Today’s New York Times Review has a nice piece  on ‘making sense of complexity’ which cites the work of Brenda Zimmerman, noted complexity specialist whose work on health systems has featured on two previous Aid on the Edge posts (here and here).

Here it is in full:

The Great Recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, arguably the toughest problems we’ve confronted in decades, are nothing if not spectacularly complicated. Trying to size up these puzzles is like gaping at a homemade contraption that has mysteriously evolved into something even its designers can no longer fathom, let alone operate and dismantle. Is there an owner’s manual for this thing? Can it be unplugged? If we figure out where it’s getting fuel, can we starve it and hope it expires?

Look at the military’s PowerPoint slide of the Afghanistan war, a labyrinth of cross-thatching lines and arrows swirling around words like INSURGENTS and COALITION CAPACITY & PRIORITIES. “When we understand this slide,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who leads the American effort in Afghanistan, “we’ll have won the war.”

At the same time, we’re learning more about the financial instruments that caused our economic collapse, and it’s now clear that “exotic,” the adjective of choice, won’t suffice. Synthetic collateralized debt obligations are impenetrable on purpose, built for maximum opacity. They’re also lethal mysteries to companies like A.I.G., an insurance firm whose supposed expertise is assessing risk. A.I.G. needed an $85 billion government loan to remain solvent.

You sense that the march toward complexity has turned into a sprint in the debate about health care reform and even the gargantuan oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, challenges so baroque, and with so many disparate and moving parts, the best you can do is hope that someone in charge understands them. Complexity used to signify progress — it was the frisson of a new gadget, the riddle of some advance in technology. Now complexity lurks behind the most expensive and intractable issues of our age. It’s the pet that grew fangs and started eating the furniture.

Of course, a nagging sense of incomprehension is a perennial feature of the human experience. When a character in “The Winter’s Tale” describes a spectacle that “lames report to follow it and undoes description to do it,” Shakespeare is talking about the reunion of King Leontes and a daughter presumed dead for many years. But the sentiment works just as well as a reaction to events preceding the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The difference is that Shakespeare’s speakers tend to marvel at natural mysteries, and when confronting them the playwright seems to endorse a certain humility. Today, our mysteries are self-created, and humility seems like a response we can’t afford.

“Are We Doomed?” read the headline to an article in New Scientist, a British magazine that last year took a long look at complexity. (Spoiler alert: maybe.) There is a lot of end-of-days talk when it comes to this subject. You will find a strain of it in the work of Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist at the University of Utah and the author of “The Collapse of Complex Societies.” In the book, Mr. Tainter examines three ancient civilizations, including the Roman Empire, and explains how complexity drove them to ruin, essentially by bankrupting them.

Does he look at the complexity of the problems facing the United States and see doom? Possibly.

“Complexity creeps up on you,” he said in an interview. “It grows in ways, each of which seems reasonable at the time. It seemed reasonable at the time that we went into Afghanistan. It’s the cumulative costs that makes a society insolvent. Everything the Roman emperors did was a reasonable response in the situation that they found themselves in. It was the cumulative impact that did them in.”

Mr. Tainter isn’t peddling the nostalgic charms of simplicity, which is wise because there aren’t a lot of people who would buy it. Unless the subject is TV remote controls, most Americans have a fondness for complexity, or at least for ideas and objects that are hard to understand. In part that is because we assume complicated products come from sharp, impressive minds, and in part it’s because we understand that complexity is a fancy word for progress.

Just about every profession has become more complicated in recent decades. The sheer volume of data and rules that must be grasped by a certified public accountant, for instance, has exploded, says Gary Giroux, a professor of accounting at Texas A.& M. The bible of the business is the portentously named “Original Pronouncements,” a book that at its heftiest a few years ago ran to roughly 10,000 pages.

A century ago, Mr. Giroux says, there were no accounting courses, let alone “Original Pronouncements,” because accountants were just guys who double-checked the math of corporations to ensure there wasn’t internal fraud. What happened?

“There was no income tax until 1913,” he says, “and before the New Deal, there was no Securities and Exchange Commission.”

It’s been fashionable for some time to bash accounting for its encyclopedic list of rules and standards, which is perhaps why a public relations rep at the Financial Accounting Standards Board can come across as a little defensive when asked about the size of the group’s most famous door-stopping tome. But you can’t understand where all those regs came from without realizing that they made possible, and mirrored, the growth of the economy.

Which gets to the worrisome part of the complexity of problems we face today. Instead of improving our lives, it’s vexing them.

What we need, suggests Brenda Zimmerman, a professor at Schulich School of Business in Ontario, is a distinction between the complicated and the complex. It’s complicated, she says, to send a rocket to the moon — it requires blueprints, math and a lot of carefully calibrated hardware and expertly written software. Raising a child, on the other hand, is complex. It is an enormous challenge, but math and blueprints won’t help. Performing hip replacement surgery, she says, is complicated. It takes well-trained personnel, precision and carefully calibrated equipment. Running a health care system, on the other hand, is complex. It’s filled with thousands of parts and players, all of whom must act within a fluid, unpredictable environment. To run a system that is complex, it’s not enough to get the right people and the ideal equipment. It takes a set of simple principles that guide and shape the system. For instance: Teach everyone the best practices of doctors who are really good at hip replacement surgery.

“We get seduced by the complicated in Western society,” Ms. Zimmerman says. “We’re in awe of it and we pull away from the duty to ask simple questions, which we do whenever we deal with matters that are complex.”

Those complicated financial instruments that helped bludgeon the economy, she says, should have been subjected to elemental tests: Is this good for consumers? What are the risks involved?

Of course, nobody at Goldman Sachs or any other large financial institution meant to wreck the economy. The United States military didn’t invade Iraq or Afghanistan thinking that one day its efforts would be mounted on a bewildering PowerPoint slide. The engineers who designed the BP oil platform that exploded and sank and produced one of the largest oil spills in history built it with multiple back-up systems.

But complexity has a way of defeating good intentions. As we clean up these messes, there is no point in hoping for a new age of simplicity. The best we can do is hope the solutions are just complicated enough to work.

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. […] a new wave of such analyses among journalists, often  drawing on the ideas of complexity science. A New York Times article featured on this blog is just the latest example. In the UK’s Guardian, George Monbiot […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Conflict and peace building, Financial crisis, Healthcare, Public Policy, Strategy, Technology, Urbanisation, Water