Stripping Off the Straightjacket: How Complexity Theory Provides a Whole New Approach to Making Policy

An essay/book-review in the 2007 edition of the Kennedy School Review.

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Stripping Off the Straightjacket: How Complexity Theory Provides a Whole New Approach to Making Policy

Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connections, Harper Collins, 2002, 272 pages

Mark Buchanan, Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen, Three Rivers Press, 2002, 288 pages.

How is it that scientists have spent millions of hours and billions of dollars in trying to figure out when earthquakes occur without making much progress? How could an accidental wrong turn made by a chauffer in a busy Sarajevo street one morning in June 1914 have led to the greatest war the world had until then ever seen? Why is it that managers of the world’s largest organizations feel that no matter how hard they work, things are out of their control? Can we design a world in which the two great forces of global capitalism and ecological sustainability veer off their collision course and find a space to coexist productively?

In the last three decades, the quest to answer these big, baffling questions has sent researchers scurrying to all known corners of the intellectual universe. And, perhaps surprisingly, the discipline that has been coming up with the most compelling answers is physics. Yet physics only came to grips with these new areas of inquiry when it began incorporating insights from other fields. In the process, a new field of study – ‘complexity’ or ‘complex systems’ or, more technically, ‘nonlinear dynamics’ – came into being.

In a nutshell, what complexity does is to use metaphors and mathematical models to examine the way in which the many constituent parts of a living system network with each other to create new types of relationships and processes that often turn out to be just as important as the (more easily tangible) material parts of the system that get most of our attention.

Fortunately, for those of us less inclined towards scientific modeling, several physicists have taken on the unenviable task of simplifying complexity, so to speak. And they all seem to have followed the modern non-fiction writer’s modus operandi whereby you take an idea, explain it in a few chapters, and then write a handful of case studies to flesh out the concept further. The most eloquent of these physicists-turned-writers is Austrian Fritjof Capra, the author of the popular 1975 work The Tao of Physics, which explored parallels between modern physics and ancient religious teachings of Asia. Almost thirty years later, Capra capped more than a decade of research into living systems and network theory by publishing The Hidden Connections, in which he explains how every single system on the planet – from the smallest amoeba to the largest international organization – is essentially comprised of a series of networks along which information flows from one side of the network to the other, and every now and then jumps from network to network. Life, in one of Capra’s many evocative turns of phrase, “constantly reaches out into novelty”.

Extending this idea though the book, Capra first describes how insights from the ‘systems view of life’ have been revolutionizing the fields of biology, genetics, cognitive psychology, and sociology. For instance, the insight that the workings of the brain can be better studied in the context of the brain’s relationship with other brains and bodies than as a single unit of analysis has changed the way in which cognitive psychologists understand and study human consciousness. Confident of our grasp of the scientific material, Capra then shows how these insights can be applied to some of the greatest problems of the twenty-first century: from organizational management to biotechnology and from global capitalism to the issue that appears to most concern him – the design of ecologically sustainable communities. In these applications of complexity, we see the startling similarities between metabolic networks in biological systems and communication networks in social systems, or how flows of energy and matter closely resemble flows of information and ideas. For instance, compare the astonishing speed at which drug resistance spreads across bacterial communities with the efficiency with which peace activists in late 2002 mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in cities in every continent to protest the impending invasion of Iraq. Microbiology, according to Capra, “teaches us the sobering lesson that technologies [such as] a global communications network…often considered to be advanced achievements of our modern civilization, have been used by the planetary web of bacteria for billions of years”.

With this understanding that all life is organized as networks comes the discovery that networks of all kinds – molecules, people, even ideas – tend to organize themselves along remarkably similar lines. But one of the downsides of this way of organizing is that these systems are susceptible to the occasional small shock which unexpectedly triggers a cataclysmic reaction – the carelessly tossed match that ignites a massive forest fire or the ever-so-slight slip of the earth’s crust that triggers a devastating earthquake, and so on. Complexity scientists believe that this pattern occurs because of the tendency of living systems to self-organize into a “critical state”, which is a state where systems are at their most efficient but nevertheless contain “riddling lines of instability” that make them vulnerable to short periods of total collapse. (Incidentally, if this seems similar to the concept of chaos theory, that’s because it is – chaos theory was one of the intellectual forefathers of complexity theory, which is now taking the insights from chaos theory into new previously uncharted areas of exploration.) To better understand the critical state, Mark Buchanan traces the evolution and intellectual history of the ‘power law’, another concept central to the understanding of complexity. Buchanan’s Ubiquity takes earthquake science as its central case study and charts the painful failure of earthquake scientists to predict when an earthquake will occur and, more importantly since earthquakes occur all the time, how bad an earthquake is going to be. Eventually, earthquake science consoled itself by incorporating the power law into its worldview.

Social scientists and statistics students come across the normal distribution, illustrated graphically by a bell curve, in their daily work. The normal distribution reflects a natural tendency for any the quantity of any individual event to cluster around the average for that event – results that are farther from the average are less likely to occur. The heights of people, amongst other natural phenomena, are normally distributed. But what the power law tells us is that for a surprisingly large number of phenomena, this distribution does not hold. However, these phenomena do conform to another type of statistical distribution, which can be simply described as follows: as the scale of the event rises, the probability of its occurrence decreases exponentially. After examining thousands of such distributions, scientists concluded that each phenomenon conforming to a power law obeys its own individual ratio of size to occurrence. Hence, the power law of earthquakes is different from the power law of stock market crashes – in the case of earthquakes, every doubling of magnitude in earthquakes is accompanied by a frequency decrease of a factor of four.

Some of these power law distributions can be as mundane as the size of fragments from a shattered frozen potato. But others – and this is why understanding the power law is so important for policy makers – include the distributions of events as dramatic as the magnitude of earthquakes, the area burnt in a forest fire, the level of stock market crashes, the mass extinctions of species, and the number of deaths in wars. Unfortunately, what the power law also indicates is that predicting the scale of one of these catastrophes is nearly impossible because, as Buchanan writes, “an earthquake when it begins doesn’t itself know how big it is going to be. And if the earthquake doesn’t know, we aren’t likely to know either.” The same phrase can just as easily be applied to any of these other catastrophes.

Although complexity and the systems approach initially come from physics, what they emphasize most is the importance of not thinking within disciplines but instead to pay attention to relationships, context, patterns, and processes across disciplines. What makes this difficult, particularly in Western societies, is our imprisonment by the Cartesian division between mind and matter. Buchanan quotes Isaiah Berlin’s comment that the history of thought has been “a changing pattern of great liberating ideas that eventually turn into suffocating straightjackets.” In the seventeenth century, when Rene Descartes muttered “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am), he divided nature into two separate realms – mind and matter – which were meant to be studied separately and as different units of analysis, rather than as two realms that can best be understood in the context of each other. Thus, while Descartes’ famous statement jumpstarted modern philosophy, it also created a straight-jacketed framework for analysis that Capra believes has haunted and suffocated Western science and culture for more than three hundred years. For a simple example of this straight-jacketed framework, just look at the way universities are structured by academic discipline and how each discipline vigorously resists any movement towards interdisciplinary scholarship.

By instructing us to look across disciplines, complexity theory is in effect urging us to abandon the Cartesian way that has served us so decisively for so long. No wonder then that its journey to the mainstream has been excruciatingly slow and that despite three decades of increasing focus in this area, it still remains off the radar screen of most policymakers. Capra finishes The Hidden Connections by insisting that the crucial issue is not further research into complexity but politics. And thus, the great challenge of the twenty-first century will be to change not just the intellectual frameworks that govern policymaking but also some of its underlying value systems, in order to reflect the lessons that we are learning from complexity and the systems view of life.

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