Tagged: complexity

Addendum to “Books I’m Going Through”

To complement the words yesterday, I’m adding a diagram that I hope illustrates how the disciplines link to one another.


First I introduce the idea that there different kinds of operating environments – there is the internal environment, which organizations have a lot of control over; there’s the transactional environment, which organizations have some control over; and there’s the contextual environment, which organizations have least control over.

On that, I overlay the disciplines:

In the zone of internal environmentorganizational studies is useful to learn about how decisions are made;

In the zone of transactional environmentcomplexity and systems dynamics are useful to learn about the relationships between things;

In the zone of the contextual environmentfutures is useful to think about how to respond to potential events.

On top of that, I have the words, SPACE, RELATIONSHIPS and TIME. I adapt this from Ronfeldt’s ruminations about Space Time and Action. Organizations are centralized entities internally oriented in SPATIAL terms; the transactional environment is all about the RELATIONSHIPS between entities, functions, and actions; the contextual environment is about an orientation towards TIME.

What’s the future about?

Friends ask me questions about the futures work, and this I think, will form the backbone of my responses:

The future is neither a complete mystery nor a pre-destined. The weather is one example of this. The physics of fluid mechanics is well known; we know very well the basic equations of how moving air and water behaves. Even in the supposedly deterministic, Newtonian-universe, there’s room for surprises. Slight variations in initial conditions can lead to divergent outcomes with time.

People have agency, although that agency is also constrained by time and circumstances. Karl Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” We live between constraints and freedom.

The story of life itself is another such example. Despite the abiotic conditions, life begets life. Whole ecologies are created. Despite the constraints of chemistry and physics, the wonders of life present a testament to the powers of creation and possibility. Despite the constraints around us, we still can create microcosms of opportunity. They are endless, and as far as we can tell, infinite.

Singapore is an example of constraint and freedom. We face fundamental constraints of a limited space. We also don’t have the privilege of a rich historical tradition. Yet, we have created for ourselves microcosms of opportunities in the world and for ourselves.

We are an audacious dream made real. What we’ve given to the world is an inspiration, for countries and their leaders to think about how to move their people from poverty to prosperity. The world learns with us how to deal with constraints and diversity and live abundantly in a world of multiple cultures, and act against radicalism.

We have to continue to dream audaciously, rooted in reality. A gaze only to the future is daydreaming and futile. Our rootedness will allow us to work towards those dreams.

Every now and then we ought to close our eyes and dream a little, and then to wake up and work towards them.

Collapse and Joseph Tainter

I had recently come across Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies. As the title suggests, the book explores how past civilizations (and ours?) were unable to cope with certain pressures of their environment and collapsed. The book qualifies the term “collapse” – in Tainter’s view, collapse is a justifiable choice when a society is unable to solve the various problems with greater complexity in their socio-political configurations.

Tainter offers the following points:

  1. Human societies are problem-solving organizations;
  2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
  3. Increased complexities carries with it costs per capita;
  4. Investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

(p. 194)

Collapse then, is the reduction of sociopolitical complexity. This is manifested in the breakdown of a central administrative authority. Collapse can only occur in the absence of a political vacuum. Hence, the book describes the case of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and not the Eastern Roman Empire, which would have caused the expansion of peer empires in the immediate region.

Tainter goes on to explore whether the world might be on the verge of collapse. According to Tainter, there are “patterns of declining marginal returns” in several areas, including:

  1. Agriculture;
  2. Minerals and energy production;
  3. Government, military and industrial management;

(p. 211)

and several others. The only way out of this is to seek energy subsidies – to seek a new source of energy that is abundant, and therefore, cheap.

Overall, whether or not the whole world is on the verge of collapse is difficult to say. An individual country can no longer collapse because of the inter-linkages between countries. The collapse of one country these days typically results in an intervention by the global community of some sort, either through a UN mission, or by a group of countries.

There is another way out of collapse. Collapse can be put off by the discovery of new resources. On Earth, the production of minerals and energy could soon be entering a phase of declining returns, and the only other way left seems to be the prospect of mining asteroids in space.

There is also a darker side to this discussion about collapse, and that is collapse might not be such a bad thing. Collapse occurs when the cost of sustaining otherwise complex socio-political arrangements becomes difficult in the face of stresses. Collapse is an option, and an entirely valid and rational option to boot. The natural question to ask is: how can we stave off collapse?

To stave off collapse, one could begin thinking about how to develop alternative and abundant sources of energy. Can we wait for the market to solve that out? In principle, the carbon-based energy supplies are not going to run out anytime soon, although they might become economically unfeasible to extract (and depending on the environment costs attached to their usage). The other solution has to do with how we can reduce the complexity of our various socio-political systems. The nation-state as manifest in our present day might as well represent an “optimum” complexity – and that means that the EU experiment might break down simply because of the costs associated with maintaining the current regime. Translation services for the 23 official languages in the EU costs up to 300M euros per year in the DGs alone. (http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/translation/faq/index_en.htm)

The nation-state could be an optimum arrangement when the people are fairly homogenous and when they share similar values and history. In this respect, nationalism becomes an entirely rational course of action. To reduce transaction costs between the people and the state, there should be congruence in the values and perception of the nation in the first place. Energy (both physical and administrative) would then not be needlessly expended trying to get the values of people in line with the state for every administrative action.

Yet there are sub-state actors as well. Beneath the state, there can be regional bodies with the attendant departments. Cities can be broken down into districts, and districts into sub-districts and zones and sub-zones and finally into neighborhoods. From this perspective, socio-political organization can be thought of as being fractal in nature; self-similar at every level of abstraction, but not quite the same. An appropriate imagery would be the branches of a tree. When socio-political collapse happens, the break down need not be total chaos – autonomy and allocative decisions devolve down the hierarchy. This also means a prior allocation of administrative resources to levels of authority below the hierarchy. At some point, some of these resources might be thought of as wasteful, but in the management of a crisis, power needs to be vested in the lower levels of hierarchy before higher levels of authority can take stock and take charge of the situation.

The sharp reader will note another conundrum here. In times of crises, the devolution of power might be useful, but in normal operating conditions, the investment of power in lower levels of hierarchy can be threatening to the higher levels of hierarchy. Hence separatist movements can happen, as with civil wars, when high levels of autonomy can be granted to regions. This issue depends on the relative levels of power between the central administration and the regional administration. The balance of power between the various sub-national polities is likely to be the result of historical trajectories. There is no clear answer. Singapore, as with all countries, will have to find their own solutions.