Setting the boundaries

Development Policy30 Nov 2009Pepijn Jansen

Reflecting on the first day of the conference, it might be easy to say that the main message is rather complex. But then, as both of the keynote speakers agreed, not everything is complex because we, as human beings, create order. So let me try and create a little bit of order in the story so far.

David Snowden started by trying to take away some of the confusions and maybe even wrong assumptions people have regarding complexity theory. According to him, many people try to put complexity in the ‘old’ inductive scientific reasoning scheme, while ‘you can’t take new things and put them into old structures’. So he sent the audience on a tour through some of the key aspects of complexity thinking, and ways to analyze complex adaptive systems. (And I was quite happy to see that I didn’t get it all wrong in my previous blog).

To keep it short and simple, one of the aspects of human complex adaptive systems is distributed cognition. That is, if I got it right, people create and share their realities together. There is no central mediation point holding the exact truth. ‘The wisdom of the crowds,’ as Dave called it. Although he quickly added that most people behave rather stupidly when in a crowd. I hope we’ll get back to that issue later.

So, when finding a way to make change happen, it makes no sense at all to centrally plan and execute a plan and then expect it to happen in the way you planned. Things are constantly changing, happening, adapting, people creating new ways of thinking about issues, etc. And even then, most people do not rationalize everything they see or how they react. This is mostly based on the cognitive frameworks that have been set by the same context you react to. So, most of the time people fall into certain patterns, which might be hard to change. An equilibrium is hard to change, and needs a big push to fall into the next equilibrium, as Martin Kropff already showed at the beginning of the day.

Now, I could go on and on about these issues, involve some more cognition theory and paradigm thinking, but I promised to make it simple. One of the main things that was really illustrative was a simple example of how complex situations might be managed: a children’s party.

One way of dealing with the children is to set their learning targets, set indicators, let them reflect, and, if you really want to have fun, let them develop a logical framework – the simple linear way of managing. Another way might be to let them run totally free and act individually, which might end up in lots of alcohol and having your house burned to the ground – the chaotic way of not managing at all but letting the system work itself out. The most reasonable way, when dealing with these complex adaptive systems, would be to set clear boundaries (‘don’t cross this line!’), search for the things they like and amplify these attractions.

‘Allow local emergence within a constraint framework’

Okay, you might think, but is this really practical? Some people might just need some simple solutions instead of being constantly reminded of how complex the world is. Maybe the workshops tomorrow will shed some light on this.