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Light or Darker? The Age of Complexity

Five years ago we were on the cusp of the Trump presidency, experienced the recent Brexit vote, and what felt like the start of a period of intense complexity in world trade and global relations. Years later those times almost seem quaint as we begin to contemplate a new era of complexity.

On November 11th, 2016 I wrote a reflection on the state of things drawing inspiration from the work (and death) of Leonard Cohen. Cohen had just passed weeks after releasing an album with a title that seemed to reflect the times: You Want It Darker.

There was a palpable sense that something was coming and it was going to be enormously disruption. That feeling was validated in what’s come since that Remembrance Day five years ago. Looking back, what can we learn from what’s happened through the lens of complexity? How can we use these lessons to guide our sense of what may come and how we design for what’s next?

What might Leonard Cohen have to say about this? Do we see light or do we want it darker?

Complexity Takes Residence

Complexity is both a state and a trait of certain kind of system structure and behaviour. When something’s complex we lack the mechanisms to fully predict and control what happens. Complexity Theory is a set of propositions that help guide our understanding of what complexity means in practice.

Much of what is discussed in policy research and practice frames complexity as something rather novel — or at least interesting. Complexity has been viewed as this curious state that is worthy of inspection and critique, but not something that passes as everyday or typical. What if we viewed complexity as not only common, but everywhere?

That is what I see when I look around in 2021. Our workplaces are no longer stable. Many of our markets are upended along with the labour and supply chains to power them. COVID-19 has exposed the lack of resources in our healthcare sector while our public health systems operate beyond their capacity. Within the last two years we’ve seen a global pandemic, an armed insurrection in the United States, and the true arrival of a climate crisis.

Most of us work — at least partly – at home and most likely using some kind of screen. Many of us don’t engage with other humans as we did before and in some cases engage much more.

Many billionaires have focused their outsized and growing wealth on going to space (rather than focusing on a sustainable earth), living in the metaverse, or cultivating new currencies. Cities are seeking to change their entire business model (yes, business model) to capitalize on these trends.

All of this is happening in time horizons that are measured in months and years, not decades or generations.

Change in Transition

Change isn’t what it used to be. The speed, scale, and interconnection of changes right now are immense driven partly by the Internet – literally and figuratively. It’s the Internet that allows us to communicate quickly. It’s also the Internet and the computers behind it that affect what physical things we can create and how they are distributed. The Internet — and those computers it runs on — are also contributing to climate change.

Its climate change that represents the greatest threat of them all. The scale and scope of what we are seeing is unlike anything we’ve seen in history at the same time.

So what do we do?

Our strategies for how we design our work, communities, and lives have to be complexity-oriented. Our organizations and networks need to be designed for movement and instability rather than treating our human systems as static and stable. Change will be the constant.

This also means we’ll need to move developmental evaluation and design-driven evaluation from the fringe to the centre of our practice. Both of these approaches are about learning and support for adaptation, change, and flexibility.

Innovation is no longer a luxury or competitive advantage but a means to survival. We need to innovate well and spare the quest to make it perfect.

Do We Want it Darker?

The last week I spent much time joining and learning from a series of key professional conferences in my area of work. These conferences are where the latest research and practice knowledge is often shared. Judging by the tone, focus, and topics associated with what I saw — we want things darker.

We will not create light from the means that got us here. We won’t do it with normal science and predictive models.

Leonard Cohen evolved his work and craft over his lifetime. His last studio album was a testament to how we saw the world and what it meant to him in the twilight of his life. It’s an uneasy parallel I drew between his work and life and what I saw in 2016. Coming back to that post and reflecting on where we go into 2022 it’s hard not be concerned at the state of things.

However, concern won’t bring change. Only change will.

What I do know is our quest for the ‘best’ and the ‘right’ and the predictable — the very antithesis of complexity — will not get us to the light. To borrow from Leonard Cohen, it is our understanding that perfect doesn’t exist and we must offer what we can with what we have.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Photo by Slava Abramovitch on Unsplash

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