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Outages make me contemplative, every incident is an opportunity to learn and understand our environment better so we can become more resilient in the future. During a cross country flight yesterday I re-read some of my guideposts on how to think about complexity and systems. These papers remind me of both how hard the problems we, socitey and more specifically people in technology, are trying to solve really are and that every individual on a team contributes to the expertise and diversity to combat complexity with complexity.

I started with How Complex Systems Fail by Richard I Cook. It’s a hit list for how the interactions in complex systems give rise to complexity and emergent and unexpected behaviors. Many of the items on the list will be familiar to us such as Change introduces new forms of failure. The paper ends on a positive note, to me at least, with People continuously create safety and Failure free operations require experience with failure. Reminding me that we, as engineers, practitioners and leadership, are the only way that the system as a whole can improve and become more resilient to failure through our ingenuity and experience.

Next up, I was reminded of Warren Weaver’s paper Science and Complexity. This paper, from 1948, digs into what the role of science, it’s history and impact on society and how complexity will lead to us needing a new way to solve hard problems. The paper categorizes the problems that science tries to solve, what Weaver calls problems of simplicity, problems of disorganized complexity and problems of organized complexity. The first are straightforward problems of collection and classification that science addressed in 1900s. The second are problems that have enumerable variables and interactions but can be addressed using statistical methods, such as averages, the example Weaver uses is that of a billiard table with millions of balls. The last category, organized complexity, are the most difficult to solve and sit somewhere between the aforementioned simple and organized problems. What makes these problems hard to solve is that they can’t be solved by any specific technique, they also happen to be the problems that solving will be foundational to our progress as a species. On the bright side organizations that prioritize collaborative openness and D&I efforts are on the right track:

“… in spite of the modern tendencies toward intense scientific specialization, that members of such diverse groups could work together and could form a unit which was much greater than the mere sum of its parts. It was shown that these groups could tackle certain problems of organized complexity, and get useful answers.”

Finally I revisited Leverage Points: Places to intervene in a system by Donella Meadows. This paper focuses on societal and economic examples but the lessons are applicable to any system. Meadows develops a list of common places to make changes to a system and how to get the response you want from your change. I personally like #6 The structure of information flows, simply sharing information and visibility of a problem can make a big impact. Meadows uses an example of two houses with there electric meters mounted in two different places:

“There was this subdivision of identical houses, the story goes, except that for some reason the electric meter in some of the houses was installed in the basement and in others it was installed in the front hall, where the residents could see it constantly, going round faster or slower as they used more or less electricity. With no other change, with identical prices, electricity consumption was 30 percent lower in the houses where the meter was in the front hall.”

Another powerful lever is #4 The power to add, change,evolve, or self-organize system structure.

“The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience. A system that can evolve can survive almost any change, by changing itself.”

An important lesson from this paper is that complexity and emergent behavior is hard to predict and can behave counter-intuitively so we as the humans pulling the levers need to think critically about the consequences of our actions.

Together these papers elucidate the difficult but tractable problems we have ahead of us. If we intend to change the future and the world with technology, and I’m hopeful that we can, then I think Weaver summed up our charge pretty well.

“In one sense the answer is very simple: our morals must catch up with our machinery. To state the necessity, however, is not to achieve it. The great gap,which lies so forbiddingly between our power and our capacity to use power wisely, can only be bridged by a vast combination of efforts. Knowledge of individual and group behavior must be improved. Communication must be improved between peoples of different languages and cultures, as well as between all the varied interests which use the same language, but often with such dangerously differing connotations. A revolutionary advance must be made in our understanding of economic and political factors. Willingness to sacrifice selfish short-term interests, either personal or national, in order to bring about long-term improvement for all must be developed.”

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