You are a pioneer in the study of ‘Complex Systems’. Please describe this emerging field.
Complex Systems studies how relationships between the parts give rise to the collective behaviours of a system, and how the system interacts and forms relationships with its environment. Examples of complex systems include social systems, the human brain and weather patterns. Social systems arise out of relationships between people; the brain’s behaviours result from relationships between neurons; and weather patterns are formed by relationships between air flows. One of the exciting aspects of the study of Complex Systems is how relevant it is to understanding the world around us, and how it changes the way we think about the world.
You believe that some methods of thinking about complex systems are often, if not always, useful. What are they?
The approach that my colleagues and I have developed involves focusing on a few fundamental things: patterns in collective behaviour; a multi-scale perspective (i.e. the way different observers describe a system); the evolutionary process that creates complex systems; and the system’s goal-directed behaviours. Whether we are talking about biological molecules or corporations, these interwoven elements help us classify complex systems, recognize their functional capabilities and develop a context in which their strengths and weaknesses can be evaluated.
You believe that the more complex a system is, the more individuals matter. Please discuss.
The fact that people are working together more and interacting on a global scale is one of the main reasons that the world is so complex. The variety of ways people are interacting is increasing the diversity of behaviour taking place, and at the same time, the diversity of interactions is causing more of the details of what people do to matter to many other people.
When you are trying to solve complex problems, it is essential to recognize that individuals matter. When a problem is more complex than a single individual, the only way to solve it is to have people solve it together. However, they must be organized in a way that lets each individual matter. The traditional experience with organizing people is for large-scale problems that are not very complex---the need for many people arises because many individuals must do the same thing to achieve a large impact. A hierarchy works in these instances because it is designed to amplify what a single person knows and wants to achieve. However, hierarchical structures cannot perform complex tasks or solve complex problems.
Unfortunately, the way we as a society have been trying to solve most problems contributes greatly to their existence. We continue to respond to societal problems by centralizing authority and imposing the will of one person. To be successful, we need to employ complex networks of people to solve complex problems.
Describe the concepts of ‘emergence’ and ‘interdependence’.
These concepts are fundamental to Complex Systems. Emergence refers to the relationship between the details of a system and the larger view. When you focus on the small-scale details of a system or situation, you run the risk of missing the larger picture; but focusing solely on the large-scale view is not adequate either. In conventional views, the observer considers either the trees or the forest; but when you shift back and forth between seeing the trees and the forest, you can see which aspects of the trees are relevant to the forest, and vice versa. Emergence seeks to discover which details are important for the larger view, and which are not; and how collective properties arise from the properties of the parts. Emergence demands that we move between different perspectives.
Studying complex systems also helps us recognize and understand indirect effects that manifest interdependence. Many problems are difficult to solve because the causes and effects are not obviously related. Pushing on a complex system here often has effects over there because the parts are interdependent. Of course, this has become increasingly apparent in our efforts to solve societal problems and to avoid ecological disasters.
You have said that “Higher-complexity organisms have more behavioural options, which in turn enables them to make more right choices.” So complexity is good, right?
Put it this way: the only way to succeed in a complex environment is to be complex. The key is to match the complexity of the organism to the complexity of the environment. If the environment has many different conditions or situations, then the organism has to have many different responses that are appropriate under each of those conditions. If the environment is simple, the organism doesn’t need as many responses.
If the environment in which a corporation operates is very complex, many decisions must be made correctly for success to be achieved. These might include product choices, price decisions, investment choices, resource allocations, hiring policies and so on. If one company makes better choices than another, it will succeed and the other might go out of business. The difficulty occurs when the environment is much more complex than the organism; when this happens, complexity is a very negative thing for that organism and it is destined to fail.
Can you give an example of a company that has successfully matched its complexity to its environment?
Most people don’t know that Visa International is the largest corporation in the world, measured by transaction revenue. It has intentionally designed itself as a distributed organization: it is run and owned by its 21,000 member organizations -- banks and other credit card issuers. The effectiveness of the organization is evident in the pervasiveness of the ability to use VISA cards everywhere in the world, for so many different purposes. That has to do with the wide diversity of activities that can be undertaken by an organization that is only weakly centrally-coordinated; it centralizes only the functions that have to be centralized and allows as much flexibility as possible in the response of the system to localized needs.
How can one go about relating the nature of the problem to the nature of the solution?
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[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]