Complexity and exponential change

Complexity breeds uncertainty and exponential change. To deal with it, we need the interplay of individuals and collectives.

The modern world was complicated. Our world today is more than complicated: it is complex. For now, I’ll leave aside the question how to characterise our complex world: as a world of late modernity, liquid modernity or postmodernity? Or something else?

A complicated world was governed by linear systems, hierarchies, processes; planning and controlling. It was pretty much a Cartesian world, with the Industrial Age being its paradigmatic model. All of this fails in a complex world. Systems become non-linear, hierarchies crumble, processes become both unplannable and uncontrollable.

In a complex world, uncertainty about what we have to do is high. At the same time, how we will do it is also unknown, at least to a certain degree. If the “what” is completely uncertain and the “how” is totally unknown, we live in a chaotic world. This is a world where systems overheat and break down.

Climate change, to name one topic currently high on the hysteria cycle, is a complex problem. There won’t be an easy solution that we could strategise, conceptualise, design, develop and deploy in a waterfall approach. The risk of failing at the end of this process would be very high.

A world shaped by exponential change

Instead, we need an iterative and incremental – or agile – approach to grow the solutions (probably more than one) step by step. We must then scale what works. In a complicated world, scale is linear, and there are scale effects. All of this is pretty much predictable.

In a complex world, scale and scale effects are exponential. This is due to the speed and scalability of software development in combination with Moore’s law, the harbinger of the digital revolution, on the hardware side. Another important factor are network effects. Interconnectedness is now integral to everything.

Hence, our world today is shaped by exponential change. The revolution is carried out through waves of logistic curves. Innovations like the PC, the Web or the smartphone start slow, before they take off in fancy hockey-stick shape. Finally, after growth slows down, they reach saturation.

We’re very bad at understanding exponential change. The classical example illustrating this kind of change is the wheat and chessboard problem. If we put one grain of wheat on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on, doubling the number on each square, how many grains would end up to be on the chessboard?

The answer is: way more than the global production of wheat.

The current coronavirus epidemic follows the same logistic curve pattern. The virus has infected a relatively small number of people, but the growth dynamic is high.

Complexity doubles every now and then

In times of exponential change, complexity grows roughly along a logistic curve. This means complexity doubles every now and then. With Moore’s law, this doubling occurred every two years, amounting to a compound annual growth rate of 40%.

The key clean energy technologies have grown at 20-30% annually for 15 years, roughly translating into doubling every three to four years. If (or when) these growth rates continue, things will change pretty fast. Today, these technologies are still in their early, slow phase. We have only just begun to substitute them for fossil energy.

This is the phase where new technologies are typically dismissed as stupid – before entering the second, exciting phase of rapid growth. The third phase, when technologies approach their saturation point, is then boring.

The good news is: digital systems not only contribute a lot of complexity to our complex world, but they also provide the means to deal with it. The result are complex, hybrid digital/analog systems. These systems are basically governing and reproducing themselves.

This leaves us with a question that systems theory always has to face: Where is the human being in all this? What is our role in these systems? Human agency is on the wane. Is complexity overwhelming us? Goethe’s ballad The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (German: Der Zauberlehrling) comes to mind.

So let’s briefly touch on another big question: the relationship between individuals and collectives. Our complex world has given individuals more options than ever. At the same time, the biggest challenges demand collective efforts on a very large scale.

We need teams (and teams of teams) to tackle big, hairy, audacious, complex problems. So it’s the interplay of individuals and collectives that matters – as it always does.

Last updated on May 3, 2021. Photo by Rick Rogers on Unsplash