Red Amber Green

Posted by on Aug 8, 2008 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

040929_rfoster_mp_ict_trafficlights_sensor

Nice piece in this week's NS by Mark Buchanan about self-organisation and complexity

Not only does he big up Dirk Helbing's work on self-organising traffic systems (which HERD reades will know all to well), but he also deals with Dirk's applications of the same stuff to industrial process design (for GM as it happens).

As I read the piece this morning, I had a strong sense of the "uncanny":  a discomfort with the idea of organisations without human-based structure- without someone in control.

I think an instinctive resistance to this kind of thing is widespread  – say of a traffic control system without a central (human-led) control room or a factory without anyone in charge – and this serves to underline how peculiarly unsuited our minds seem to be to living with complexity. As Mark puts it,

"we can't trust our intuition when it comes to the super-complex systems we depend on"

We'd much prefer things to be other than they are: to be ordered and manageble and predictable.

Mark again:

"WE HUMANS prefer the tidy to the untidy, the ordered to the disordered.
We like pristine geometrical regularity, and eschew what is erratic and
irregular. We want predictability and, more than anything, we want
control"
'

And much of management science – of the professionalisation of our working lives – plays to just this preference. And perpetuates our illusions.

So next time you sense you yourself or somebody around you (a client or colleague) seeking a bit of control, understand that what you're witnessing is a resistance to complexity.

NB My chum Johnnie Moore always really good on the subject of control in the context of co-creation. Here with James C and here with John Winsor.

3 Comments

  1. n to the h
    August 8, 2008

    Did you just in one post create the blueprint for McCains victory?
    “WE HUMANS prefer the tidy to the untidy, the ordered to the disordered. We like pristine geometrical regularity, and eschew what is erratic and irregular. We want predictability and, more than anything, we want control”‘
    Would his not-so-open style of leading suit the illusions our genes play on us better than a message of hope?

  2. richarde
    August 8, 2008

    “WE HUMANS prefer the tidy to the untidy, the ordered to the disordered. We like pristine geometrical regularity, and eschew what is erratic and irregular. We want predictability and, more than anything, we want control”
    This is nonsense – we’re much more complex than that.

  3. Mark
    August 8, 2008

    Thanks, chaps.
    Niko. I’m looking forward to the lecture tour once the November thing is over…
    Richard. Think you’ve missed the point. MB is trying to describe – with a rhetorical flourish that I quite like though I suspect you don’t – similar cognitive phenomena to those described in the Black Swan: limits to our abilities to perceive and conceptualise the world accurately.
    In particular, the widely-acknowledged limit to living with complexity and a related tendency to pretend that the world is mechanical rather than (properly) complex. Seems particularly strong in anglo-saxon cultures (http://www.amazon.com/Geography-Thought-Asians-Westerners-Differently/dp/0743216466) but a number of us believe to be a species-wide design problem.
    It causes real problems in management and marketing practice because it leads us to work off a faulty map and thus make us prone to all kinds of misplaced decisions and actions.
    My final point being, it seems to me that the more someone insists in the mechanical nature of things, the more likely it is that their “complexity-allergy” is in play.
    Thanks both for your contributions, though