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Project Cybersyn: How a government almost controlled the economy from a control room

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

photograph of the operations room (command center) from Project Cybersyn, "socialist cybernetics"

What was Project Cybersyn?

As part of our blog post on the history of control rooms we briefly touched upon Project Cybersyn, known as Proyecto Synco (Sistema de INformación y COntrol) in Spanish, as it was one of the first iterations of what we now call a modern control room.

This week we want to better explain how a control center's design can be so different from what we now imagine when we talk about a mission-critical environment. Especially since this command center has a particular characteristic, which is its lack of furniture! Well, it did have some chairs, but other than that, the designers of the project rejected the presence of tables in the Operations Room.

So, what was Project Cybersyn? In essence, it was an ambitious project undertaken by the Chilean government during the 1970s and consisted of building a communications system that was connected to more than 150 state-run enterprises, including 12 of the 20 biggest companies in Chile. At the heart of it, was the centralized Operations Room, from where key stakeholders could enact changes to the economy as they relied on almost real-time data coming in from the factories and state-run companies. The project never reached maturity since the government was overthrown shortly after Cybersyn was commissioned.

While this may not be that impressive by today’s standards, keep in mind that a connected network of computers applied outside the realm of the military was a novelty at the time.

The components of Project Cybersyn:

The Chilean government brought in Stafford Beer, a British consultant and cybernetics theorist, to help their engineers design the country-wide system that would power Project Cybersyn. But to bring the Operations Room to life, Gui Bonsiepe was brought in, who is himself a German industrial designer and thus helped the design team give the room its distinctive look.

a sketch of the operations room in project cybersyn by Gui Bonsiepe

The goal of the project was to avoid the same mistakes that characterized previous state-run economies like “unrealistic production goals, overused resources, and unwise investment decisions.” Rather than empowering the state, the goal was to encourage the free exchange of information and worker participation, as the factory workers were consulted throughout the design process.

The brain of Project Cybersyn was the retro-futuristic-looking operations room, in which there were only 7 ergonomic chairs set in a circle. The designers chose an odd number so that the 7th person could help settle disagreements. The walls of the hexagonal room were lined up with screens that could serve all the historical data of every company owned and run by the state, using pre-prepared slides. Inside the operations room, there was no table because the designers wanted the users to engage in democratic decision-making. The presence of the table would only encourage the shuffling of papers and documents around the room, which went against the design principles of Project Cybersyn.

the floor plan for the operations room in project cybersyn

Project Cybersyn was based on the principles of management cybernetics, which is the cybernetics of effective organization. Ultimately, from this operations room, key stakeholders in government and the companies could have daily access to factory production data and a set of computer-based tools that the government could use to predict future economic behavior. As envisioned by the Chilean design team and Stafford Beer, the project was nothing short of becoming the precursor to a socialist internet and the upcoming era of “big data” that characterizes our modern society.

How the Chilean government designed Project Cybersyn:

The communications system built by the government of Salvador Allende was made up of an “electronic nervous system” which extended more than 3000 miles from north to south across the country.

A map of Chile showing the extent of project cybersyn

Due to the unavailability of computers at the time, the design team opted to deploy a national network of 500 Telex machines, all collecting real-time data from factories, like production output, energy use, and labor levels, which in turn fed them directly to the operations room located in the downtown Santiago, inside the national telecommunications agency.

A Telex machine used for project cybersyn

As for the operations room, it was a hexagonal space 33ft in diameter, in the center, there were 7 white fiberglass swivel chairs with orange cushions, all of them equipped with an ashtray, a small glass holder, and a row of buttons for managing the screens which lined the walls of the room. The screens displayed data on the state of the economy as well as warning signals indicating areas in need of urgent government attention. But these were of limited functionality as they could only show pre-prepared graphs which consisted of graphs and charts prepared by a set of graphic designers.

a picture of the opsroom from, the brain of project cybersyn, showing the swiveling chairs arranged in circle, as well as the screens on the walls.

It is worth noting that there were 4 levels of control, the firm, the branch, the sector, and then the total. If one level of control did not remedy a problem in a certain interval, the higher level was notified. So, don’t think that high government officials were alerted by everything that went wrong in every factory throughout the country.

a graphic portraying the viable system model stafford beer implemented in project cybersyn

How the Chilean government built Project Cybersyn:

The software that processed the information recollected by the Telex network was first ran on an IBM 360/50, but later was transferred to a less heavily used Burroughs 3500 mainframe, as the Chilean government had less than 50 computers at the time, which were all manufactured and sold by US companies which by then had all ceased operations in Chile out of fear of being nationalized by the government.

a picture of the screens showcasing the pre-prepared slides from project cybersyn

The Operations Room was built, and despite being a prototype in nature, in a short period of time about 26.7% of the nationalized industries were already implemented into the system by May 1973. Project Cybersyn showed the world it is possible to create a cutting-edge system using old and proven technologies, demonstrating that the future can also be tied to technologies of the past.

a picture of the swiveling chairs designed for project cybersyn

Inside the Operations Room, conscious design choices had an important impact on who could access and operate the room. Since the occupants of the chairs would navigate the displays of information using the “big hand” buttons located on the armrests of the chairs, that meant that the users wouldn’t have to rely on technical skills like using a traditional keyboard. This was great for the Chilean workers who hadn't any experience working with computers. But this meant that part of the staff, especially the female secretaries, were left out of the decision-making process by limiting the keyboard experience and replacing it with geometric user-friendly buttons. This matters because this decision was not neutral and reflected who the design team believed should hold power in Chile’s revolutionary context.

The Aftermath of Project Cybersyn:

Project Cybersyn was an ambitious project that many in the Chilean government believed would bolster the economic program and by extension, Chile’s revolution. Its name comes from the words Cybernetics, the scientific principles guiding its development, and Synergy, the idea that the whole of the system was more than the sum of its technological parts. The Operations Room embodied these ideals as the designers adapted the room and its equipment to the needs and requirements of its users. Cybersyn also signaled to the wider world that computation was no longer put exclusively to work by the military or scientific institutions. We’ve come a long way in the design of mission-critical environments and command centers, and even though this project was never fully realized, there are valuable lessons that can be learned from the failures and successes of Project Cybersyn, especially how one conscious design choice can determine who gets to be part of the decision-making process and who doesn’t.

Today, the command center has become an integral part of our daily lives, organizations large and small employ these systems in all industries. At Sustema we have more than 25 years of designing human-centric workplaces like mining operation facilities or public safety answering points, that improve productivity by empowering their operators. We can help your organization with your next project, as our team of specialists and designers will work with you to create a space that adapts to your unique needs and requirements. Contact us to get a free quote and follow us on social media to keep up to date with our latest case study.


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