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The field of complexity and complex systems

Climate mitigation is readily described as a ‘complex’ and ‘systemic’ problem.  But what is meant by this? It could be that these words go some way to convey the enormity and intractability of the issue, and our helplessness in the face of it. Commentators could also be referring to more of the literal meaning of these words, that the problem cuts across all aspects of life as we know it, and that there is no easy response.

What is seldom meant however is that this type of problem is particular, and that certain responses to it are more appropriate than others. There is an emerging area of study which specifically considers complexity and complex systems – worth taking a peek, right?

So what is this new field? Well, its new and its old. It entails some more tangible aspects, and some less tangible. It is certainly trans-disciplinary, and even breaks out of traditional academic confines to engage with all forms of knowledge. It is pragmatic. And it can change the way one views the world.

At its core is the concept of a complex system. Here there are many observable properties: non-linearity, self-organisation, feedback loops, heterarchies… a plethora of technical terms, but suffice to say  that complex systems operate in particular ways. We can learn about their properties and, as conscious actors in our systems, use them to leverage systemic change.

At a less tangibleeye and world level, the field of complexity also introduces a paradigm shift in how we approach knowledge and science, a new world view. In complexity we can no longer assume objectivity in anything. Certainty is a rare case, not the holy grail. Change is constant, the source of stability. Perspectives are the only truth we can know. (Is this resonating with some of what we are experiencing globally in our ‘post truth’ twenty first century?!).

How can one ‘be’ in such a world? What guides ‘right’ action here? Certainly we can no longer rely on finding the truth in order to act. The field of complex systems is emerging guidance and insights on how to act in complexity, such as elevating the role of ethics, values and understanding perspectives.  There is more.

So it seems to me worth taking our descriptors of climate mitigation more seriously and literally, and asking what we can learn about acting in complex systems. Because right now we are using an outdated set of assumptions about how the world works to tackle one of the most threatening problems humanity has faced.

Policy mechanisms for the ‘time- inconsistency’ challenge

I suggested in my blog on ‘Time-inconsistency’: the heart of climate mitigation as a policy problem’ that our current hegemonic paradigm of classical reductive science might be a reason why we are battling to respond adequately to the urgent and long term policy problem that is climate mitigation.   From this paradigm, we typically understand time to consist of uniform, interchangeable units that proceed in a linear fashion from the present through the short – medium and then to the long term.

A complex systems view of time arises from a different logic: there is no long-term, short-term time distinction (Meadows, 2008). Rather, various sub-systems evolve according to different rhythms.   Think here of the building of big industrial plant, or rail infrastructure, compared to social media topics, or fashion. In concert, this differentiation of timing results in the long periods of stability punctuated by moments of rapid change in large and complex social systems. As Lenin observed: there are decades where nothing happens, and then decades happen in weeks. Time from complexity is non-linear and multiple, with different time-scales nested within each other.

time men cogs

So what might this alternative ‘complexity’ paradigm reveal in terms of policy mechanisms to address the urgency and long-term characteristics of climate mitigation?   Here are four initial ideas gathered from the (few) policy writers who are exploring complexity – I expect though that if this paradigm gains traction it may support a rich stream of insights going forward.

First, policy interventions need to be differentiated according to time as a dimension across various sub-systems. What needs to be tackled where and when (and how?). This directly addresses the urgency issue, and is a priority under a complexity view.

Second, non-linear system mechanisms provide opportunities: Levin et al (2012) write of developing path dependent processes in a low carbon direction, using the logic of positive feedback loops. By paying attention to entrenching and expanding the sub-systems supporting a policy intervention – designing policy for ‘stickiness’ – small incremental changes can gather pace and power without encountering opposition from powerful incumbents at the point of policy promulgation.

Third, Meadows (2008) advocates using the creation of negative (balancing) feedback loops to keep the system evolving in the direction of the low carbon objective. A climate mitigation example would be a carbon tax that rises with the level of fossil fuel exploitation in an economy.

And fourth: The cognitive heuristics described in ‘Time-inconsistency’: the heart of climate mitigation as a policy problem’ are related to delays in feedback loops between the excessive greenhouse gas emissions and the consequences. Policies that create new balancing information feedback loops may reduce the effect of these delays and support the system to adhere to a low carbon direction.

 

Stability and change in complex social systems

In order to write about how policymaking can address problems of time-inconsistency, I first need to clarify my interpretation of a complexity view of change.  (So those not in favour of rather technical posts – I’d suggest giving this one a skip!)

Complex systems change continuously. Not oscillating around an equilibrium point (complex systems are non-equilibriac), but more in the sense of seeking stability through change (Shine, 2015), a more ‘homeostatic’ type of process as the system journeys through time.

This ‘stability through change’ process is termed ‘self-organisation’. Every agent in the system constantly responding and adapting to both internal and external stimuli.   The more self-organising capacity a system has in the form of information and connections, the more stable and resilient it is.

In social systems, human self-organisation happens according to social norms and rules. Therefore, influencing these influences the direction of this ‘stability through change’. Norms and rules are codified in institutions (think of SA’s Constitutional Court), and so the direction of a system is augmented through its structures.

But there is another source of change in a social system. And in true complexity fashion this one is inseparable from the first! But worth considering separately to aid understanding. It is this change that often attracts attention in that can be very quick and dramatic.

Complex systems are non-linear. Small changes can set them off on a particular pathway that snowballs towards a tipping point. Once a system ‘tips’ this either results in systemic collapse, or substantial re-ordering with the possibility of different systemic properties emerging.

Domino-effect

So the connections between the two types of change? Well, the greater the level of self-organisation, the lower the likelihood of collapse at a tipping point. And the ongoing self-organisation can itself lead to a build up of pressure in a system, providing ripe conditions for a ‘tip’. If a systemic re-ordering after a tipping event destroys structure, a different direction of self-organisation may more easily emerge.

Therefore, as well as attending closely to social rules and norms and hence institutions, those agitating for change in a system should also be on the look out for positive feedback loops, ‘snowballing’, and either dampen these down or speed them up! However, once the drama subsides, the source of enduring change is the way a system self-organises: a collapse or re-ordering can cause a loss of system function and structure (desirable or undesirable), but it’s the rules of self-organisation that effect the ongoing emergent properties.

‘Time-inconsistency’: the heart of climate mitigation as a policy problem

Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions has been described as the quintessential long term policy problem Hovi (2009) and Sprinz (2009). So what does this mean? What is special or different about long term policy making as opposed to short or medium term policy making?

Today’s policies will not impact the rate or extent of climate change the current generation experiences. We are already locked in. So this is policy making solely for the future. And whilst the climate change impacts are long-term, there are urgencies and irreversibilities within our economies which need strong short term action to avoid triggering runaway climate change. It would also be sensible to avoid building fossil fuel power stations or roads which we cannot use in the future. These are decisions being made now.

Lazarus (2009) writes how psychologists have found that human’s have ‘cognitive tendencies and limitations which produce a “massive social trap” when it comes to long term issues such as climate change:   We are myopic, tending to discount things in the future in favour of short-term reward; we use an ‘availability heuristic’ (or mental ‘rule of thumb’) whereby we largely only respond to things that are imaginatively available to us; and we use a ‘representative heuristic’, we are not compelled to respond to issues where the cause and effect of our actions is not clear.

time image

Even if we were able to access a collective rationality (Levin et al, 2012), the unequal distribution of power in society serves to further work against action for the long term, as it usually comes at a cost to the present incumbents.

These aspects of long-term policy making have been termed a problem of ‘time-inconsistency’, where the optimal policy decisions for the long term are not the optimal policy decisions today (Prescott and Kyland, 1977). It is exactly this conundrum that should be the focus of the climate mitigation policy communities attention. Whilst we are very good at identifying the emissions and cost implications of particular scenarios of the future to time periods of 2050, or even 2100, knowing how to translate these results into policy that effects transformative change for the long term has been far less considered.

Up until recently, scholars have not been able to imagine policy mechanisms that address this problem of time-inconsistency, likely because of the dominance of a reductionist, classical science paradigm constraining our thinking.  However, emerging analysis appears to be starting to make some headway, much of it grounded in principles of complex systems.   I will outline some of these in a follow up post.

Complexity thinking and ‘wicked’ policy problems

In the 1970s the urban planners Rittel and Webber introduced a rather exotically-termed concept – that of ‘wicked’ policy problems. They used the term ‘wicked’ in the sense of ‘tricky’ rather than ‘deplorable’.  They claimed that these problems are different to those that natural scientists and engineers routinely deal with, and are typically are open societal problems.  Further, they held that the classical scientific paradigm is inappropriate for addressing them.

So what makes a problem ‘wicked’? In Rittel and Webber’s formulation, each wicked problem is unique, but has no definitive formulation or explanation, with each being a symptom of another problem.   These problems have no stopping rule, no immediate nor ultimate test of a solution, and the choice of explanation for the problem will determine the ‘solution’ adopted. There are therefore no definitive solutions for wicked problems,but rather multiple possible solutions (or options for progressing the problem).

wicked-problem

Others have contributed similar terminology and concepts subsequently. Ackoff used the term ‘messes’ as distinct to ‘difficulties’ (which are simple problems that can be extracted from ‘messes’ and solved). And Schon talks of the ‘swampy lowlands’ where the confusing problems of the greatest human concern lie, defying technical solution.

Complexity thinking as it is emerging from the social sciences is (rather obviously) directly relevant to this class of policy problem. But what does a complexity take add to the concepts referenced above? True to the complexity field, there is no easy distinction. Some would argue that some of these concepts originate from a complexity paradigm already.

My current take (and I’d love thoughts on this), is that complexity thinking throws a light not only on the policy problem itself, but also on the policy approach to the problem – and that the two are inseparable. A complex problem requires a complexity approach to the activity of policymaking, whereby  policymakers realise they are part of the complex policy problem system (Ackoff’s ‘mess’?). There is little agreement even on what the policy should look like, and certainly no on how it should be realised. This complex policy system has to be managed, not ‘solved’, from within, calling for humility, self-reflection, experimentation, understanding different perspectives, putting process above evidence, being agile and responsive. Its about managing a complex policy journey.

Perhaps this complexity insight provides some explanation for why, as Ison notes, over 40 years after Rittel and Webber called our attention to wicked policy problems, we largely don’t identify them as such, and persist on approaching them with tools of the rational, deductive paradigm of classical science.

 

Restitution: innovating processes for a Trump-resilient world

The day after the Trump thing happened, I found myself in a blustery marquee inside the historical Cape Town Castle talking about ‘restitution’ at the inaugural South African Restitution Conference. It was a bizarre juxtaposition of events – polar opposite directions that humanity can take right now. I was very grateful to be in Cape Town, Southeaster notwithstanding.

restitution-header

A number of things struck me about Trump’s win: The unexpectedness, the very different perspectives that have been revealed throughout the election campaign but which were exemplified in the outrage and delight that were on view in the news coverage on the 7th, the polarising role of social media, the huge uncertainty and unpredictability about what the Trump presidency will bring.

Certainly, on the southernmost tip of Africa the world looked different as the outcome became certain. A sense of disorientation still pervades my daily routine, my dreams. And yet we do not fully know to what extent Trump will make good on his election promises, will encourage hate and other-ing, nor the extent to which the institutional structure will act as a counter to him. We do not know whether this opportunity for reflection will be taken up by US society. At the very least this occurrence will be disruptive. How can US society work towards emerging desirable disruptance as opposed to that which is undesirable? How can the international community support their efforts? For the issue of climate mitigation in particular, how can Trump’s potential disruptance of a hardwon and fragile global co-operation be contained, minimised?  How can the momentum that is gaining in the clean energy space be expedited?

Back to #restitutionconference: We had a wonderful story in South Africa for a moment in the early 90’s, but we assumed a quick fix to a long history of systemic oppression, and neglected many aspects of ourselves, our communities, our society, our economy, where transformation had not yet begun.  We now find ourselves in real trouble.

How can we work together now to re-orientate and develop the complex system that is a nation, to ensure that it self-organises towards a common vision, collectively re-imagined and maintained over time? Certainly understanding one another’s perspectives by listening to each others stories is a necessary starting point.  What if more of that had happened during and prior to the US election campaign?

Encouraged by the striking presence of Advocate Madonsela at the Conference – proof that great and moral leaders can yet emerge from amongst us – I wondered whether the work being explored on that windswept day, together with similar initiatives around the world, might be very relevant to this ‘fresh hell’ that 2016 has just delivered (to quote a writer friend of mine living in the UK and reflecting on the Trump win so soon after Brexit) .   That perhaps it could contribute to the complexification and resilience required to safeguard our world from the runaway Trumps of today and the future.

 

 

Articulating complexity

I had the opportunity of presenting to members of the WWF Policy and Futures unit recently on complexity thinking and sustainability transitions. Our discussion afterwards was fascinating, as their questions challenged my articulation of the complexity thinking soup that is simmering in me.

It seems that my problems in articulation centre around a few issues. I’ll only tackle a couple here.

First, complexity has an informal meaning, which is a shadow of its technical, academic meaning(s). The boundary between these meanings is, appropriately, contested and indistinct.

Informally, ‘complex’ is used to describe something that is technically just complicated. Or it can be used to imply something that is truly (in the full technical meanings) complex. This is confusing, as the distinction between complex and complicated is a cornerstone of formal complexity.

Often too, informal complexity is associated with an inability to act, or a reluctance to act, as in: ‘Its complex!’

trump_fox_news_201508081

Whilst this too is confusing for formal, technical complexity inquiry, it is also a very useful and acknowledged criticism of the field.  Which leads to a second articulation challenge: What does complexity imply for action?

Taking action within complexity is possible – thankfully, as most of the world is technically complex.  But it seldom relies on ‘knowing the right answer’. The social sciences, on departing from a positivist paradigm of science, battled with this same issue of action, within the muddy waters of post-modernism and constructionism. Some authors argue that generalised complexity, perhaps aligned with a critical realist philosophy of science provides a way through for these disciplines (for example Byrne, 1998). But this is an aside.

How then does an understanding of complexity support action? I would argue that this happens through two iterative aspects. First, humans are components of complex systems, and we have the ability to develop consciousness, to learn, and to reflect on our positions and practices.   By making a choice regarding how to act, we have the ability to influence the system of which we are a part in a particular way.

Secondly, if we understand the mechanisms of complex systems (feedback, non-linearity, networks etc), and the principles of complexity (such as unanticipated consequences, incompressibility, unknowability), we can learn how we can leverage our actions given their complex context.  For example, understanding the role of a highly connected hub in a complex system will mean we can focus on how change can be transmitted through this hub, rather than focusing our efforts on the whole system more generally. The implications of the complexity principles are more nuanced, but return us to ‘how’ we do what we do (Ison, 2010), as opposed to the ‘what’ we do that we have been mesmerised with for so long.

The ‘what’ is not unimportant. It is critically important, and this is an aspect of my complexity that also requires a lot more articulation work. But we have neglected the ‘how’ aspect of action which generalised complexity emphasises. To work smart in contexts of urgency such as climate mtigation, we need to catch up.

Humility; enabling the entry of values and ethics in policy making

(In memory of Andrew Janisch)

A key principle of complexity is that of ‘incompressibility’. Complexity cannot be reduced or simplified, any attempt to do so loses something. Further, there is no such thing as an objective observer in generalised complexity thinking, each perspective is significant, unique, partial and provisional.

A search for ‘the truth’ and certainty in complexity then becomes an asymptotic exercise; a universal truth is inherently undiscoverable. Acknowledging this from the perspective of a modernist paradigm steeped in the late twentieth century triumph of science and reduction requires humility, and a recognition of the importance of perspective.

From here, identifying the limits to knowledge and certainty may become more productive than continuing to invest in more data, more evidence. So too, exploring the ‘technologies of humility’, as described by Jasanoff in an essay in Nature, 2007.   How to proceed under certain uncertainty.

The importance of values; understanding who values what and why, is highlighted. An ethical dimension enters as basis for policymaking. In many instances it may be more important to act now, ethically, than to wait for more certainty.

Others write of humility in relation to disciplinary knowledge and tools, especially models, a central feature of climate mitigation policy work. Academic disciplines have developed and engaged with different ways of knowing, but all perspectives are partial.  Humble collaboration with a respect for difference is required in the face of complexity. A curiosity for perspectives and different values can unlock many ‘spaces of the possible’ (Shine, 2015).

I recall a brief engagement I had with Andrew a good many years ago now on a model for financing a solar water heater programme in low income communities which I had developeAndrew-Janischd and he had advanced. I approached the meeting proud of my output and fully bought-into an epistemology that maintained the superiority of such tools. I recall our discussion well – I was thoroughly confused at his refusal to join me in my inflated view of the cleverness and utility of the model, despite his having made some excellent improvements to it. He was utterly humble in both its role, and his role, in advancing the objectives of the programme. And in retrospect a whole lot more realistic.

This experience of Andrew’s humility and its implications for our practice has been long lasting, and will always remain an inspiration to me as I know it is to others. He will be sorely missed.

Brexit – a complexity take

Like the world at large I’m still reeling from the Brexit result. As I’ve listened and watched and read the flurry of commentary I find myself wondering what insights complexity thinking can offer on how Brexit occurred, how to evaluate the result and its implications.

The Brexit vote could be characterised as a non-linear, largely unexpected event, perhaps even by the Leave campaign itself and some of its supporters. Certainly the UK’s political leadership seems to have been caught by surprise. Would paying closer attention to the emergent patterning of voter sentiment and the political system itself have given them pause to consider more carefully what they unleashed?   Complexity thinking warns against simple actions as ‘solutions’ to complex problems. This, of everything, should have acted as a red flag for politicians… yet a binary referendum, in or out? Its not clear that anything has been ‘solved’ or even ‘resolved’ through this.

I was in the UK a few weeks before the referendum, and heard from colleagues, family and friends of their difficulty in navigating the relentless onslaught of information and analysis from both campaigns. There was a surreal sense of time gliding forward to a critical point, and yet it was very difficult for anyone to get a real handle on the implications.   Why was this information not getting through to the voters? Was this a communication issue? Or deliberate misinformation? Or perhaps the issue was sufficiently complex to render analysis and information insufficient grounds on which to base decisions?

Brexit

Complex issues certainly require analysis and expertise, but not only this. The future of complex systems cannot be predicted, complexity means inherent unknowability. Many of the Brexit implications together with their magnitude are not yet known – all the complex systemic properties of non-linearity, feedbacks and unpredictability come into play. So what then could have aided voter decision making? Complexity thinking emphasises the importance of connectivity, of generating and articulating collective values and the tools of ethics to guide action.  How could UK’s leaders have supported the voters in this?

From the perspective of working on one of the many ‘super-wicked’ global problems we have to engage with this century – climate change – I’m quite frightened by what has occurred. The support that the Brexit gives to both extremes in the political spectrum across Europe and beyond seems unlikely to contribute to growing our collective abilities to take these complex problems on.  Humanity needs to up the ante on work to build connections, to foster a sense of the collective and of collective responsibility, to increase tolerance and respect for difference. My vote would have been based on remaining connected and in conversation despite the imperfections of this, above isolation.

I had been grappling for a long time prior to the Brexit whether there was a specificity to undertaking national climate mitigation policy in development contexts, as compared to ‘developed’ ones. There is certainly a historical and equity difference at the international policy level.   I thought perhaps that developing country politics were a little more chaotic… but the Brexit experience shows just how close chaos is in developed and developing systems alike.

Climate mitigation requires systemic transformation towards a collectively desired future. This requires connection, tolerance, respect and careful political leadership. Its not clear that the developed world is any further ahead on this than the ‘developing’. Societies like South Africa where we are extraordinarily sensitive to the former – connection, tolerance and respect – may have a lot to offer the rest of the world.  Pity though about the ‘careful political leadership’! But then this seems to be lacking everywhere…

 

Complexity for climate mitigation policy: both generalised and restricted?

I’ve spent the better part of this last week participating in a conference on Complex Systems, hosted by the Wessex Institute located in the New Forest in the UK. A beautiful part of the world, especially in summer (but as regards the weather lets just say I’m heading home to the Cape Town winter for a little sun and an end to the rain).

It was a truly transdisciplinary conference. The papers presented complexity from the perspectives of software development, neurological function, built environment, sustainability, dental development, robotics, fire response, management and more. And the complexity thinking on display was equally varied.

What exercised me throughout the three days though was the tension between what the French philosopher Edgar Morin articulates as being ‘restricted’ vs ‘generalised’ complexity evident in the discussions. Morin, and the South African philosopher Paul Cilliers in his ‘critical complexity’, perform an emerging complexity worldview (generalised complexity) when they maintain that complexity is irreducible and observable only through singular perspectives grounded in time and place; any attempt to model a complex system is necessarily wrong, incomplete, subjective and valid only within its context. The important questions to ask are what is missing, who’s perspective is being demonstrated, where and when, and what are the implications for the analysis at hand.

Restricted complexity, in contrast, operates largely through a deterministic worldview, despite being anti-deterministic in approach. Complex systems can be modeled utilising the observed features of natural complex systems (thresholds, non-linearity, self-organisation, unpredictability, fractals).

To an extent perhapYin_yang.svgs, these two positions can be loosely compared to the distinction between constructivist and positivist ontological positions in the social sciences. The STEPS centre at Sussex University (whom I’m looking forward to visiting next week) propose in their ‘pathways’ approach to sustainability that both objective structures and subjective framings operate in relation to complex systems. At the Sustainability Institute’s complexity course run in March this year I heard that the different worldviews of modernism and complexity can co-exist, that modernist tools have applicability with a complexity paradigm.

If this is the case, then I’m now grappling with the ‘how’  for domestic climate mitigation policy in a development context.  And does this assist in addressing the challenge of taking action within complexity?  I’m also wondering whether this particular ‘how’ is important to the positioning of certain aspects of climate mitigation policy such as emissions limits, energy sector options, and built infrastructure in a complexity frame.  Unlike ‘development’, climate mitigation is associated with emissions thresholds in the natural climate system which are clearly irreversible, and these are fast-approaching.   Does this therefore require adopting aspects of a deterministic approach?  And if so, how can this be adequately accounted for within a complexity paradigm?