Adaptive Policy-Making: Evolving and Applying Emergent Solutions for U.S. Communications Policy

Federal Communications Law Journal, Vol. 61, p. 483, 2009

108 Pages Posted: 7 Dec 2011

Date Written: June 1, 2009


If nothing else, the global financial disasters of 2008 demonstrate that there is no such thing as a “free market.” When equipped with the proper institutions and organizations, and generating mutual trust through transparency and accountability, markets can achieve tremendous material success, in terms of innovation, economic growth, and a host of other emergent benefits. When such ground rules and players are lacking, or even abandoned, markets can and do degenerate into chaos. What is true for the financial sector is equally true for other economic markets, if not to such visibly dramatic effects: we all pay a substantial price by failing to recognize the need to foster what more appropriately should be called “enabled markets.” And much of the formal enabling is done by government policymakers.

This paper incorporates and expands upon an earlier co-authored work on what Steve Schultze and I termed “Emergence Economics.” In that paper, we explained that markets are not Platonic ideals of efficiency and equity, but the flesh-and-blood instantiation of ordinary human beings engaged in every form of commerce. Here I will present some specific ways that U.S. policymakers should use teachings from the latest thinking in economics to create a conceptual framework to begin grappling with current controversies in communications law and regulation. In brief, those who make, implement, and enforce public policy should be obliged to understand the way that markets actually work, rather than merely assume outworn caricatures of such knowledge.

This treatment does not intend to provide a comprehensive overview, or definitive answers to specific policy questions, but rather to provide useful grounding for adaptive policy making. Armed with new insights from Emergence Economics, our primary goals and objectives, and conceptual models such as fitness landscapes, legislators and regulators have a potential range of roles to play in the public policy space. These roles should center on employing flexibly the various implements of an adaptive toolkit to examine and decide difficult issues. In particular, the four suggested “tinkering” -- inputs, connectivity, incentives, and feedback -- are key interrelated components of the toolkit. Moreover, these tools should reinforce each element of the rough formula of emergence, fostering positive emergent phenomena such as innovation, economic capital, and social production.

This paper is divided into four parts. First, it provides a brief overview of Emergence Economics, with an emphasis on the “rough formula” of emergence -- namely, that agents plus networks plus evolution equals emergence. Second, the paper explicates the general concept of “Adaptive Policy making” by government agents, including the policymaker as an evolutionary agent, taking an adaptive stance, and preparing a policy design space. Third, the paper focuses on the components of a design space for communications policy, with an emphasis on the choices of institutions and tools by the FCC, and how they can have an important impact on whether and how policy goals and objectives can be achieved in the marketplace. Finally, the paper reintroduces a public policy framework built on the fitness landscape, based on the premise of “enabling without dictating” evolutionary forces in the marketplace. We will explore how and why policymakers generally should refrain from “tampering” with outputs and outcomes, while in some situations considering “tinkering” with inputs.

Keywords: economics, policymaking, communications policy, public policy

Suggested Citation

Whitt, Richard S., Adaptive Policy-Making: Evolving and Applying Emergent Solutions for U.S. Communications Policy (June 1, 2009). Federal Communications Law Journal, Vol. 61, p. 483, 2009, Available at SSRN:

Richard S. Whitt (Contact Author)

GLIA Foundation ( email )

573 Upland Road
Emerald Hills, CA CA 94062
United States
650-450-1705 (Phone)


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