#75 Complex systems
Hello and welcome!
This Saturday, Leiden2022, the European year of science, formally began. If you’ve been here since the beginning, you know I’m incredibly proud of Meta Knol for using this opportunity to bring science, art, and social impact together. So if you get the chance, explore their program, online or IRL.
This update is a highly edited transcript of a lecture I gave last week at the department of andragogy of the University of Amsterdam as part of their seminar on Fritjof Capra and the road to a sustainable planet.
I had never heard about Capra and his work until I was invited to give this talk, but he has quite a fan club. If you are not a member, I recommend this introductory talk to his latest book. In short, Capra proposes a new kind of systemic thinking and a new perspective on life to nurture human communities within the boundaries of the earth.
While I’m not an expert on system theory, in my work, I often deal with complex social or ecological systems through the people that are part of them. Therefore, the question I tried to answer in my lecture and this update is what I recognize from Capra’s vision in my practice. Also, I’d like to reflect on how his vision can help people make the world a little bit better – an ambition I share with Capra.
It is undeniable that systems theory is essential to realize the grand ambition of human development within the earth’s limits.
The complexity of this system is immediately apparent when we compare the Human Development Index – a compound score of a country’s development – with its derivative planetary-pressures adjusted index. Countries with a very high level of human development score worst. Their level of development seems impossible within the boundaries of the planet. Developing other nations using them as a template will be disastrous. The conundrum is, of course, that not developing them is equally disastrous.
The SDGs, our agenda to achieve human development within the earth’s boundaries, acknowledge this. Thus, they are equally complex. Innumerable rankings and alternative structures exist for the 17 SDGs. I enjoyed this simple analysis of how each goal’s targets are related. Addressing an issue in isolation cannot be done. Last year, a study by the Dutch Bureau of Statistics already mentioned how positive action on some SDGs hurt others. A never published research for a local municipality which I have seen, confirmed this, albeit with different relations between the goals than at the national level.
Fortunately, people have started to apply systems thinking to solutions as much as problems. A recent Future Affairs newsletter pointed me to this example from the University of Amsterdam, highlighting the relationships between urban development and mental health.
Alas, you need a resume like Capra’s to understand these diagrams and their underlying systems. Or you need the time, space, and curiosity to explore them leisurely. Unfortunately, most people do not have such a resume or such luxury. CEOs, politicians, senior civil servants, entrepreneurs, and influencers are no exception. Instead, we prefer easy solutions to straightforward problems. I am no exception.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to go hands-on with a few complex systems – the energy transition, Dutch history, the climate, to name a few. I will not go in-depth into these experiences here. Instead, this update is a good starting point to learn more about them if you’re interested.
These experiences have taught me that complex problems cannot be solved by individuals. No one alone has all the necessary knowledge, creativity, and skill. Only together can we overcome these challenges.
I believe that the talents and energy of ordinary people – in all their diversity and the many roles they play in their lives – are often overlooked in shaping solutions to complex issues. That’s a missed opportunity. Addressing this opportunity requires new and different ways of collaborating and living together. We can overcome significant challenges by organizing ourselves better and more inclusively with room for bottom-up initiatives.
We don’t all have to do it all by ourselves. As long as we do everything together.
Festival 2030, which we organized last year, provided plenty of case studies and proof for the above. So please go ahead and read up about that if you’re interested. I gave a few examples in my lecture, which I’ll not annoy you with now.
So, how does this inclusive, bottom-up approach link to the work of Capra? A good starting point for this is Capra’s Covid-19 conceptual map, which attempts to understand the complex system of the pandemic.
Let’s face it: Nobody really understands this map. For example, when I zoom in on the topic almost in the center, unemployment, I know that this has another conceptual map, where one element may be “exams,” which again has a conceptual map. And that is not far-fetched because I’m confident I can argue that how we administer exams in the Netherlands is related to the mistakes made by the government around the pandemic.
Anyway, no single person alone understands this map fully. Together, however, we go a long way in understanding it. And together, we have the knowledge, skills, and creativity to propose solutions or alternatives in the right places.
I’m not saying this makes it easier, necessarily. Working with tens of thousands of people to address a complex system is a tough challenge. Yet, by embracing this complexity and seeing it as an opportunity, we may manage to start solving stuff.
Capra says that the universe is a network of inseparable relationships. Mapped out, this is insanely complicated to understand. Yet, my experience with Tegentijd (Time to turn), which starts from the same premise, is that you do not have to understand this fully to accept this. You do not have to understand it thoroughly to be able to apply it to your life and make the world a little bit better. Almost all participants of the Tegentijd were able to think about the part they play in the complex system, which is our shared future.
That’s an assignment for the storytellers, the communicators, the marketers to invite people into complex systems and let them participate. And it’s an assignment for us all. Because we do not have to do it alone, as long as we do it together.
Until next week!