rules and roles change.

Considering the first point, there are many ways in which cultural changes have been induced by adaptation to environmental changes. Reduction of natural resources such as water and fertile land generates migration to more habitable places, and at the same time, self-adaptation in consumption for those who remain, for those who emigrate, for those who host. The occurrence of extraordinary natural events (e.g. earthquakes, floods) has produced devastation and simultaneously has refined prevention mechanisms and emergency services. And many people are working on the adaptation of organizational models to achieve stable conditions. Although the slowness of the response may be alarming, groups are refining their awareness of the impact of organizational structures and behaviors on the natural environment. As self-adaptive organisms, humans act simultaneously on their own structure (meta-cognition) and behavior (social responsibility).

With respect to the second point, I can see self-adaptation at work everywhere, every day. Many products and services have been launched in the last years, including mobile devices, apps, cloud computing and social media. By using these technologies, we are all changing our mindset and approach: we now use technologies to reserve a table at a restaurant, to buy tickets, to read a book or to watch a movie. This self-adaptation occurs due to a change in habits resulting from technological changes. After this first stage, all our self-adaptation mechanisms are activated: we imitate behaviors and structures learned from technologies, adapt solutions (e.g. resource sharing, peer to peer, e-collaboration), and introduce these solutions to social and economic organizations (e.g. open access, creative commons, crowd-funding).

At the third point I try to provide a view of an organization like an organism (group) of organisms (people), interconnected through “some pieces of culture”. These aspects of culture are rules and roles that we can already know or we can learn at home, at school, or in our workplaces. All of us have many stories to tell about times, styles, and ways to adapt ourselves to organizational changes. The renewal of an established culture generates conflicts and tensions between people and groups in adapting our structures and behaviors. Use a self-adaptive approach in managing cultural projects entails delegating power and responsibility to individuals (e.g. employees, managers, students and teachers). In this way, individuals’ capacity to adapt themselves improves. In turn, this personal self-adaptive improvement accelerates the self-adaptation of an entire organization. This kind of evolution will be demonstrated in the following chapters. ← 63 | 64 →

6.  An Evolutionary Perspective in Business and Social Organizations

We are self-adaptive organisms: we reconfigure our structure (e.g. mentality, method, approach, style) and we change our behavior (e.g. relationships, actions, reactions) through the continuous exchange of information with the environment (Smith 2004; Adolphs 2009).

If we see ourselves as natural and cultural entities, with some physical and cultural characteristics, we can also consider our organization as a living entity that includes and merges different people and different cultural entities.

We can share information with our natural and cultural environments and this simple event causes a change: first in our mindset, then in our behavior, and finally in our organizational system.

7.  Scope and Approach of This Research

For several years I have worked with many individuals in different profit and non-profit environments and collected extensive data about the self-adaptive skills that people already have and can improve when it comes to facing environmental and cultural changes.

As reference samples, I evaluated three different organizations in three different contexts:

Volunteers: When we put together people with different cultural backgrounds but driven by common interests, the group’s effectiveness and efficiency can increase rapidly. We can enlarge this perspective by describing ourselves as cultural elements of more a complex organism. Using an evolutionary approach, we can see that each individual increases their cultural dimensions and collaborates to reinforce the organism’s structure during a continuous and incremental process. This organism evolves its common culture through the exchange of information of its components.

Secondary School (K–12): When we introduce digital and non-digital tools in education, the different talents and attitudes of students can emerge more easily. Disruptive technologies applied to didactics allow teachers expand their modelling diagram and see digital technologies as new cultural dimensions entering into an established cultural organism: the secondary school. This complex system is made up of teachers, parents, roles, rules, tools and educational programs and this organism now includes new cultural dimensions (digital technologies) and simultaneously adapts itself and its cultural components (people, rules, contents). ← 64 | 65 →

Company Merger: When we involve each person in merging two different companies into a new one, sharing and co-creation are ‘self-emerging’ attitudes in everyone. Considering two companies like two living entities, we point out cultural elements that can facilitate the adaptation of individuals to the new organism. This organism is born of the cross-fertilization of different cultural dimensions of each person. Employees were involved in a collaborative redesign of the company’s processes and rules. People with high levels of engagement are able to adapt themselves and change the solutions through daily practices. Important catalysts in this process include self-learning, self-regulation, self-repairing.

I was part of each of these organizations for 3–5 years, and I had the opportunity to follow them closely. This allowed me to measure the evolution of self-adaptation in both individual people and organizations, observing and identifying the elements that can facilitate change management.

By tracking the structure and behaviors of these organizations, we have identified which behavioral and structural conditions can accelerate or delay self-adaptation. And this has allowed us to design, test and refine methods and techniques to enable self-adaptation.

8.  Progetto eXtra

Progetto eXtra is a group of volunteers living in a small town in Italy (Lombardy). There are 6,200 residents and 14 percent are foreigners. The mission of this group of people is to enhance the meeting and merging of different cultures. Group members share the same vision and interest: helping Italians and foreigners understand and and exchange their cultures.

In 2005, the first course in the Italian language started, with five teachers and 40 students from 15 countries in attendance. Every year new students join Italian courses, attracted by the word of mouth from their fellow countrymen and by information shared in schools and public offices. In ten years, this organization has involved more than 400 people from 40 different countries and more than 20 Italian volunteers.

The volunteers also provide assistance to support foreigners in understanding Italian laws and help them interface with public authorities (social assistance, health care services, schools and services for children). The local community also makes efforts to involve foreign residents in cultural events sharing traditions, history, food and music.

This group supports local institutions in promoting the self-adaptation of foreigners to the local environment. All members of Progetto eXtra are “change agents” who make self-adaptation feasible and sustainable. ← 65 | 66 →

In 2012 and 2014, two volunteers collaborated with Progetto eXtra in order to understand how this community “runs” and to implement a similar solution. After one year of collaboration with Progetto eXtra, they started up a similar program in their towns. In other words, Progetto eXtra was imitated: these two volunteers developed and adapted the structure and behaviors of the ‘original solution’ to their local environment.

Figure 1


The evolution of this cultural project is summarized in the following key points:

This group was born in a small community of people strictly linked to the social environment in which they live and work.

Common interests are clear and explicit; there are no hierarchies or preconceived roles in this organism.

Collaboration between this autonomous entity and local institutions has been always effective.

Relationships between the members of this group are based on sharing and collaboration. The contribution of each person is voluntary and related to personal skills and experiences.

9.  Generazione APP

Generazione APP is an experiment that tries to create solutions in which the “formal relationship” between the roles of teachers and students is radically transformed to benefit the “natural relationship” between individuals, and between the individual and the group. We want to demonstrate that this approach accelerates learning. ← 66 | 67 →

This initiative was born in 2012 at a public school in Italy. The goal was to develop a set of tools and actions that would help extend the offerings for students and the spectrum of evaluation for teachers.

I started this project in a small school near to Milan (Italy) in 2012 with a workshop titled “How Social Networks are changing the Way We Communicate” given to four classes of 12-year-old students.

During the first part of workshop, I shared with the students a set of “key indicators” for using the Internet and social media as “education and learning catalysts”.

In the second part of workshop, students explained to teachers how school could be transformed into a more attractive and interesting place. They presented their suggestions using drawings, mock-ups, videos, and slideshows, showing many interesting solutions that could be used to help make schools more engaging and exciting.

The students indicated that self-education models are more engaging, fun and profitable. Students and digital media are the change agents of self-adaptation in the school organism.

Due to the success of this initiative, from 2014 we implemented more than 40 hours of workshops with students and teachers for each discipline (mathematics, history, art, music, Italian, English and French languages, science), with the following common objectives:

Introducing digital technologies in education and evaluation processes.

Designing and implementing new instructional formats (Augmented Didactics).

Reducing the gap between the communication style of adults and pre-adolescents.

The commitment and results shown by all students were very high, and teachers were astonished. We have held four sessions (from 2012 to 2015) of these workshops, involving more than 400 students and 25 teachers. ← 67 | 68 →

Figure 2


The evolution of this cultural project at a school provided the following findings:

The idea for this project stems from informal meetings, and not from a ‘big plan’.

The common interest of parents and teachers is clear and explicit: educating the children. And for this reason, sharing and collaboration were and are the basis for the relations.

Teachers launched digital projects, replicating the model into their sphere of interests and objectives and they self-adapt their own mindsets with regard to this digital revolution in education.

Our organism (experimental classes and lessons) inherits an organizational code from the environment in which it is inserted.

To perform these tasks in a public school, there are hierarchies, roles, procedures and standards that have to be respected. And this can result in delays in achieving innovations and changes.

10.  Back to School

This last case study summarizes the activities made for merging two small companies into a new company: the first company was an ISP company (delivering solutions for video capturing, streaming and other Internet services), and the second company was a PR agency (press office, event management). The merger of these two organisms generated a new company in integrated communication. The merger took place from 2007 to 2009.

The aims of stakeholders were: ← 68 | 69 →

Expanding the portfolio of services and products offered, which in turn would increase market share in digital PR and web services.

Accelerating the development of a unique company culture through the mutual exchange of humanistic and technical knowledge.

Increasing profits by creating streamlined and effective operational processes.

In this working group, I served as the program manager and business coach. This allowed me to introduce ‘new pieces of cultural code’ that companies did not yet have in their cultural DNA.

More than 50 employees and consultants were involved in a ‘learning by doing’ educational program.

During these stages, the employees learned methods and techniques for managing projects, developing new products and managing customers. These techniques were then applied to real projects and customers. The employees shared problems and co-created solutions and adapted themselves to a new way of working.

The work of internal reorganization was carried out involving all people to propose solutions and better manage this transformation. In this way, the dedication and enthusiasm of people was very high and as a result, very productive. There were moments of crisis and tension, which were even painful for some.

Nevertheless, feeling included in this process of change made the transformation more tolerable for everybody.

Figure 3


← 69 | 70 →

The elements contributing to the success of this project are the following:

The interests of the two companies were clear and explicit: merging into a single company to increase profits.

A change agent was included in the group to transmit new skills and methods for operations management.

Organizations were streamlined, resulting in no overlap of roles and responsibilities.

New hierarchies and roles were born from the merger and the adaptation of existing ones: the self-adaptation of each person spread out the entire company structure and behavior.

Involvement of staff in research and development of organizational solutions increased efficiency and effectiveness.

Concrete results in reducing time to market and project costs encouraged the spread of new practices in accounting and project management in the new company.

Project management as approach to cooperation encouraged the spread of co-creative solutions: we have shown that project management approach can be considered a change agent for accelerating self-adaptation to internal and external changes.

11.  Conclusions

The different groups analyzed had three structural variables in common: group size, the heterogeneity of components and the simplicity of rules.

The relationship between the elements of the groups was based on three “connective” elements: trustworthiness, reputation and reciprocity.

Evolution did not come from a blue print, but emerged from continuous exchange between the elements of the group and the environment.

The hierarchies (do – manage – control – decide) are less reactive than self-organizations that arise spontaneously when people want to find a solution to a problem.

Small changes in the initial conditions brought great benefits to the evolution of solutions.

People co-create solutions, sharing their own pieces of cultural code during the entire transformation process.

Considering organizations as living beings is no longer a simple metaphor, but it is a framework to accelerate and spread our ability to adapt as individuals and as organizations. ← 70 | 71 →

The self-adaptation process is a sequence of everyday practices. We refine solutions while we are experiencing them.

Gradually we improve our ability to learn by experiencing our ability to adapt to environmental changes.

In order to be able to adapt ourselves to external changes in a short time and without permanent damage to the structures and functions, we have to work on our skills of understanding and communicating with individuals and the environment.

Expanding our channels of communication simultaneously, we expand our opportunities for data acquisition, processing, learning and adaptation.

These projects and communities show that “co-built” businesses and organizations based on sharing, collaboration and co-creation are not only feasible, but profitable.


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