Complex Social System

From the viewpoint of problem solving, a complex system is a system whose behavior cannot be easily predicted from inspection of the system. A complex social system is a complex system whose behavior is primarily the result of the behavior of social agents. Examples are ant colonies, families, and nations.

Why this is important

Book coverThe sustainability problem is clearly a complex social system problem. Thus solution of the problem can borrow from the vast literature and practices of complex system theory.

In Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World, John Sterman makes the point that what really makes problems hard is their dynamic complexity. Dynamic means change over time. The book deals with social system problems, in society as well as business.

Page 22 contains a highly educational table. Here's an abbreviated list of what's in the table. As you read it, consider how many of these characteristics of the sustainability problem are not being considered by popular solutions or the rationale behind them.

Dynamic complexity arises because systems are:

1. Constantly changing: Heraclitur said "All is change." What appears to be unchanging is, over a longer time horizon, seen to vary.

2. Tightly coupled: The actors in the system interact strongly with one another and with the natural world. Everything is connected to everything else.

3. Governed by feedback: Because of the tight coupling among the actors, our [solution] actions feed back on themselves. [This can cause unexpected reactions by the system to solutions. Systems will adapt.]

4. Nonlinear: Effect is rarely proportional to cause, and what happens locally in a system often does not apply in distant regions. [Cause and effect are not related by a straight line, like on a graph. The relationship is more often nonlinear, like exponential growth.]

5. History dependent: Taking one road often precludes taking others and determines where you end up (path dependence). Many actions are irreversible.

6. Self-organizing: The dynamics of systems arises spontaneously from their internal structure. [Due to] the feedbacks among the agents and elements of the system.

7. Adaptive: The capability and decision rules of the agents in complex systems change over time. Evolution leads to selection and proliferation of some agents while others become extinct. [Social agents will evolve to maximize their competitive advantage.]

8. Counterintuitive: In complex system cause and effect are distant in time and space, while we tend to look for causes near the events we seek to explain. Our attention is drawn to the symptoms of difficulty rather than the underlying cause. High leverage policies are often not obvious.

Right here John makes a tremendously insightful statement: “Our attention is drawn to the symptoms of difficulty rather than the underlying cause.” That's exactly what sustainability problem solvers have been doing. Due to lack of deep analysis, their attention has been drawn to the symptoms rather than their underlying root causes. This has resulted in a long string of symptomatic solutions, also called superficial solutions.

What should we do instead, since "high leverage policies are often not obvious?" John suggests that basically we need to model the problem in order to grasp its essential structure. Then the high leverage points solutions should push on will be obvious.

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Analyzing Complexity

Complexity is the toughest thing systems thinking has to deal with. The behavior of a complex system emerges from its structure, or in more common terms, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Thus one helpful angle for grasping complexity is the concept of an emergent property.

As mentioned on the left in John Sterman's list, complex systems are counterintuitive. What you think will work as a solution too often doesn't. For a long treatment of this subject, see Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems by Jay Forrester. Here's the beginning of the paper:

“This paper addresses several issues of broad concern in the United States....

“The nation exhibits a growing sense of futility as it repeatedly attacks deficiencies in our social system while the symptoms continue to worsen. Legislation is debated and passed with great promise and hope. But many programs prove to be ineffective. Results often seem unrelated to those expected when the programs were planned. At times programs cause exactly the reverse of desired results.

“It is now possible to explain how such contrary results can happen. There are fundamental reasons why people misjudge the behavior of social systems. There are orderly processes at work in the creation of human judgment and intuition that frequently lead people to wrong decisions when faced with complex and highly interacting systems. Until we come to a much better understanding of social systems, we should expect that attempts to develop corrective programs will continue to disappoint us.

“The purpose of this paper is to leave with its readers a sense of caution about continuing to depend on the same past approaches that have led to our present feeling of frustration and to suggest an approach which can eventually lead to a better understanding of our social systems and thereby to more effective policies for guiding the future.”

The approach for “better understanding of our social systems” is of course systems dynamics, a method of modeling invented by Jay Forrester. This is the method we use for model based analysis since it works so well on social systems.