Complex Systems and Self-Organisation

May 21, 2009

A few times recently I have come across discussions where complex systems have been described as self-organising. Whilst being strictly true within the limits of logical possibility, I believe such descriptions to be significantly misrepresentative. I hope you’ll forgive the frivolity, but I find it useful to think about this in relation to the infinite monkey theorem (if you give a bunch of monkeys a typewriter and wait long enough then eventually one of them will produce the works of Shakespeare). I think describing complex systems as self-organising is a bit like describing monkeys as great authors of English literature. Perhaps the underlying issue here is that evolutionary timeframes are of a scale that is essentially meaningless relative to human concepts of time. Natural selection’s great conjuring trick has been to hide the countless millenia and uncountably large numbers of now-dead failures it has taken to stumble upon every evolutionary step forwards. In monkey terms, it is a bit like a mean man with a shotgun hiding out in the zoo and shooting every primate without a freshly typed copy of Twelfth Night under its arm, and then us visiting the zoo millions of years later and thinking that a core attribute of monkeys is that they write great plays!

So, are complex systems self-organising? For the one-in-trillions freak exceptions that have managed to survive until today the answer is yes, but in a deeply degenerative and entropy-saturated way. For everything else – which is basically everything – then the answer is no. An example of this is being played out around us right now in the financial crisis. The laissez-faire economic ideologies of recent decades were primarily an expression of faith in the abilities of complex financial markets to self-organise, as enshrined in the efficient market hypothesis championed by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School. The recent return to more Keynesian ideas of external government intervention via lower taxation and increased public spending together with the obvious need for stronger regulation are indicative of a clear failure in self-organisational capability.  

When people in technology talk about self-organisation, what they are normally referring to are the highly desirable personal qualities of professional pride, initiative, courage and a refusal to compromise against one’s better judgement. A couple of years back Jim Highsmith argued that “self-organisation” has outlived its usefulness. I would agree, and for the sake of clarity perhaps we might do better now to talk about such attributes in specific terms?

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2 Responses to “Complex Systems and Self-Organisation”

  1. Hi Julian,

    I disagree that the financial crisis is proof of failure of the self-organizational capability of markets.

    The occasional financial crisis is simply a byproduct of laissez-faire capitalism. It’s the same with earthquakes, and avalanches, etc. They are all examples of self-organized criticality. Yes, self-organizing complex systems show unpredictable behavior. Mass extinctions in ecosystems are a perfectly natural phenomenon too.

    It is the simple-mindedness of people that makes them think that governments, or managers, are somehow able to _prevent_ such incidental turmoil in a system.

    Keynes made the mistake of thinking that you can manage an economy to prevent a crisis.

    Friedman made the mistake of thinking that the market itself can prevent it.

    Both didn’t understand complexity science, because that didn’t exist until the late 80’s.

    And therefore both were wrong. Earthquakes, crisis, and extinctions cannot be prevented. If you change the system to prevent them, the effects will simply turn up elsewhere.

    • julianeverett said

      Hi Jurgen,

      Thanks a lot for you reply. However I’m not sure I see a direct dependency between unpredictability and self-organisation?.. Agreed, crisis/tipping point/etc events in complex systems cannot be predicted. However that does not mean we should not be prepared to intervene with reactive, adaptive management strategies in order to minimise the impact of such events when they do occur (if governments had let every over-exposed bank and insurance company fail then we’d be in a lot more pain than we are right now). Those adaptive strategies are essentially external corrections to self-organisational failures of the system in question. What causes the damage is when such measures are implemented assuming a long-term predictive forecast of their impacts, without continual monitoring and feedback loops to ensure that any side-effects are also managed. Isn’t that fundamentally the reason why agile/iterative approaches to software delivery are so much more successful than waterfall? I think one way of defining such approaches might be “the ongoing, adaptive management of the self-organisational defeciencies of complex software systems”?

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