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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Why things thrive

One of my favorite books I have read in recent years is a book written by the economist Paul Omerod which is entitled "Why things fail". It is a fascinating study of failure of a variety of things ranging from fortune 500 companies, animal species, and civilizations. Its observations have implications in virtually all realms of human activity.

The take home message is that you can predict that things will fail but you cannot consistently predict what will fail, when it will fail, and what will trigger failure. Sometimes stressing an entity or system with a major stress will result in nothing while a small perturbation may result in cataclysmic effects.

The companion question which Omerod does not address directly is how do robust complex entities develop and persist? However, one can infer this from his observations, from the study of human history, and from study of biological systems. I maintain that complex systems, whether human systems or biological systems, have much in common and principles derived from one can be useful in understanding the other. This truism is not newly observed. Charles Darwin was heavily influenced by the preceding work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo in the realm of political economy when he conceived his work on the theory of evolution.

How do complex systems come to exist? There appears to be a tendency for humans to look for some sort of master designer, based upon the belief that complexi systems cannot come into being through self organization. Furthermore, it also appears that humans crave to be able to take on the master designer role, believing that is is possible for humans to take on God-like qualities.

Evolutionary theory and copious supporting observations point to complexity in biological systems developing in a bottum up fashion. Even the most complex systems can develop given sufficient time, feedback loops, and mechanisms supporting diversity. However, for every successful iteration there are likley many failures. Furthermore, the certainty of changing environments means that todays successful iteration will likley be tommorrow's failure.

While we humans desire to create and control complex social systems, I believe we delude ourselves if we think conceive the optimal structure of these systems. Best practices in social systems have developed in an ad hoc way in different places in different times. Many diverse human populations have tried many approaches to human organization and the extraordinary improvements in human existence over the past 400 years are the unintended products of legal and social constructs put in place for other reasons. Good tools do what they are designed to do. Great tools do much much more. Robust social systems adapt like biological systems. Over time adaptable and diverse social systems can respond to and thrive in changing and stressful environments.

What does this all mean? The only thing that never changes is that everything changes. For anything to thrive and survive long term, it must change and adapt and ultimately evolve into something else. The desire to plan and control works well as long as one realizes that for all the planning we do there is a limited realm where we have control.

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