I encountered complexity science in 1981 when looking at ecological stability in a U. Colorado differential equations class. The prof, Martin Walter, had been spending time at Los Alamos National Labs but hadn’t called it complexity, as far as I recall. Yet his class played a key role in my understanding of ill-behaved challenges (aka complex challenges) which became a large part of my career — in aerospace engineering as well as managing companies and driving marketing and advertising to introduce new products.
After 40-some years, two questions about complexity remain most common. What IS complexity? And is this specific thing “complex?” My answers are different from most common ones on Google or Bing — yet they are confirmed through several years surveying the literature of complexity on top of my decades specializing with situations needing insight into the complex.
Fortunately, rather than some opaque and arcane definition, the core truth of complexity is something encountered in all walks of life. Let me explain.
The Little Recognized Gaps in Science
Starting on the savannah — and continuing through all phases of civilization — humanity has considered the world hoping to comprehend why things happen and to anticipate what will happen in the future. For most of history, our ancestors looked at the whole of the world in this search. Despite the usual share of errors, they made a good start. Yet considering the whole world in every exploration eventually became too much of a burden for progress to continue. So we defined the field of science — at first focused primarily on the physical world — then developed sub fields like physics and chemistry hoping to discover ever more law-like universal ideas. These fields discovered many things.
Organizing a field of study, though, inherently requires that we rule some things in and others out as topics for study. Thus, each scientific field narrowed its area of study. Investigation was narrowed further as, addicted to the power discovered from laws like those of Newton, the fields came to adopt as their ultimate goal finding law-like and universal answers. Yet, laws and the accompanying quantitative predictions are only possible when we rule out a great deal of the messiness of the real world. But the desire for laws was also strengthened by a mythology that “good science is always predictive science.” Yet for science to discover laws and for it to be predictive, the scope of investigation must be limited even further. We cannot look at a broader a scope of the world without losing quantitative precision and the ability to declare universal truths.
One key problem has been that the fields assume problems can be reduced into component parts and solved by examining the components separately. Then, we expect that adding the parts back together will, voila’, solve the whole problem. This process DOES work in important cases. Yet it also fails in important cases — times when the whole of the problem is far more than, or different than, a sum of its individual parts.In other words, there are significant and important issues in science which cannot be solved by reducing them into parts but must be considered as a whole. These are gaps which give rise to complexity.
In the end, the fields of science leave two major issues unresolved. First, there are gaps between the fields — holes in the swiss cheese of science where investigation has not been pursued well. More critically, history shows us that the fields ignore the whole for a variety of reasons but particularly when the problem needs fields working together with inter-disciplinary approaches.
Complexity Emerges from “The Messiness of Raw Nature” … B. Mandelbrot
Truth will out. And scientists in a range of disciplines discovered, especially through the 20th century, more and more times where traditional fields failed them because the whole was different than the sum of the parts. This was particularly common in environmental sciences — such as when Alexander von Humboldt wrote about his journeys in South American around 1800 and he began to perceive the interconnected whole of the environment. Through the 20th century more and more situations were discovered where traditional science failed. Out of these failures came complexity science. Even mathematicians have noticed oddities — like when Mandelbrot wrote his now famous article showing that coastline “lengths are often infinite or more accurately, undefinable.” (Some complexity scientists will quibble that Mandelbrot was more involved with chaos theory than complexity. We shall leave such discussion for another day.)
This messiness led us to complexity science. Sadly, though, you might ask 15 scientists about “complexity science” and get 20 definitions — being fortunate that only some of them offered two. This is frustrating because those answers quite often pursue that individual’s primary interest. Yet, complexity science always returns to the concept of the whole result or the whole behavior being different from a sum of the parts. This is also a very humanly comprehensible idea as the whole of a family is different than a sum of the individuals.
Thus, my definition of complexity as a discipline:
Complexity studies, seeks to understand, and works to manage situations where the whole result is more than, or different than, a sum of the parts.
Thus, complexity science is deeply involved with the ways in which a “forest” is more than a set of trees. It is deeply involved with evolution where the future cannot be “pre-stated” (using Stuart Kauffman’s term). It is deeply involved with the economy as the whole of the economy or a market is always more than or different than a sum of the parts (despite what economists want to believe). And it is deeply wrapped up in business where the bottom line on a P&L reflects how much more our total result is than the parts we use to get there.
WHAT SITUATIONS ARE COMPLEX?
Everything we do is suffused in the real world – the messy real world. Everything we do ends up with the whole being at least somewhat different than a sum of the parts. Complexity, it turns out, is a fluid within which we live. Thus, we cannot say in any absolute sense that “this is complex” while “this is not.” What we can do is look at the specific situation in front of us and consider whether the ways it is affected by complexity need special attention.
Fortunately, in many things we do the effect of complexity is small. Yet, whether we need to be concerned about the complex changes with context. An activity which can be managed one day without considering complexity may, on the very next day or with only minor shift in situation be entirely upended by the complex. Yes, the world is sometimes that badly behaved.
So, for example, Newton was able to develop laws for gravity by observing behavior in a vacuum — a situation used to remove the affect of the real world. Yet move from two gravitational bodies to three and it turns out the the equations cannot be solved. While there is a series based approach to estimating an answer, the calculation time required would be billions of years.
Rather than ask for general definitions of complex situations, we are all better served to seek to understand if the specific situation we face is affected by complexity so much that we must manage it differently. We can only determine this by watching for complex behaviors in order to begin sensing when the outcomes of what we are doing are different than we might expect. We might discover better outcomes emerging our work with less effort than we expected — a complex behavior of a good kind. On the other hand, we might find each step we take delivers less than it should (or we expected it should). This is an indication that complexity is turning the whole result of the parts into something less than we want. It also may reveal an opportunity to turn the whole into something far better than we expected. It all depends on the situation and how we approach it.
Examples where the whole is far more than, less than, or merely different than the sum of the parts surround us. Any sensory experience – whether a good meal, a great concert, a fun picnic, or even the calm from a walk in the woods – is a whole which is more than the sum of the parts. Many, many things in business are more than the sum of the parts. Morale in a company, profit, reputation and far more are all this type of result. Any brand is a whole which is different – and hopefully more than – a sum of the parts.
In a quirky bit of science, it turns out a single molecule of water is not “wet.” What we would call wetness is a whole which emerges from a large quantity of water molecules. And a forest is not a collection of trees but a reality which comes together from many parts which create a bigger whole.
Next week, I’ll follow up with more direct discussion of why complexity is critical to business. For example, the more experience we have with complexity at work, the more critical it is that we begin to expect the unusual and unexpected. It’s rare that life or our work remain well behaved over extended periods of time without having imposed an artificial stability which, in itself, is a significant risk.
For now, be well.
©2022 Doug Garnett — All Rights Reserved
Through my company, Protonik LLC, I consult with companies as they design and bring to market new and innovative products. I am currently writing a book exploring the value of complexity science for understanding business. Protonik also produces marketing materials including documentaries, websites, and blogs. As an adjunct instructor at Portland State University I teach marketing, consumer behavior, and advertising.
You can read more about these services and my unusual background (math, aerospace, supercomputers, consumer goods & national TV ads) at www.Protonik.net.