Tech: Ignoring an increasingly complex world is not an option

SIMPLE solutions and models have been the foundation of thinking and successes in most fields of human endeavour until relatively recently. From Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes in economics, to Sigmund Freud in psychology, and Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, George Ohm and Isaac Newton in science, linear assumptions, relationships and laws have been key to the understanding our physical and non-physical worlds. But cracks in the framework have been evident for many decades.

Our experiences and observations increasingly tell us that much of the world is not simple; it is complicated and complex – non-linear and chaotic where many of our past assumptions and experiences no longer serve us well. We might categorise the situation as follows:

Simple systems include things such as a bicycle or a gear box. These are easy to specify, design, build and understand, and they have predictable performance. They are deterministic, and wholly within our individual grasp, obeying the laws of physics while still mathematically tractable. And top-down design works.

Complicated systems include jet engines, computers, satellites and airliners. These are difficult to specify, design, build and understand, but they have reasonably predictable and stable performance. They remain deterministic, and are wholly within the grasp of a team, while an individual can realise an overview and understand the basics of every element. Such systems obey the laws of physics but are not always stable or mathematically tractable, and demand computer modelling. And top-down design works.

Complex systems include the weather, warfare, politics, biological, evolutionary and mobile networks, the internet and crowd management. These are all difficult to specify and understand, and they often appear non-deterministic with no logical relationship between cause and effect. But worse still, they exhibit unpredictable emergent behaviours that may or may not be repeatable. They are generally beyond the grasp and understanding of an individual or a team, and the best we can hope for is a general overview.


Such systems still obey the laws of physics at a fundamental level, but there may only be some general patterns or trends with no globally applicable solutions or mathematical framework. The best we can do is to resort to computer modelling and Monte Carlo trials. And top-down design never works – we are always confronted by a bottom-up build filled with surprises.

In biology and economics, the rules, laws and identifiable trends are at best ‘point solutions’ that dictate specific starting or state conditions. Here lies the biggest danger. The application of the wisdoms gained from the simple and the complicated does not work in the world of the complex and we are amplifying that world with our technology. So what do we do?

Just about every convention is being turned upside down because people and companies are responding to the unseen pressure of an increasingly complex world. Flexibility is vital and an open mind is essential. So it is no accident that BYOD, BMOB (be my own boss), social networking, clouds and open everything are happening at the same time.

They are the essentials necessary to cope with the rapid change in a world dominated by complexity. As just two examples of the counterintuitive nature of where we now are, contemplate that being influential is more powerful than being in control and that the need to share out-guns the need to know.

The new pacemaking companies exhibit all the qualities necessary to take away the business of those that are unable to change the way they operate. Change is no longer an option; it is a necessity – and for the old there is nothing better than recruiting the young and trying the new. Innovation is a way of life, and it is far better to try and then fail (fast) than to be a sitting duck. ?

Peter Cochrane is an IT consultant and former chief technologist at BT

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