Egypt – Cradle of Self-Organization

by Saul Kaplan

Egypt - Cradle of Self-OrganizationIt’s hard to not be moved by the cri de coeur (cry of the heart) of the Egyptian people. A cry for freedom so loud the borders of Egypt can’t contain it. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic in saying we are witness to the rise of a new world order. An era defined by entrenched public and private sector institutions is giving way, right before our eyes, to a new era defined by self-organization. While we have sensed the trend for a while the clarity and immediacy of the tangible quest for freedom in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square is riveting and marks a global inflection point. There is no turning back. Not in Egypt and not anywhere in the world. Self-organized purposeful networks enabled by social media will not be stopped. Fasten your seat belts.

Clay Shirky had it right when he warned us, Here Comes Everybody. An era defined by self-organization is an equal opportunity disrupter. No institution will be unaffected. Any government not reflecting the will of the people isn’t sustainable. Equally unsustainable are education systems not reflecting the will of the student, health care systems not reflecting the will of the patient, corporations not reflecting the will of the consumer, and economies not reflecting the will of the entrepreneur. Our social systems and institutions need transformation not tweaks. Clay Christensen taught us that institutions do not disrupt themselves. Institutions will not lead the inevitable 21st century transformation, self-organized groups of committed and passionate people, like the crowds in Tahrir Square, will.

In an era defined by self-organization trading off democracy for stability won’t work. Institutions are designed for stability. They are designed to protect the status quo. They are designed to resist change and are allergic to even the hint of transformation. They are not designed to reflect the will of citizens, consumers, students, patients, and entrepreneurs. Institutions served us well in the industrial era but are not serving us well in the 21st century. We are now capable of self-organizing into purposeful networks that can bring about the transformation we want. We are just figuring out how to use our new network power. We are just figuring out we don’t have to wait for institutions to lead the way. The shift of power away from institutions will be messy. Entrenched institutions will not go quietly into the night. Transformations begun will inevitable have unintended consequences and we will have to learn as we go but there is no turning back. It isn’t transformation that is impossible it is sustaining the status quo that is impossible.

Watching the events unfold in Egypt has been mesmerizing. Who hasn’t been glued to CNN and the #Jan25 Twitter stream? It’s too soon to know the outcomes and there are many scary implications and scenarios that could be unleashed by the uprising. Regardless of the outcomes, when freedom is the underlying motivation, transformation is inevitable and its pace is quickening. When a butterfly flapped its wings in Tunisia it didn’t take long for the ripple effect to show up in Egypt. I think the ripple is just getting started.

Ancient Egypt had a remarkable and lasting effect on human civilization. It is often referred to as a cradle of civilization. Perhaps modern Egypt will become known as the “cradle of self-organization”. Just like the pyramids of Giza are great symbols so is the Egyptian cri de coeur now resonating everywhere in the world. Entrepreneurship and innovation are only possible when basic freedoms are in place. Never take freedom for granted.

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Saul KaplanSaul Kaplan is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). Saul shares innovation musings on his blog at It’s Saul Connected and on Twitter at @skap5.

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  1. People power is not new, and social media is not the main thing going on here. How is it that the US civil rights movement got organized with narry a tweat, email, text, facebook page, or cell phone? When the government turned the internet off in Egypt, the people organized without it. I think the more compelling story is about population dynamics. There are LOTS of young people in Egypt and the Arabic world, and they have sufficient knowledge and experience with the rest of the world to see how f-ed up their countries are. And looking at their futures, they see that they lack opportunties for a future. Why not rebell? The self-organization comes in by the fact that you have lots of independent agents who with far more connections to others than before.

  2. I would like to believe that the self-organizational force is strong, but in listening to the Egyptians who are interviewed, one sees just the opposite. While they can manage to self-organize to put protests together, enforce the peace in their neighborhoods while the police are off beating and killing (or worse, looting and pillaging), and other things, the cry is always for a “better” leader. They have seen the failure of relying on monopolistic government power in the form of police yet there are no calls for private security to replace them on a permanent basis. There are condemnations of the police followed by high praise and embracing of the army – though they are just another tool of the government and its force.

    As one who firmly believes that all government institutions should be done away with and replaced by peaceful, free, and competitive associations among individuals, I am reluctant to hold out high hopes that people will embrace the realization that “institutions”, especially government institutions are nothing more than people with the monopoly of force behind them and that they can easily be replaced by people without force (or at least a monopoly). It is certainly something we should all work towards, and thankfully there are plenty of great scholars and websites (like this one,, and others) showing the way.

  3. what do you mean, “glued to CNN”?
    we are glued to Al Jazeera!

  4. I have been glued to Al Jazeera’s round the clock coverage in Egypt and it was phenomenal. The CNN’s coverage was baised towards the despot.

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