Understanding and Managing Complexity

If you think the complexity of the current situation – pandemic, global warming, and race relations – is overwhelming, I have a suggestion for coping with the complexity.  The just published issue of The Bridge (https://www.nae.edu/Bridge.aspx) provides a wonderfully broad and intriguing set of perspectives of how complexity is manifested throughout our society.  We cannot eliminate complexity, but we can understand it and develop useful mechanisms for coping with, and perhaps even leveraging, complexity.

This issue reports the “seven habits of highly effective systems thinkers.”

1. Specialize less, systematize more. Working across divisions and abstractions can inform and guide better concepts, principles, models, methods, and tools. On matters of complexity, engineers need to confront the true value of various specializations, how far they can take us, and how they are rewarded.

2. Get over physics envy, try ecology envy. Less Newton, more Darwin. Engineering achievements and ruins both hinge on reductionism fueled largely by physics. It’s time to refocus on deep lessons from nature and culture and all their evolutions.

3. Evolve logic and psychologic. Engineering training and algorithms encourage context blindness. Being sensitive to environments will require exercising intellectual senses as well as prudent forms of engineering.

4. Foster discipline over disciplines. Complex systems can change faster than the mind can conceive them, and “solutions” can trigger undesirable outcomes. Staying attentive to failure modes requires discipline.

5. Relate first, rationalize next. Complexity builds from relationships. Relating to one another is a civic act and engineering should be too. Rationality works only part time—and it’s often hard to tell which part.

6. Progress comes from participation. Engineers often feel conflicted about being “hired guns” or “order takers.” Active reflection becomes a challenge. Broadening participation across populations may alleviate this discomfort. If there are no sacrifices, one might say, there’s no engineering. Similarly, if there’s no public participation, there’s no progress.

7. Focus more on care than creation. Capitalism is fueled by newness and novelty, or so the belief goes. But maintenance and care are sources of essential wisdom and traditions. Vital systems that support people need more care than reckless new creations.

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