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How to approach complexity?

What we’re dealing with

When dealing with issues of design, planning, and organizing, we have to face both complicated and complex problems. A complicated problem is something that might be difficult, but still understandable and predictable. For example, building a watch or a bridge might be very difficult, but still something that we can understand and deal with careful planning. However, many problems are complex, meaning that they are difficult to understand and explain thoroughly. These kinds of problems, also known as messes (Ackoff, 1974) or wicked problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973) require different kinds of approaches and thinking than what we’re normally using in our daily lives.

Where do these problems arise? In an earlier blog post I briefly discussed the concept of SOHO systems (Kay et al, 1999, Kay and Schneider, 1994). SOHO is an acronym for Self-organizing, Holarchic, Open systems. Let’s take a closer look:

  1. Self-organizing means that when the system is pushed from its equilibrium, it might exhibit spontaneous coherent behavior and organization.
  2. Holarchic means that the system is formed up of part-wholes, i.e. holons, and is itself a part-whole. These part-wholes have dynamic interactions both horizontally and vertically across different scales of space and time.
  3. Open means that the system exchanges matter and energy between its environment.

SOHO systems are therefore dynamically relating part-wholes where non-linear feedback loops result in self-organization at different scales in the holarchy. What’s more, when these SOHO systems receive energy from their environment, they develop new structures and processes that make them more effective at receiving energy from their environment.

Ecosystems and human activity systems are prime examples of SOHO systems, both of which exhibit spontaneous coherent behavior and organization, are formed up of part-wholes, and are open. The messes that we face are the result of these dynamic interactions: as we have changed the environment we live in, we have created new and unpredictable changes in ecosystems.

What to do then? When we can’t predict our environment, we need to be able to coevolve with it, and this is where the concept of resiliency comes in.

Design systems for resiliency and learning

First, what is resiliency? From what I’ve learned, there’s at least two views on what resiliency means. The first, engineering approach, says that a resilient system is one that can take on outside shocks and quickly return to equilibrium. The other view, social-ecological resilience, says that a resilient system doesn’t have only one equilibrium, but instead can shift between different states, and learn, change and adapt.

In a wonderful article from 2006, Carl Folke had this to say about social-ecological resilience:

“Adaptive processes that relate to the capacity to tolerate and deal with change emerge out of the system’s self-organization. Furthermore, the dynamics after a disturbance or even a regime shift is crucially dependent on the self-organizing capacity of the complex adaptive system and the self-organizing process draws on temporal and spatial scales above and below the system in focus.”

Without going too much into details, the way I understand Folke is that resilient systems have the capacity to self-organize and create new structures and processes after a disturbance. Moreover, this capacity to self-organize is not a characteristic of one scale in time and space, but is derived from scales both above and below the system, as well as from different scales in time.

I think this point about different temporal and spatial scales is absolutely key here. The way we usually design human systems is by taking a look at one scale or holon at a time. When doing organizational design, you don’t usually start designing the whole that contains the organization. However, based on what Folke said, the capacity to self-organize is not contained at one level of time and space, but draws from all the other scales as well. This is why it’s about social-ecological resiliency, not only human resiliency. Building resiliency in one level will not be enough, and is in fact an illusion.

This also poses a major challenge to planning and design. How to design for resiliency when resiliency is not dependent on any one system? How can we ever build the capacity to self-organize when we can only affect a small part of the whole system at a time?

It would sound that enabling resiliency in our systems requires a paradigm shift at all levels of design. To enable resiliency, we need to change the organizing principles at all scales of social-ecological organization. How exactly are we going to get that done will have to be left for another discussion.

References

Ackoff, R. (1974). Systems, messes, and interactive planning. Portions of chapters 1 and 2 of Redesigning the future. New York / London. Wiley.

Folke, C. (2006). Resilience: The emergence of a perspective for social–ecological systems analyses. Global Environmental Change. Vol. 16. Pages 253–267.

Kay, J., Regier, H., Boyle, M., Francis, G. (1999). An ecosystem approach for sustainability: addressing the challenge of complexity. Futures. Vol. 31. Pages 721-742.

Rittel, H., Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences. Vol 4. Pages 155-169.

Schneider, ED. & Kay, JJ. (1994). Complexity and thermodynamics: towards a new ecology. Futures. Vol. 19. Pages 25-48.