"Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line."

B. Mandelbrot Image-12-large

Benoît Mandelbrot died this month.  Most won't know him but he discovered what many describe as God's thumbprint – fractals!  And provided me with a deeper understanding of the deeper patterns of advocacy. And how rough ideas and  seemingly irregular trajectories of strategies and tactics not only, repeat themselves but also, can be found beyond the confines of politics and lobbying.

Fractals are fascinating irregular geometric shapes.  There are only a limited number of smooth classical shapes ex. triangles, spheres, and squares.  Fractals are rough, irregular and variable shapes found everywhere – in nature, and in human behavior.  And when they are split into parts, each resembles a reduced size copy of the whole.  They include mountains, clouds, coastlines, the clustering of galaxies, snowflakes,blood vessels, tree branches and broccoli. They are produced in the art of Gaudi, Salvador Dali, Dave Gilmore, (Pink Floyd) and Persian carpets.  Even our heartbeats are fractal -like beating irregularly, not as you might suspect in a regular pattern at all.

Fractals are mysterious and beautiful.  But they are more than that. Mandelbrot inspired by Dali's,  The Face of War began studying the seemingly irregular fluctuations of the stock market.  Fractals have been applied to solve numerous, diverse problems. For example wireless antennas used to be sticks, now they are fractal shaped. The mundane – modern concrete, finance, sound buffers and the majestic – chaos theory and tackling tough social and environmental problems are being approached through the lens of fractals instead of the predictable, recurring shapes and patterns, of a mechanistic view of the universe.

Here are some fractal applications to advocacy:

  • Trust your intuition – your life, your decisions, your distractions, your relationships, your self confidence are all relevant.  They are a reflection of the thumbprint of creation. You can trust your gut and tap into the collective, unconscious wisdom Carl Jung revealed to us.
  • Study Nature – the 'book of nature' will reveal more than books.  It will help you 'read' or sniff (as Mandelbrot described it) or study an issue and how it fits into the environment you want to change.
  • Strategy and tactics shouldn't be absolute -  Hard and fast strategies that try to power through the 'ripples' of an issue miss much of what is going on beneath the surface.  A combination of intention and flexibility prepares you to see and remember emerging patterns that otherwise might seem random or irrelevant.
  • Count on serendipity – fractal patterns appear in the seeming randomness of your life.  Once you see how they work, you can use these insights to break the mould of how advocacy, lobbying and public policy 'should' be done.

In raw nature, very few shapes are simple: the pupil, the iris, the moon—with two hands, you can count all the simple shapes of nature. Everything else is rough. But if you look around us, almost everything industrial is very smooth, round, flat, corrugated, and so on. Now that is changing. Engineers everywhere know how to use fractals.

If it's good enough for engineers, it's good enough for solution based advocates and social innovators.

Benoît Mandelbrot, November 1924 – October 15, 2010. A true rough innovator  who changed how we see the world.  Rest in beautiful peace.


(1) I am not a mathematician.  In writing this I may have overly simplified the concept of fractals.  Feel free to enhance my and our understanding by correcting or improving on my description above.

(2) This post is part of a series entitled Tips for Solution Based Advocacy. Click here or on the category Tips For Solution Based Advocacy on the right hand side of your screen to access a definition and all previous posts.


  1. Donna Thomson

    I am not any sort of a mathematician, but I find the analogy of fractals in thinking about advocacy fascinating. I especially like the idea of nature being full of life lessons. Another application: Sometimes it helps to counterpoint ideas. In forming partnerships for advocacy purposes, sometimes it helps to include people who have no direct experience with issues, but can offer an arts perspective, or other “fractal” view. Great post, Al!

  2. Sandra

    Your series continues to be an inspiring catalyst along my path own of advocacy on many different levels. Thank you so much!

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