Reclaim the future by embracing complexity: the core message of NEXT19

"We can fix this! Simple!" is the most dangerous lie we can tell ourselves. In an era of increasing technological and environmental risk, we'll only solve our problems by embracing complexity. This was one of the core messages of #NEXT19

The problem with complexity is that it’s, well, complex (if that’s not a little too reductive). And complexity means difficulty. And humanity is good at many things, but running enthusiastically towards difficulty is not one of them.

We’re adverse to complexity. We really are. And there are good reasons for that. Complexity makes it hard to navigate the world. It makes us uncomfortable and unsettled. We don’t like that, so we reject complex ideas – or reduce them to more straightforward stories.

Conversely, simple narratives are incredibly attractive to us – good versus evil. Baddies and Goodies. But this is the language of the nursery and the schoolyard. Most of us move up from those simple stories, to ones with more complexity and nuance. Plenty of grey areas between the dark and the light make for adult entertainment (in the less Reeperbahn-y sense of the phrase).

Politicians also just love simple narratives. They’re easy to sell at the ballot box. The sense that a simple vote could solve problems is compelling – right up until the moment that it becomes clear that simple solutions just won’t cut it, and that the promises you made don’t hold up well with reality.

This problem was explored by David Green, Professor of Information Technology, Monash University in a post for The Conversation:

For all our sophistication, we react to the world in simple ways. Our world is complex, but our ability to cope with it is limited. We seek simple solutions that hide or ignore the complexity.

The result is that our actions often have unintended side-effects. These produce unwelcome trends, accidents and disasters.

Unfortunately, people’s natural response is not to rise to the challenge:

Any change introduces complexity into people’s lives. Rather than face issues that are complex, some people retreat into denial, preferring to believe in a simpler future in which there is no change and their lives can go on as they always have.

To counter that, we need to provide frameworks that allow people to feel comfortable exploring complexity.

A Systemic Embrace of Complexity

On the Friday morning of NEXT, even as climate protestors surged into the centre of Hamburg, Scott Smith pointed one way forwards in his talk. He explained how the UAE was embracing complexity in its quest for solutions to global warming, which could be an existential threat to life in the country. That, he suggested, required a huge leap from the politicians, to embrace uncertainty, and to co-create solutions with all the people that needed to be involved.

He was immediately followed by Sophie Howe, whose very role was to stop politicians reducing the complexity too far. She consistently brings responsibility for the impact of political decisions to the fore in Welsh politics – the only country in the world to have a person whose job that is.

No wonder we’re mired in the sort of short-term decision making that we try to tell our children to avoid. If anything, the clear message from NEXT19 was just that: it’s time to grow up – these are big, complex problems, that are going to need complex answers to deal with them.

The research shows that this is the only response that can work:

Human civilization continues to face internal and environmental challenges. In this context it is important to recognize that the complexity of a system’s behavior is fundamentally related to the complexity of challenges that it can effectively overcome. Historic changes in the structure of human organizations are self-consistently related to an increasing complexity of their social and economic contexts. Further, the collective complexity of human civilization is directly relevant to its ability to effectively respond to large scale environmental challenges.

Creative solutions to complex problems

We’re just starting as a society to move on from the simplistic “digital sucks” narrative (that I’m proud to say NEXT moved on from two years ago) into something more complex.

A group writing for the Columbia Journalism Review opined that it was time to move “beyond ‘Zuck sucks’” in reporting:

Journalists covering Silicon Valley have increasingly embraced the role of “watchdog” rather than “mascot”—a development, BuzzFeed News’s Craig Silverman told us in an interview, that marked the rise of “adversarial” tech reporting. This critical turn in tech journalism has ushered in reporting on the broken promises, negligence, and other shortcomings of Big Tech companies and their most prominent executives, he explained. But this may not be enough to spur the public engagement necessary to affect real change. For that, we need a public not only skeptical of Big Tech, but capable of navigating policy debates and ready to conceive of a technological world different from the one we live in.

That’s fundamentally a call for sophistication in reporting – stop just calling the tech giants the bad guys, but instead help educate and inform the public so that they can make better choices – and campaign for better laws and protections.

But we need to be aware that tech is not in a little bubble by itself. It intersect with politics, with social interaction, with community development – and with environmental impact from the raw materials used to create it, to the power consumed to sustain it.

Sometimes, there’s one or two talks at NEXT that signpost the way clearly to the next year’s key themes, even if it’s not immediately clear that that’s the case. Back at NEXT18, that was clearly — and appropriately — Indy Johar’s closing talk on the main stage, in which he appealed for us to have better, deeper conversations:

There are very few parts of the world that have the democratic infrastructure to have these conversations – but they are fundamental conversations. How we have them, and who we design for, will be profound. We are sitting at the precipice of war, famine, revolution or another disaster. They change things. Can we avoid that?

Let’s hope so. And let’s hope we can find a path, as a society, to embrace the necessary complexity, despite our natural tendency to resist it. There is beauty and joy to be found in the complex, after all. Back to Professor Green:

Above all, remember that complexity arises from the richness of interconnections between things. To ignore the wider context, to fail to consider the side effects of actions and ideas, is to do so at our peril.

We’ve said it before. Messy complexity is part of the beauty of the world. Embrace it – before it’s too late.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash