Complex adaptive systems

I have been listening to part of a lunchtime session, here in Melbourne Australia, on ABC Classic FM with Paul Ehrlich and was re-minded of the importance of people understanding complex adaptive systems.

We live in a world that is a complex adaptive system, as well as being made up of complex adaptive systems. The first is the ecosystem as a whole (Lovelock called this Gaia – life on our planet regulates) as well as the local, regional, national and global ecosystems that include flora, fauna, water, atmosphere, soil, geomorphology, humans, the seas, the deserts, the tropics and more. Further there are the human systems of our water, energy, waste and communication as well as global interconnections of production and consumption, transport etc.

We take a causal approach to the issues that we face at our peril.

Here I would like to introduce a metaphor to try and help us through this understanding. I like to use the metaphor of rope to help to visualise what can happen. Think about a mess of ropes some of which are knotted together. This used to happen in sailing ships when they were stored for later use – even though they may have been put away neatly the rocking of the ship would mess then up and they would become deeply entwined. If then the sailors attempted to unknot the mess by pulling on a single rope it became more messy and entangled and the knot(s) became tighter and the mess becomes more complex.

Take now the complex adaptive systems described above. Visualise each of these systems as a rope or even a string or a chain and visualise these as messily intertwined and knotted with all the others. By taking any single problem (or indeed by taking many individual problems) separately in a causal way the mess becomes more and more complex.

This is the way that we tend to deal with the ‘problems’ that are continually emerging in our world. We have a problem with water in a particular region when drought occurs, the responses of our politicians can be exceedingly simplistic – we will drought-proof Melbourne by building a desalination plant. That drought ends, the construction of the desalination plant is complete, the new government decides to moth-ball it at the same time as reducing the restrictions on water use, as well as the reminder of goal of 155 litres per day per person on the residential bill. Another year rolls around and there are multiple days in a row of 30 degree plus weather and low rainfall. Water use soars.

The ‘problem’ is not solved, it has become more convoluted as it now involves a desalination plant that Victorians are paying for on their water bills; if it was to be used there would be extra energy demands, the sludge needs to be dealt with, the highly saline concentrate will be pumped into the ocean with unknown effects on the ecosystems. The weather continues to fluctuate more as more and more records are broken. Urban people have taken their sights off their use of water and continue to live as if water is always available and can be ‘wasted’.

To return to our rope metaphor: the sailors in those days knew how to untie their ropes – they dealt with whole mess as one and unwound it by taking it through a similar process to that which had tied it up.

As the systems that we have, come in many different forms that can be envisaged as rope of string or chains, the level of complexity increases. Also because the processes that make the mess are different to the singular rocking of the boat of my metaphor of the sailing ship again the mess is even more convoluted.

We like the sailors need to find other ways of attempting to unravel the mess that we have in different ways than simply pulling the ropes, or strings or chains.

By understanding the world as complex adaptive systems we have more chance of not making the predicament that we have worse.

We need to educate all people in this way beginning at a very young age.

We also need to find ways to deal with this as a system and we do have these but that is not the usual approach of politicians and businesses.

Paul Ehrlich says that just giving people more information about ‘problems’ is not enough. There is one thing that you can predict and is that there will be emergent properties and that they won’t be pleasant. He focuses on population particularly as it relates to carrying capacity. He also notes that in the past nearly all cultures have regulated their numbers (using all sorts of techniques). We do know that bigger populations of humans has a dramatic effect on ecosystems and this relates directly to carrying capacity and he suggests that it is necessary to control population over time.

this is as far as I have got on this very warm Friday afternoon in March. It will be published now but I will come back with more as my thoughts continue to emerge… Jenni

About Jenni

I am interested in working with others to enhance the sustainability of human systems. My practice is to engage with people by drawing on their own ways of knowing and understanding. I orient people toward the “pull” of future intentions, rather than the blind "push" of past habits and "best practice". I encourage people to break out of their cognitive silos, to think laterally and to focus on the whole problem systemically in all its inter-disciplinary complexity. My practice works through the essential processes of innovation – mobilising resources, enrolling peers, engaging allies and building public support. This form of engineering practice is about manoeuvring, dissolving boundaries, always being in action, and recognising that function, congruence and transformation are emergent properties generated through active learning by doing.
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