Layers of Complexity

Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988) presaged Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2004).  Both books provide vivid explanations of how societies fail and why.

Societies create mechanisms to deal with new challenges.  Walls are built to thwart Mongol hoards.  Regulations are created to deter fraud and corruption.  Programs are designed to assure equity of access to education and health.  Each of these initiatives leads to a new layer of societal complexity.

Each of these layers creates a set of vested interests in the operations of the layer and the economic benefits of these operations.  Consequently, it is very difficult to eliminate layers, even if the original motivation for the layer has disappeared. 

Adding layers is much easier.  The benefits of the layer, to both those targeted to receive these benefits and those compensated to provide these benefits, can be quite substantial.  That’s why they are very reluctant to forego these benefits, even if the provision of these benefits no longer makes sense.

So, societies keep adding layers that consume resources.  Eventually, a new challenge emerges – a pandemic, climate change or alien invaders – and there are no resources to invest in a new layer.  All resources are being consumed to support earlier layers of complexity.  This is a harbinger of societal failure.

How might we reduce layers of complexity?  Consider healthcare delivery in the US.  The overall system is highly fragmented.  I have characterized it as a federation of millions of entrepreneurs with no one in charge.  The result is the highest costs among OECD countries and the poorest outcomes.  The complexity is undermining the health of the US population.

We clearly know how to do better as epitomized by Kaiser Permanente Medicare Advantage, of which I am a member.  KP is the provider, payer, and pharmacy.  They own all the costs of my health risks, for a fixed Medicare monthly payment.  Consequently, they do almost everything imaginable to keep me healthy and themselves profitable.  I experience greatly reduced complexity.

Another idea for complexity reductions is integrated transportation systems.  I live in Washington, DC and rely on the Metro’s bus and subway network to travel around the National Capital Region.  I have no need for a car.  Complexity could be reduced by integrating Amtrak, Greyhound, Uber, Lyft, taxis and the airlines into one system so I could use my Metro card for everything.  As with Medicare Advantage, service providers could remain independent companies, but share information and coordinate services.

Last week’s blog – Emily 2.0 – illustrated how complexity reduction might be facilitated by intelligent cognitive assistants.  Emily enables my not having to know where everything is and not having to figure out how to do everything. I just need to know how to interact with Emily.  She facilitates everything else.  This greatly reduces the energy that I must devote to complexity management. 

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