The Castle and the City

pieterhpieterh wrote on 29 Jul 2013 16:59


One of the topics for my upcoming book "Culture and Empire" is how to build online communities. I'm going to argue that there are two general layouts for a large organization — the Castle and the City — and compare these. Is your project a Castle, or a City?

The Castle

The Castle is large, and built over time by hard work. It represents power, influence, and authority. There is one Castle, it has gates, a moat, and probably a nice little garden tended by old men who mutter about dragons and their taste for lemon trees.

In the old days, the Castle was the only real way to build a large structure, mainly because anything built on a smaller scale would tend to burn, rot, or collapse, usually taking the unfortunate occupants, and their pigs and goats, with them.

A Castle organization is built as an endless series of special cases, accumulated over time, sometimes demolished and rebuilt, but always treated as a whole. There's no consistent structure, no regularity, just a plan that is always somewhat out of date. To learn the layout of a Castle can take you years, and it's pretty pointless unless you're one of the people in charge, or a servant, since you can't go anywhere without permission or orders anyhow.

Castle organizations have many levels, and each level has as much complexity as it can hold. Each level has its specialists, in a neat hierarchy from the Duke down to the gardeners. If you look at the blueprint of a Castle, what you see in fact is a hierarchy of Important People, since each space in the Castle is owned by some people.

So, the layout of a large organization, an organigram, is a map of people and their power relationships.

The City

The City is also large and built over time by hard work. It also represents power, influence, and authority, and there is one City. However, it is a collection of many smaller or larger buildings spread out across a landscape.

The City is limited only by natural boundaries, and how dense the ground is (the denser, the higher you can build, which is why sky scrapers are built on rock, and why the skyline of a modern city is usually a reverse map of the geology it sits on).

The City has only a few levels, and you can ignore most of them. Principally, it's a collection of buildings, each with a front door, walls, doors, roofs, and varying numbers of loos. Once you've understood the concept of "building" you have pretty much got it. You have your apartment, your family house, detached, semi, converted loft, warehouse, garage, office. It's not an endless variation. Further, as we make more and more Cities, we use the same patterns over and over again for the buildings.

A City can grow much, much larger than a Castle. Thousands or millions of times larger. You can learn a City without learning its detail, because it's highly regular. I don't mean the street layout, but the fact that there are streets connecting every building, for example. In fact once you've learned the concept of City one time, you can apply it to most Cities in the planet.

In a City, you barely see the people. There are still a few token Castles dotted around but the vast majority of activity happens in a free market. People move around at will. They self-organize and the City represents an endless landscape of independent but connected works, rather than VIPs. There's no-one in charge, which is freaky to anyone coming down from the Castle.

The Difference

A Castle organization focuses on control, unity, coherence. A City organization focuses on a free market of problems and solutions. Our human minds are bad at dealing with the arbitrary complexity of a Castle and its many levels. Cities on the other hand are easy, even fun, to explore.

A Castle consolidates the work of one group of people, perhaps a dozen to a hundred. A single City building consolidates the work of a handful of people. But because the City can hold unlimited numbers of projects, the overall size of the community can be much larger.

The City model will scale hugely because they are easier to learn, so attract more people. If it takes you five minutes to understand the layout of a project, you're more likely to stay and read the README. If it takes you a week, you won't hang around unless someone is paying you.

To build an effective City, it must be easy for anyone to start a project, for people to compete, and to self-organize around problems that crop up over time. As benevolent dictator, you need to set just enough rules and standards that the plumbing works.


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