Complexity: it’s complex, real, multi-layered and VERY dangerous


Image by J. Star via Flickr

My previous blogs referring to Joseph Tainter’s book, The Collapse of Complex Societies were, again, brought to mind by a recent article, by Prof John Kay, in the Financial Times (Barbarians at the gates of complexity).

The following is an extract from a speech Tainter delivered in 2009. Interestingly the focus of the full version, which can be found here, was Sustainability…another topic close to my heart!

…complexity costs. In any living system, increased complexity (involving differentiation in structure and increasing organization) carries a metabolic cost. In non-human species this is a straightforward matter of additional calories. Among humans the cost is calculated in such currencies as resources, effort, time, or money, or by more subtle matters such as annoyance. While humans find complexity appealing in spheres such as art, music, or architecture, we usually prefer that someone else pay the cost. We are averse to complexity when it unalterably increases the cost of daily life without a clear benefit to the individual or household. Before the development of fossil fuels, increasing the complexity and costliness of a society meant that people worked harder.

The development of complexity is thus a paradox of human history. Over the past 12,000 years, we have developed technologies, economies, and social institutions that cost more labour, time, money, energy, and annoyance, and that go against our aversion to such costs. Why, then, did human societies ever become more complex?

At least part of the answer is that complexity is a basic problem-solving tool. Confronted with problems, we often respond by developing more complex technologies, establishing new institutions, adding more specialists or bureaucratic levels to an institution, increasing organization or regulation, or gathering and processing more information. While we usually prefer not to bear the cost of complexity, our problem-solving efforts are powerful complexity generators. All that is needed for growth of complexity is a problem that requires it. Since problems continually arise, there is persistent pressure for complexity to increase.

Cultural complexity can be viewed as an economic function. Societies and institutions invest in problem solving, undertaking costs and expecting benefits in return.

But his is far from being the only voice on this subject. Ulrich Beck, Author of The Risk Society , has a similar message (below). If you fancy more reading in this area I can recommend Sociology & Complexity Science on Wikipedia.

Current societies…are characterised by their extreme complexity at a moment in history in which traditional political institutions have lost much of the power, a power which has now passed into the hands of multinational companies with their relocation strategies. In this situation, a growing deregulation can also be observed which, in turn, redounds in the appearance of new risks and uncertainties.

Beck’s words aren’t too far removed from those of former US President, Woodrow Wilson, when, in 1913, he was talking about banks (now truly “multinational companies”) at the “birth” of the Federal Reserve.

“Since I entered politics, I have chiefly had men’s views confided to me privately. Some of the biggest men in the US, in the field of commerce and manufacturing, are afraid of somebody, are afraid of something. They know that there is a power somewhere so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive, that they had better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it.”

This is a mere sample of the huge body of work on this and related subjects. It is, undoubtedly authoritative but ultimately QUALITATIVE. Complexity Science still occupies the minds of many other clever people across the globe. But Ontonix are the only company whose Complexity solutions deliver, tried and tested, QUANTITATIVE verification of the research and have been successfully applied in a variety of environments.

We have established that a complex system has a threshold, the point of “critical complexity”,  in proximity to which it becomes unpredictable, unstable and difficult to manage (fragile) and beyond which it loses functionality…sometimes, as in the case of Lehman Bros., rapidly and terminally!

It is all very well acknowledging that a business, system or process is complex but now that the impact of unmanaged complexity has been graphically spelt out it is a brave…NO, FOOLISH…businessperson who chooses to ignore the ability to measure, manage and monitor complexity within their “system”.

Who are the “Risk Leaders” ? Come on identify yourselves.

Amongst the “new risks and uncertainties” that Beck refers to is that of complexity itself!

Something that conventional risk assessment, measurement, management tools and techniques are ill-equipped for…and if you can’t overcome these aspects how, from a risk perspective, can you rate it!!?

2 Responses to Complexity: it’s complex, real, multi-layered and VERY dangerous

  1. Oh dear, having read some of these posts, I think I’m on the wrong group.
    Most of the articles are about complicatedness, not complexity – and calling complexity dangerous is just downright strange. Complex phenomena are only a threat to certain kinds of ‘control-based’ situations where certainty, predicatbility and lock-down is required. Anyway, thanks for the posts.

    • Patrick,
      Many thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment…even though [ you wont be surprised to hear] I disagree!
      Whilst I am not entirely sure what you mean by “Complex phenomena are only a threat to certain kinds of ‘control-based’ situations where certainty, predicatbility and lock-down is required” I can emphatically state that we, at Ontonix, have:

      – a clear definition of complexity

      – a 100% objective and model-free means of quantifying current and critical complexity levels

      – a rigorously tested “hard science” solution

      Based upon our work, we have been able to compile and publish a list of “complexity facts” and customer references – both available on this site – that verify our definition and approach. We can emphatically state that every complex system has a maximum sustainable level of complexity. System failure or collapse is dangerous. Therefore, systems need to manage complexity and that is precisely what we do with systems, in real-time, if required. Including:

      the human body; IT & telecom systems; Air Traffic control; Petro-chemical processes; Banking; Mining; Automotive; Aerospace; Financial; Mining

      Neither Ontonix nor our clients, engaged in any of the above activities, are in “the business” of gambling with peoples’ lives and wealth. They cannot afford anything other than a robust, quantitative, solution.

      “Complicatedness” may not or may not be dangerous – I would not know for I have no definition. But excessive complexity can kill systems!

      I am certainly open to other points of view and, if you have a “definition of complexity” would be very interested to discuss any means by which we may help each other.

      If there is anything specific that you are unable to answer from the details on the site please do not hesitate to get in touch.


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