A few weeks ago, I wrote about businesses, governments, and other organizations as Complex Adaptive Systems. Why is this important now, when complexity science has been around for many years?
I’ll start with a quote from Steven Hawking, who said back in 2000, ‘I think the next century will be the century of complexity’. I agree with him, because technology and society have only recently converged with the science of complex adaptive systems, and now we can leverage this convergence to solve problems in entirely new ways.
Complex adaptive systems are adaptive, dynamic, self-organizing systems, where the results emerge from the interactions of the agents or individuals in the system. I started studying these systems and using complexity science to solve problems for Fortune 500 companies about 10-15 years ago, to model adaptive supply chains, develop distributed and self-organizing org structures, and model adaptive behaviour on stock prices. But 10-15 years ago, Google had just recently been incorporated, and we had no Facebook, Twitter, social media, or smartphones, so we were not connected globally the way we are now. Fast-forward to today, where there are 5B cell phones, and we can connect instantly with people we have never met from around the world using social media and online games. There are many examples of self-organizing systems today as a result of this global connectivity: for example, think of the role of mobile and social networks in Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, and how gamers recently solved a complex science problem in record time.
What if we merge this with the latest thinking on innovation, such as crowdsourcing, open innovations, and recombinations of existing ideas? And also the latest thinking in gamification and the power of online games to solve real-world problems, so that we are encouraged to play and work together to solve complex problems in new ways?
I believe that studying this convergence is the next step in modelling businesses and governments, and might help us solve complex problems in new and interesting ways. Here is a thought experiment for you: what if cities and businesses used a few lessons from complex adaptive systems, and started incorporating a few of the following ideas:
- Encouraging real innovation from everyone, by removing the rules and red tape that get in the way of innovation. Instead, focusing on setting a few simple rules, and ensuring the delicate balance between order and chaos. (If there are too many rules in a complex system, the system will stagnate; but if there are not enough rules it will fall into chaos: so we need to set the right rules and watch for the resulting emergent behaviours).
- Understanding that we are not always in control, and that complex adaptive systems are not always predictable. If we are dealing with a complicated system, then using a command and control leadership style might work fine; but in complex systems, we should consider using distributed and emergent leadership styles instead, where we encourage self-organization, set simple rules, and watch for the emergent behaviours that result.
- Encouraging experimentation and risk-taking where appropriate; we may need to prototype, test, learn, and cycle through this process until we find the big idea or new innovation.
- Encouraging solutions from everyone and everywhere, and using the latest thinking on gamification to let people connect and play to solve big problems themselves.
- Using technology to spread ideas fast and to encourage more ideas and solutions.
We might have better ways of innovating and solving difficult problems for governments and businesses if we looked at the problems and solutions through the lens of the convergence of complex adaptive systems and technology.