Cybernetics of Governance: The Cybersyn
Director-General World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics
Chile went into a highly significant political process in the early 1970s. It was
an attempt to have a socialist revolution in freedom. The government of Presidente
Salvador Allende, supported by political forces from the center-left to the extreme
left, was intent upon transforming the country’s socio-economic relationships. It
was a government for the workers and with the workers. The transformation had
deep structural implications. From an economy that traditionally had supported the
interests and consumption of the country’s privileged groups, the government
wanted a people’s oriented economy. However, it was difficult to appreciate the
complexity of this transformation. Socialists’ experiences, such as in the Soviet
Union and Cuba, were driven by a centralized model of the economy and con-
structed on the shoulders of millions of people following the dictates of a planning
system reflecting the views of a relatively small group of bureaucrats and experts.
Enforcing centralized planning in Chile was not feasible; its long-term democratic
tradition had made that option difficult, if not impossible. Tensions between a cen-
tralized planning and representative democracy were present throughout the three
years of the Allende’s government. It is in this highly charged environment that
the Cybersyn project emerged. Then-General Technical Manager of the National
Development Corporation (CORFO), Fernando Flores, saw both the conflicting
Also Operational Director of Project Cybersyn, CORFO, Chile 1971-1973
nature of the government’s intended economic transformations and the opportuni-
ties offered by Stafford Beer’s organizational cybernetics. Beer was invited to
Chile to discuss his insights about complexity and how they could be used in
Chile’s political situation. This invitation was the origin of the Cybersyn project.
With Beer in Chile the idea of a cybernetic alternative to centralized planning
started to take shape. Presidente Allende gave the green light to proceed with this
project. However, it was not so much an alternative to the activities of the main
governmental departments, responsible for the country’s economy, as it was a pr o-
ject to support CORFO’s management of the nationalized industry.
Since the late 1930s, CORFO had been responsible for a strategic state-owned
industry, controlling among others the oil, electricity, steel, and forestry industries.
In 1970, the new government wanted to add to these industries medium sized en-
terprises; those producing electro-domestics, electronic products, furniture and so
forth. These were strategic industries in the sense of offering a significant leverage
to transform consumption patterns in the country. People at CORFO were grap-
pling with this issue before Beer’s arrival to Chile. At his arrival, in November
1971, Beer proposed focusing on the cybernetics of the industrial economy, that
is, on the communications and regulation of this exceedingly complex system. He
had articulated this cybernetics in Decision and Control (Beer 1966), the book that
introduced several of us into his work in the late 1960s. This time, additionally, he
had with him the manuscript of his yet unpublished book “Brain of the Firm,” the
first of a trilogy about the Viable System Model (Beer 1972, 1979, 1985). Soon
the project’s core group, about a dozen of us, was immersed in it.
During the two weeks of Beer’s first visit he managed to set up the Cybersyn
project with a clear sense of urgency. Supported by our briefings he produced sev-
eral documents during those days. Perhaps a salient demonstration of his sense of
purpose was encapsulated in a Plan of Action (Fig. 3.1), in which he proposed
precise tasks to braid organizational, informational and communication activities
into a program for the management of the country’s industrial economy, which he
named Cyberstride. In this Plan he also identified specialized teams in Santiago
(Team A) and in London (Team B). That Plan of Action was the beg inning of the
Project Cybersyn (Beer 1981, Schwenberg 1977, Espejo 2009, Medina 2006,
2011). The project lasted until September 11th 1973, when Salvador Allende’s
government was overthrown by a military coup d’état. Since then Cybersyn has
received varied attention in the press (Beckett 2003, and Barrionuevo 2008) and
other media, not always positive. Among other reasons, this was because of its
submission to the restricted knowledge generation capabilities of the computers of
those days (Ulrich 1981), its unwarranted technical claims (Axelrod & Borenstein
2010), and even its Orwellian overtones (Baradit 2008).
Fig. 3.1 Cyberstride Plan of Action, November 1971-March 1972.
In this paper I offer personal reflections 40 years after the project’s demise i n
1973. The emphasis of these reflections is contrasting its rather limited achieve-
ments at the time with its vision and relevance for our societies today. Its claims
were large; it was presented as a project that would make significant contributions
to the management of the country’s economy in a short period of time. For its own
sake I think it necessary to compare its actuality with this claim. Particularly, it is
necessary to appreciate the project’s methodological and epistemological short-
comings to gain an understanding of its potentialities. My argument in this paper
is as follows: First, I discuss Cybersyn’s actuality, and what did we do in those
two years. This is followed by a methodological revision of this work and reflec-
tions about the epistemological evolution of the Viable System Model in the last
40 years. The third section explores the project’s potentialities and vision. Finally,
I discuss Cybersyn’s evolving meaning over the past 40 years.
The Viable System Model (VSM) is one of Beer’s most important contribu-
tions to organizational cybernetics (Beer 1972, 1981, 1979, 1985). The VSM
emerged from Beer’s understanding that nature’s long-term evolution of viable
systems had much to say about the viability of exceedingly complex systems such
as firms (Beer 1972, 1989). The focus of his attention was on the evolution of the
human nervous system. From his understanding of this system he argued that any
viable system had five systems. System 1, S1, was an operational system, the one
producing the system’s products. System 2, S2, was an anti-oscillatory function to
coordinate the operational units of System 1. System 3, S3, distributed and opti-
mized the use of resources within the viable system. System 4, S4, was responsi-
ble for the system’s adaptation to its environment, and System 5, S5, was respon-
sible for policy-making (Beer 1972). Additionally, a key aspect of this model was
its structural recursion. Each operational unit constituting System 1 had adaptation
and production challenges just as the global system had, that is, each operational
unit had S1, S2, S3, S4 and S5, and within each of these units the same structure
for adaptation and production was responsible for the viability of their own units.
Within days of being briefed about CORFO and the nationalized industry, Beer
mapped it into a recursive structure with CORFO as the system-in-focus, embed-
ding four ramas (groups of related industrial sectors). Each of these ramas consti-
tuted a set of so-called industrial committees or group of related industrial sectors,
each of these committees embedding enterprises and enterprises embedding
. He then hypothesized that all these operations, starting from CORFO, had
to have a viable organizational structure. In this sense the VSM was used as a heu-
ristic rather than as a diagnostic or design tool.
Variety engineering is a key concept underpinning the VSM. For Cybersyn the
design was reducing the large complexity of production activities at all structural
levels, from plants to CORFO, and the disturbances buffeting them, to relevant in-
formation for management. The point was ignoring what deserved to be ignored
and reporting significant changes. An aim for variety engineering in the project
was offering a model driven approach to reducing situational complexity to a
manageable level, while at the same time improving performance.
The hypothesized recursive structure was used as a platform to design perfor-
mance indices, based on the actualities (ACT), capabilities (CAP) and potentiali-
ties (POT) of essential variables for all the operational units, from the local to the
global (Beer 1981). The intention was measuring in real-time significant changes
in the behavior of essential variables for workers and managers. Significant meth-
odological and practical developments were made designing indices. Local people
measured their daily actualities to compare them to their capabilities, or the best
they could achieve with existing resources, and their potentialities, or the best they
ought to achieve with investment to remove restrictions and bottlenecks. These in-
dices were used to collect data in as near to real-time as practically possible and
processed using a statistical formalism
. The Cyberstride suite was the software
for this processing. The data collection was underpinned by a significant modeling
capacity. Operational researchers produced quantified flowcharts for plants, enter-
prises and sectors to work out their capabilities and bottlenecks, and discuss with
managers potentialities to design performance indices. Designing indices con-
sumed the largest amount of resources in Cybersyn. In practice, the emphasis was
on designing production and human resources indices. Operational research mod-
In fact more recursion levels were hypothesised but for the sake of this argu-
ment no more are necessary.
It was used a short-term forecasting model by Harrison and Stevens (1971).
eling was used to design aggregated indices for enterprises and sectors. By the end
of the project about 60% of the nationalized industrial economy was included in
one way or another in this system.
Geographically industrial plants were distributed throughout a very long and
thin country; capturing data required more than traditional mailing procedures.
Real-time communications was the challenge. Serendipitously, we found a large
number of spare telex machines in one of the state-owned enterprises. Their instal-
lation followed in plants and enterprises throughout the country, as well as in in-
dustrial committees, CORFO and other government offices. A telex room with
tens of machines was installed at CORFO. In practice, it was an operations room
for the state-owned industry that offered an incipient nervous system for the indus-
trial economy; it was called Cybernet.
Enterprises’ data were transmitted to the government’s computer center, where
Cyberstride did the data processing. If significant changes were detected reports
were sent back to the affected units. The expectation was that problems would be
solved locally, however if problems persisted, after an agreed period with the af-
fected managers, indices reports automatically jumped to the next level up under
the assumption that these managers would have more chances to solve the related
problems. This jumping up of algedonic signals was intended for all structural
levels (Beer 1981).
Beer also wanted an economic modeling capacity in CORFO. Its purpose was
the ability to model the dynamic behavior of the industrial economy. Particularly,
it was to balance the ear on the ground provided by Cyberstride’s indices with the
eye on the future provided by these dynamic models. This part of the project re-
ceived the name CHECO (CHilean ECOnomy). A small group of economists un-
dertook this task with the support of a small team of system dynamic experts in
London. Simple models of the Chilean economy were produced in collaboration
by these two teams. This dynamic modeling of the Chilean economy used MIT’s
Dynamo software (Forrester 1971).
Finally, the display of the indices’ reports, related information and dynamic
models, was focused on the design and construction of an Operations Room (Fig.
3.2). Beer envisaged this room as a liberty machine (Beer 1975, Medina 2011); a
physical space to support policy-makers’ conversations. The emphasis was its er-
gonomics; a man-machine interface to improve decision-making. The room had
several screens. One helped focus the participants’ attention on the system-in-
focus. The next two were used to project significant changes in performance indi-
ces relevant to the users of the room (e.g. energy performance indices if the man-
agers were senior managers of the energy sector) and the algedonic signals of un-
solved problems at lower levels of recursion. The next set of four screens, called
datafeed, gave information relevant to the actuality, capability and potentiality of
relevant performance reports. Slide projectors controlled by managers from their
chairs projected information. The room also had two screens to project the out-
comes of CHECO models and support discussions about the dynamics of the sys-
tem-in-focus and its long term behavior. Decisions emerging from conversation in
this room could be transmitted via telex (i.e. Cybernet) to the affected units and
people. This room was a prototype that seldom was used by senior managers and
politicians. However, the idea captured the imagination of people in the shop floor
and at least in a couple of plants the walls of workers’ meeting rooms were used to
display performance indices and relevant information.
Fig. 3.2 Cybersyn’s Operations Room.
Of the four tools, Cybernet was the one that changed our understanding of in-
formation and communications. At the beginning, Cybernet was a tool for data
transmission from plants, enterprises and committees to the telex room, and from
that room to the computer center where Cyberstride produced exception reports to
send them back to the appropriate structural levels. These data flows were in
themselves valuable contributions to management requirements, but CORFO
managers soon learned that Cybernet could be used for other purposes. Rapidly,
documents, reports, and request of all kinds started to flow. These flows increased
the use of Cybernet beyond the industrial economy; soon requests for machines
came from ministries and other government institutions. What was unexpected
was that when lorry drivers and small retailers went on a politically motivated
strike in October 1972
, Cybernet played a key role in defeating it. The network
worked 24/7 and in practice became a powerful tool for horizontal coordination.
Requirements and supplies were managed by enterprises among themselves, re-
ducing the need for hierarchical intervention. This was a most clear example of
CIA orchestrated according to USA Congress reports
cybernetics in action. Not surprisingly, this experience led many to relate Cyber-
syn to supplies and transportation activities beyond industrial production; an incip-
ient value chain was in operation. The capabilities of Cybernet emerged from the
turbulences of a country almost paralyzed by political fights. In politicians’ and
managers’ minds, Cybernet and the Operations Room became one. Now the Pres-
idential Palace wanted to have this room in their own premises. The potentials of
Cybernet as an incipient internet became apparent, but unfortunately it was too
late to change the situation. At that time Beer became aware that Cybersyn had to
be extended beyond industry and proposed a re-structuring of the project that for
the first time had the chance to include the whole economy and not industrial pro-
duction alone. He made a detailed proposal to that effect, but it was already too
late for Cybersyn to improve the cybernetics of the country’s economy. People in
government were aware that a military intervention was in the offing and that
there was no time for significant changes in relationships and management. Ironi-
cally, Cybersyn’s major success was the beginning of its demise.
One of Beer’s preoccupations as the project evolved was the inclusion of the
people in policy-making processes. This was a concern for an inclusive democra-
cy, giving policy-makers the chance to align their purposes with those of the peo-
ple. This concern was articulated in an off-shoot of Cybersyn, the project Cyber-
folk. Perhaps the root of this later project was in Presidente Allende’s utterance,
“at last, the people” as Beer explained to him the VSM. Cyberfolk was a technol-
ogy aimed at including the people in policy processes; it was an attempt for a real-
time response of the people to politicians as they discussed a policy in a public
space (see Fig. 3.3). Underpinning Cyberfolk was Beer’s attempt of designing a
homeostat to balance, in this case, the high complexity of the people (i.e. their in-
dividual concerns) with the low complexity of a relatively small number of politi-
cians, managers and experts dealing with these policy concerns. In terms of the
VSM, Cyberfolk wanted to give closure to policy-making (the VSM’s System 5).
His paradigmatic contribution for this purpose was the algedonic meter (Fig. 3.3),
a device to measure people’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with progress in public
conversations (Beer 1981). This was a tool to help them steer these conversations.
Fig. 3.3 Suggested Algedonic Meter
In what follows I offer a critical review of Cybersyn’s methodological imple-
mentation and discuss the epistemological lens used in it. The aim is preparing a
platform to make visible its potentialities for a better society in the next section.
It can be argued that methodologically, Cybersyn emphasized technology at the
expense of a significant involvement of those transforming the Chilean economy
on the ground. A good cybernetics of the Chilean economy was, and indeed is,
equivalent to its effective organization (Beer 1975)
. To create a good economy it
is, necessary to have an effective organization, and to achieve that the Viable Sys-
tem Model is a powerful tool. It offers an effective recursive structure for the i m-
plementation and adaptation of the government’s economic policies. Specifically,
from plants to CORFO, it was necessary to produce relationships of autonomy and
A first challenge for Cybersyn was creating a system for the effective manage-
ment of the complexity of the industrial economy, through well-articulated recur-
sion levels. That was a tall order for Cybersyn and there was not much time to
work out an effective unfolding of the industrial economy’s complexity. The re-
cursive structure of ramas, sectorial committees, enterprises and plants was agreed
on pragmatic political grounds and not on sound cybernetic principles for manag-
ing complexity. Cybersyn did not diagnose and design the industrial economy’s
structure; instead, it used hierarchies emerging from political processes. These
were power hierarchies and relationships between levels driven by politics. Alt-
hough the prevailing ideology was respecting the autonomy of enterprises, com-
mittees and so forth the organization structures of these operational units were not
mature. The cybernetics of the nationalized industry was weak.
Structural recursion is by and large the outcome of self-organizing processes,
which can be enabled by organizational design. The assumption was that ramas,
industrial committees, enterprises and plants were all autonomous units embedded
within autonomous units. This was a strong assumption that hid hierarchical rela-
tionships, which denied structural recursion (Espejo 2011). There was pressure to
make things happen in the economy, and Cybersyn did not have time to reflect
enough upon critical relationships. It is now clear that these were hierarchical ra-
ther than recursive.
Beer defines cybernetics as the science of effective organization (Beer, 1975
Cyberstride’s focus was on designing performance indices for the essential var-
iables of enterprises and plants. In practice, these indices were designed to meas-
ure the performance of their internal operations, at the expense of measuring rela-
tions with economic agents in the environment. This focus reduced the chances of
using some form of market relations to build up an effective economy. The focus
was on existing production processes and not on the dynamic capabilities that
were necessary for organizational adaptation to environmental changes (Teece
2008). This was an important methodological issue not considered in Chile at the
time but its implementation was latent in Cybersyn. Over the years this methodol-
ogy has evolved in the context of multiple organizations, for instance at Hoechst
AG in Germany (Schuhmann 2004). At a more general level since that time, se v-
eral methodologies for indices design such as Critical Success Factors (Rockard
1979), Balanced Scorecard (Kaplan & Norton 1996) and others, have been im-
plemented in enterprises of all kinds.
Overall, Cybersyn emphasized the filtration of operational complexity rather
than the amplification of organizational complexity. Not much attention was given
to enabling lateral coordination within and among plants and enterprises. Coordi-
nation was necessary to increase the chances of distributed local problem solving.
Coordination systems are huge amplifiers at the local level. Unless people in an
organizational system – in this case, units of the Chilean economy – share opera-
tional standards as well as values, mores and purposes, they will find it very diffi-
cult to coordinate their actions by mutual adjustment. Lacking these coordination
systems the natural orientation of communications is vertical, that is, hierarchical.
Today, with our current understanding of the VSM, it is clear that System 2, or its
coordination function (Espejo 1989), is a powerful function to enable autonomy.
With current technologies such as the Internet and social networks, unit-to-unit
software, and many more, this systemic function plays a role that was not think a-
ble, let alone possible, in the early 1970s. There were no information and commu-
nications technology available in those days to implement real-time coordination.
Not surprisingly, Cybersyn emphasized filtration; that is, indices of performance,
rather than amplification (i.e. coordination systems). However, the VSM helps us
see that both aspects are necessary for effective performance. Enabling autonomy
in organizations is an aspect that I have since emphasized in applications of the
Viable System Model (Espejo 2001, Reyes 2001, Espejo, Bula & Zarama 2001,
Espejo & Reyes 2001).
The Chilean Economy Model (CHECO) was a relatively under-resourced com-
ponent of Cybersyn. The idea of producing a model of the economy without the
participation of key actors, such as the Ministry of Economics, the Ministry of Fi-
nance, the Central Bank, the National Planning Office and so forth, condemned it
to being no more than a learning exercise within the Cybersyn team. The system-
in-focus for the CHECO modeling was the full economy. This was a pragmatic
but inadequate choice; Cybersyn’s system-in-focus was not the total economy.
Good cybernetics for this modeling would have implied distributing modeling and
planning capacity throughout the recursive structure of the industrial economy as a
contribution to assess the dynamic capabilities and potentialities of all autonomous
units, from CORFO to the local units. In practice CHECO had neither influence
on the management of the Chilean economy nor on the management of CORFO
and its operational units. From a VSM’s perspective CHECO had to be a modeling
tool to support inside and now and the outside and then debates within all auton-
omous units (i.e. S3, S4 and S5 in the VSM). It had to be a tool to relate the
productivity of operational units such as CORFO, ramas, committees and enter-
prises to their longer term needs to contribute to their adaptation to turbulent envi-
ronments. However, as stated earlier, these units were not autonomous and the dy-
namic modeling of their environments was not one of CHECO’s concerns. In the
end, the planning of the industrial economy was a centralized function of CORFO
driven by macroeconomic concerns, not distributed to the ramas, committees and
enterprises. The relationships of CORFO’s Planning Department were with the
National Planning Office rather than with the Cybersyn project.
As for the Operations Room (Fig. 3.2), from a methodological perspective Cy-
bersyn stressed constructing a conversational technology rather than designing
conversations. It offered a technology to include people in policy processes but
did not offer a methodology for their meaningful inclusion. These have been con-
troversial aspects of Cybersyn that over the years have been criticized as science
fiction and fanciful technology (Axelrod & Borenstein 2010)
. However, the vi-
sion of a conversational space for self-reference was, and is, a strong one. It has
been replicated in multiple enterprises and other institutions (Holtham, et al.
2003). Those who see it mainly as flashing technology quite naturally will find it
wanting. Those who see it as a conversational space for distributed policy-making
throughout the organizational system will see operation rooms as a shorthand for
policy-making requiring steering conversations between those running the opera-
tions inside and now and those dealing with the outside and then. This is a place
for balancing the stretching produced by the internal operations and the environ-
mental demands. The vision was blurred by the excitement of constructing a Lib-
erty Machine (Athanasiou 1980, Beer 1975, Medina 2011). In practice this meant
that Cybersyn did not pay adequate attention to enabling conversation for workers,
managers and politicians to work out distributed but aligned purposes for the au-
tonomous plants, enterprises, committees, ramas and CORFO. The overall global
political strategy of developing a people’s oriented industrial economy, in the con-
text of a highly uncertain political environment, in the end restricted necessary
conversations for distributed local self-reference and autonomy. CHECO and Cy-
berstride together could have supported these conversations; however, the Opera-
tions Room failed to engage the right stakeholders. It was an instance of a tech-
Jeremiah Axelrod and Greg Borenstein delivered the paper “Free As In Beer: Cybernetic Science
Fictions” at the 2009 Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association Conference. The link for the
video recording of this presentation can be found in the references (Axelrod & Borenstein 2010). The
paper describes “how British cyberneticist Stafford Beer's writing, infographics, and industrial design
for his ambitious Cybersyn Project worked together to create a science fictional narrative of omnisci-
ence and ominpotence for Salvador Allende's socialist government in Chile”.
nology-dominated agenda at the expense of enhancing the autonomy of enterprises
and therefore contributing to the performance of the national economy. Beer’s lat-
er work in Team Syntegrity (Beer 1994) was a powerful methodological contribu-
tion to designing conversations. Indeed, varied technologies are now available to
enable these conversations that were unthinkable in those days, and they give
credibility to Beer’s vision 40 year ago.
Finally, Cyberfolk was yet another example of vision and technology anticipa t-
ing future developments. Extending this idea of inclusion to on-going policy is-
sues received limited methodological attention in those days and was restricted to
a small group of scientists and experts. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, together
with Clas-Otto Wene, I used the VSM and Habermas’s communicative compe-
tence to propose an approach for inclusion and transparency in nuclear waste
management policy in Europe (Wene & Espejo 1999, Espejo 2003) and later on
with German Bula for a discussion of inclusion in Colombia (Bula & Espejo
2011). Again, Beer’s vision was ahead of its time.
Over the past 40 years significant social, organizational, economic and techno-
logical developments have increasingly helped transforming Beer’s vision into re-
ality; real-time management and coordination, autonomy within organizations,
communication networks, conversational spaces, regulation of the economy and
so forth. New information and communication technologies have gone hand in
hand with an evolving epistemology to account for the complexity of interactions
and communications in organizational systems. The VSM’s information manage-
ment epistemology, which dominated our work in Chile, is now being replaced by
an operational epistemology (Espejo & Reyes 2011).
This new epistemological lens for the VSM started, for me, in the days of C y-
bersyn. Its stronger information management epistemology, what I will refer be-
low as the black box description of organizations, was increasingly challenged by
a communications epistemology or operational description that highlighted the
need to account for the moment to moment complexity of organizations striving
for their viability. Today, our understanding of the VSM is much more sophisti-
cated than in those days; we understand much more the accounting for the com-
plexity of organizational systems. It was serendipitous that Heinz von Foerster,
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela were working in Santiago precisely as
Cybersyn unfolded. Conversations with them during the early 1970s helped us
start seeing the economy with the lens of second order cybernetics – the cybernet-
ics of the observer (von Foester 1984), operational closure, structural determina-
tion and structural coupling (Maturana & Varela 1989, Maturana 2002, Varela
1979). Their work has influenced the operational epistemology of today’s Viable
System Model (Espejo & Reyes 2011).
A clean epistemological accounting of the complexity of social systems (Varela
1979) should account for both the complexity of their input/output transfor-
mations, as observed by external observers, and the complexity of the relation-
ships between the observer participants producing these systems. These are two
complementary perspectives. One is accounting for external observations of trans-
formations of inputs into outputs and the other is accounting for observer partici-
pants’ recurrent interactions or structural couplings. The latter is a far larger com-
plexity but both are necessary.
In the former description, observers observe organizational systems as black-
boxes; they are in a privileged position where they can observe both these systems
and their environments simultaneously and establish correlations between the two
through time. Their observations are associated with a mode of inference in which
output information affecting the inputs of these systems determines, assuming a
good model of their transformations and no unexpected disturbances, their future
behaviour. It is a mode of inference that has associated with it a discourse about
controlling a system’s behaviour by choosing the appropriate controllable inputs.
In this type of description control is understood as restricting the system’s be-
haviour to reach desirable outcomes or goals (Rosenblueth, Wiener & Bigelow
1943). This type of description helps accounting for the complexity of organiza-
tional transformations (Espejo & Reyes 2011, Chapter 3). It recognises that often
it is not necessary to enter the black box to understand the nature of the function it
performs. This is Beer’s First Regulatory Aphorism (Beer 1979, p. 59).
This aphorism implies that the transformation of inputs into outputs is governed
by regularities and that these regularities can be established through observation.
Though this type of description is referred to as functionalist and often is dis-
missed as mechanistic, it is valuable to account for the complexity of the boundary
interactions of an organization’s transformation (Espejo 1989). However for au-
tonomous systems choosing variables to observe and control depends on the pur-
poses ascribed to the organizational system and therefore, depends additionally on
a wide range of inner conversations. Clarifying purposes permits us to work out
the inputs and outputs relevant to the observers’ purposes in the situation. The
boundaries of the system are thus defined by the variables the ‘inner’ observers
choose to regulate.
The design of indices of performance in Cybersyn was mainly influenced by
the government’s policies and less by conversations about purposes and bounda-
ries at the levels of CORFO, ramas, committees, enterprises and plants. In that
sense the chosen essential variables to monitor in real time were less the outcome
of autonomous conversations of operational units at different levels of recursion
and more the outcome of global policies. No doubt conversations about purposes
were happening in all those units, but the Cybersyn teams responsible for indices
design, in general, were not involved in them. This was not a shortcoming of the
VSM, but of Cybersyn’s implementation. Critics of Cybersyn (Ulrich 1994) failed
to understand this distinction.
For operational descriptions of organizational systems there are no inputs or
outputs (Varela 1979, p.85). Observers account for their systemic experiences by
standing on the inside. The focus is on the relations that increase the chances for
the system’s viability; its cohesion and adaptation to the environment’s perturba-
tions, naturally, including other economic and social agents. In other words, be-
cause observers are not in privileged positions anymore (i.e. outside the system)
there is neither an environment nor a set of inputs, outputs or a transformation
process (i.e. a function relating the outputs with the inputs) to account for the sys-
tem’s behaviour. All that observers have at hand are their interactions and com-
munications constituting the system as a whole. These are operational descrip-
tions. External perturbations may trigger changes in the internal structure of the
system but they do not determine its future behaviour. This is why this mode of
description is more appropriate with a discourse about autonomy and, therefore,
for describing the behaviour of autonomous systems. This is an operationally
closed system that makes its own decisions. In this type of description control is
understood in terms of self-organization and self-regulation. Again, as explained
before, Cybersyn designers did not focus enquires on these rela-
tions/conversations; they were not accounting for their complexity. This account-
ing would have been possible if these designers had had the chance to study and
influence the cybernetics of the industrial economy at all its recursion levels; in-
deed a major endeavour, far beyond what was possible in Chile’s circumstances.
Under the black box type of description it is commonly said that the organiza-
tional system operates with a representation of its environment. On the other hand,
an operational description makes of the organizational system a cognitive non-
trivial machine (von Foerster 1984). This cognition arises as a result of the struc-
tural interconnectivity of operationally closed components. Under these circum-
stances, it is the structure of the organizational system that selects which patterns
of disturbances in its environment are going to be seen, heard, or in general per-
ceived. It is its internal structure that makes sense of the world out there. It is in
this sense that we say that organizational systems are structure-determined
(Maturana 1988, 2002). In Cybersyn, CHECO models were (limited) representa-
tions of the Chilean economy. They were not outcomes of politicians’ and manag-
ers’ structural couplings producing, through these recurrent interactions, shared
models of the economy for its regulation, and adjusting their relationships, that is,
their models, as unexpected disturbances hit the economy.
The concept of information changes dramatically under these two types of sys-
tem’s descriptions. Information as referential, instructional and representational is
a concept that pertains to the black-box type of descriptions (Simon 1981). On the
other hand, in the operational type of descriptions, we use the word information to
endow its environment with meaning (Varela 1986, p. 119). With this distinction,
we are moving from questions about semantic correspondence to questions about
For Cybersyn black boxes were the dominant mode of description. The Viable
System Model was used as a set of black box descriptions of the industrial econo-
my. They took the form of quantified flowcharts. Today, the VSM is a far more
complex and sophisticated tool to study and design organizations. The operational
type of descriptions and related forms of intervention were not used in Cybersyn,
and we now are clear that this type of description is necessary to make sense of
black-box descriptions. It is necessary to account for conversations to clarify pur-
poses, to build up responsible trust between autonomous units, to coordinate their
operations and so forth.
Yet, in spite of recent developments in complexity theory, the study of eco-
nomic and social phenomena still depends to a large degree on black box descrip-
tions. There is little about relationships and mutual regulation to enable effective
ecologies of organizational systems. In the book, “23 Things They Don’t Tell You
About Capitalism,” the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang (2010) highlights
the fact that there is no such thing as a free market. Free-market policies rarely
make poor countries rich. Contrary to the centre-right view that governments often
are lousy allocators of investment resources, i.e. pick up losers, they often do pick
up winners. Contrary to the view that self-regulating markets make the right
choices, leaving these choices to the markets alone is not smart. Even if we be-
lieve that free-market economies are not regulated, in general they are over regu-
lated. Contrary to the view that financial markets need to become more efficient
they need to became less efficient, and so forth. The traditional views about eco-
nomic policies are supported by black box descriptions of the economy. Limited
attention is paid enabling self-organization and supporting effective relationships.
The VSM makes possible systemic views that counter fragmentation and support
understanding economies as operational descriptions of relationships to make
them more viable and just. Cybersyn’s vision, albeit not its actuality, offered this
regulatory and structural framework. This is our concern next.
Cybersyn’s Potentiality: Towards Beer’s Vision
What did Cybersyn mean in the context of the Chilean government and in par-
ticular of its industrial economy? To what extent did it influence people’s deci-
sions in the industrial economy? Did it increase the reach of managers or en-
hanced the autonomy of the workers? Were its tools deskilling workers or
increasing their problem solving capabilities? By highlighting Cybersyn’s actuali-
ty, in particular its limitations, this paper has offered a dispassionate view to r e-
flect upon these questions.
Cybersyn was a platform for change that still is unraveling. Though the project
had technocratic overtones and limited political influence, its true value was its vi-
sion, which still has much to offer to improve society. In contrast to the traditional
emphasis that economists put in mathematical modeling to support policy process-
es, Beer’s Viable System Model points towards enabling by design the self-
organization of economic agents. Beer acknowledges both the huge complexity of
any economy and the need to support by design the regulation and self-regulation
of its agents.
The VSM was at the core of Cybersyn, however the methodology for its appli-
cation was blurred. We did not question whether CORFO, and its embedded au-
tonomous units, had viable structures able to cope with the demands of the people
and of other internal and external economic agents, and whether by structural de-
sign and improved communications we could have stretched the structures and
improved their performance. Though its conceptual framework was powerful and
made valuable technical contributions, Cybersyn failed to make the organization
of the economy more effective. It neither produced inclusive policies for workers
and the people in general nor did it improve the productivity and overall perfor-
mance of the economy.
The challenge was making a state-owned industry productive. The transfor-
mation should have gone far beyond making available information and communi-
cation systems. Indeed, the methodological capabilities of the Chilean Team were
incipient. Our emphasis was the implementation of information and communica-
tion technologies, and except for the October strike and Fernando Flore’s political
influence, we failed to achieve any significant economic and political influence.
Cybersyn did not have much influence on developing people’s potentials towards
a more effective industrial economy, let alone towards an effective organization of
society. The project had the Viable System Model as its foundation and indeed its
key ideas, such as managing complexity, ultrastability, adaptation, recursion and
others. They were most important for Cybersyn designers, but their embodiment
in the practices of managers and workers were indeed limited. Success for these
ideas required increasing the productivity, autonomy and entrepreneurship of eco-
nomic agents within a regulatory framework that steered them towards aligning
their actions with the government’s policies. The acid test should have been pro-
ducing a cohesive economy with productive autonomous enterprises. These were
potentialities of Cybersyn.
Chile’s economy was weak. It was dependent on minerals for its foreign cur-
rency and foreign technology and expertise for its industrial development. For
consumables the policy had been protecting the local economy through high im-
port barriers. Nationalizing a large number of enterprises in a short period of time
had implied replacing relatively experienced managers with inexperienced ones
and exploited workers with workers more focused on social justice than on inno-
vation and entrepreneurship. In that context, let alone the context of an antagonis-
tic international western world, achieving a high performance industry was a tall
order and was going to require many years to become reality. The realistic chal-
lenge for Cybersyn would have been accepting that its meaning was opening the
horizons for a better future rather than for an effective economy in the short term.
However, at that time, it was difficult to see this distinction. It was realistic privi-
leging the technological implementation of a visionary project rather than building
in the short-term more effective relationships.
We accepted the VSM as a liberty machine rather than as a mean to support
processes to transform society. Rather than focusing on social transformation our
focus was on producing information systems and artifacts. The VSM had to be far
more than a heuristic to map a hypothesized recursive structure for an industrial
economy. In other words its use required far more development to achieve social
transformation. Beer’s emphasis in designing and implementing a liberty machine
made Cybersyn technology focused at the expense of clarifying methodology and
epistemology. However, it can be argued that because Cybersyn succeeded in de-
signing and implementing this liberty machine that a platform for further explora-
tion and future developments was created. It was the extraordinary energy that
Beer imbued in an impossible task that avoided sending his vision into oblivion.
Paradoxically, though Cybersyn was insufficient for its purpose of improving the
cybernetics of the Chilean industrial economy, it was an anticipation of necessary
technologies and means for achieving a better cybernetics in future societies. It
made more likely the designing of social economies beyond the extremes of cen-
tralized bureaucracies and poorly regulated free-markets. These two extremes are
ineffective as illustrated by the collapse of socialist economies in Eastern Europe
and the short-comings of capitalist, free-market economies (Chang 2010). Accept-
ing that the VSM is still a paradigm waiting for its time, today it offers an option
for designing self-organized, regulated, social economies. Beer had clear the scope
of Cybersyn for designing freedom (Beer 1975), for designing the system for or-
ganizations (Beer 1985), for providing a platform for change (Beer 1975) and so
forth. In Chile, through Cybersyn, Beer’s vision was offering organizational c y-
bernetics as an alternative to achieve fairer social economies. Unfortunately, in
Chile, a wider appreciation of this vision was constrained by an impossible socio -
political context, a weak implementation methodology and an information orient-
ed epistemology; all these aspects contributed to blurring an appreciation of its
longer term meaning. The project’s implementation failed matching the complexi-
ty of the social processes involved.
In 2008 Jorge Baradit published in Santiago, Chile, the novel Synco. The novel
is about the Cybersyn Project. Synco was the Chilean name for Cybersyn. It was a
composition of the ideas of information and control, the Spanish word CINCO,
‘five’, and the number of systemic functions constituting the Viable System Mod-
el. It starts showing the Operations Room (figure 3.2), and setting it as a retro-
futuristic novel that takes place in 1979. Its assumption is that the coup of 11th
September 1973 did not succeed and that the Allende’s government had continued
for all those years with the support of General Augusto Pinochet. For Baradit the
project’s purpose was “...converting Chile in the first Cybernetic State in history,
underpinned by a network which anticipated in decades the Internet as we know
it”. Chile appears as a neo-fascist State, dominated by the SYNCO machine,
which controls all aspects of private and public lives. One of the protagonists, as
he tries counteracting the state’s drift towards a technocratic rightwing society,
SYNCO, a god made of wires and a shared mind, a beehive, will establish the first
technological dynasty in history...But we are building up an army of code breaking
children. We have educated them in the secrets of SYNCO ... a battalion of mind focused
soldiers which will face up with their keyboards a new type of war for which they (the
government) are not prepared…” (Baradit, 2008, translated from the Spanish version, pp.
Another person states in relation to the government’s socio-economic direction
that “The third way is an illusion” produced by a network of black covered cooper
wires. Baradit appears to accept that a successful 1973 military coup was the less-
er evil for Chile; the alternative was too awful to contemplate. It is sad that this
popularization of the SYNCO project appears to give credence to the fears ex-
pressed by the right wing political press just before the coup in 1973. It re-
enforces the view that the cybernetic project could only have led Chile to a neo-
fascist, totalitarian outcome. This trivialization betrays a profound lack of grasp of
organizational cybernetics as a science for democratic governance and not for au-
Cybersyn did not succeed in re-constructing the nature of the Chilean society.
Its vision was offering an alternative to the extremes of a centralized planning sys-
tem or an unrestricted free market; it offered a third way for social cohesion and
economic fairness. Cybersyn was a project ahead of its time. Its creation was vi-
sionary but unfortunately its intended implementation did not have requisite varie-
ty. The necessary social and organizational contexts to re-construct the nature of
social relationships did not exist; however desirable it might have been to provide
information in real-time and by exception, the necessary relationships for the co-
hesion and adaptation of the social fabric were not there. A mooted point is
whether a longer period of implementation, uninterrupted by the coup d’état of
September 1973, would have supported this requisite learning. Some of us in the
project had a vague appreciation of the need to embody these relationships in the
social fabric of the economy but collectively most of us did not see Cybersyn be-
yond being a powerful theoretical framework and our practice was biased towards
a technical implementation at the expense of the values of building up a truly au-
tonomous decentralized industrial economy and furthermore an inclusive democ-
In conclusion, Cybersyn did not succeed in reconstructing a more humane and
just social nature in the Chile of the 1970s. However, the safeguards against tech-
nocratic tendencies were precisely in the very implementation of Cybersyn, which
required a social structure based on autonomy and coordination to make its tools
viable. Without a culture of autonomy, coordination and inclusion these tools were
too weak to have any social impact. The control against any autocratic tendency
was intrinsic to its conceptual framework, the VSM. Of course politically it was
always possible to use information technologies for coercive purposes however
that would have been a different project, not SYNCO. Its political and conceptual
underpinnings were those of a democratic society and its tools were orders of
magnitude less complicated than those required for centralized control. With the
benefit of hindsight I think that had the 1973 coup failed, and had the people and
its socialist government supported the 3rd way offered by Beer’s vision, Chile
would have emerged, after several years of painful learning and development, as a
more cohesive and fair society with a large social capital of engaged citizens.
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