In the 1970s, systems thinker Russell Ackoff argued that some of the greatest problems happen when messy problems are dealt with as if they were simple puzzles. The true extent of interconnectedness and interdependence of the world we live in is ignored or downplayed until a crisis – i.e. when it is already too late.

Time and time again, whether it is foot and mouth disease, terrorism, climate change, or the banking crisis, senior leaders and politicians display their inability to anticipate critical issues that are emerging. This is what I have described elsewhere as the “catastrophe-first” model of lesson learning.

The Icelandic volcano has led to 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 drew on complexity in his piece entitled ‘What links the banking crisis and the volcano?’, and suggested:

beyond a certain level, connectivity becomes a hazard. The longer and more complex the lines of communication and the more dependent we become on production and business elsewhere, the greater the potential for disruption. This is one of the lessons of the banking crisis. Impoverished mortgage defaulters in the United States – the butterfly’s wing over the Atlantic – almost broke the global economy. If the Eyjafjallajökull volcano – by no means a monster – keeps retching it could, in these fragile times, produce the same effect.

(a previous Aid on the Edge post highlights a speech by the Bank of England’s director of financial stability in which he uses complexity adaptive systems theory to explain the banking crisis)

But what do scientists think? John Brockman, editor of the ever-impressive, invited scientists, philosophers, psychologists, economists, artists and theoreticians from diverse fields to contribute their thoughts to The Ash Cloud- An Edge Special Event.

Brockman’s call was specific: he wanted the community of thinkers on the Edge to think about the ash cloud and the reaction to it, and tell him in 250 words something “that I don’t already know and that I’m not going to read in the newspapers”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, quite a few of the comments focus on different aspects of complexity science. These included:

  • Haim Harari, physicist, who echoes Monbiot in saying the ash crisis and the financial crisis have much in common:  Most decision makers don’t understand math and science, he says, and most mathematicians and scientists “have no feel for the real implications of their calculations.”  He says we need scientifically trained political decisions makers.
  • Peter Schwartz, futurist and cofounder of the Global Business Network,  is among those who say the consequences of the eruption are “a true Black Swan.”  He also says the event may not be over. If the volcano continues to erupt, or the even bigger adjacent volcano erupts, the ash cloud could be bigger, spread further, and have even greater consequences.
  • Emanuel Derman,  professor of financial engineering, who said  “Old technology-propeller driven planes-would not have been grounded by ash. More efficient, more vulnerable.”
  • Lawrence Krauss, physicist, who argued that the ash cloud demonstrates that with major events there is no such thing as local or regional, illustrating using the potential of a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan to disrupt global climate for a decade. He adds, “If a simple volcano in Iceland  can immobilize much of the world, even a small scale nuclear conflict has the capacity to affect all of humanity so profoundly that mere airline flight cancellations would be the least of our worries.”

Others wrote about our need to understand risk, the trouble with risk aversion, the fallibility of models, and our relationship with chaos.  Click here to read all of these  provocative essays.

I have two personal favourites. The first by Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran has implications for complexity in aid problems:

Two ideas should be kept in mind when dealing with this epistemological and methodological entity called “nature”. First, we do not have the “real” image of nature, and maybe never will. We only have models, theories and simulations, in which “facts” are defined by a partial number of variables. Second, we need more integrative thinking: Scientists working together will recognize the complexity of nature, have a more accurate image of it, and will stop proposing naïve models. This applies to understanding volcanoes, brains, markets and stars. We cannot surrender to the complexity. When we stop trying to explain nature through science, we try it through religion or myth. Curiosity is also a force of nature, and science is the best tool available to understand the world… That’s the best we can do with uncontrollable forces of nature: from volcanic ashes to emotions.

And a shorter contribution by Roger C. Schank, psychologist and computer scientist, who says, simply: “

We are confused, as we should be.”

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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.


Financial crisis, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Natural disasters, Public Policy, Reports and Studies