Results for: complexity


Complexity and Innovation: Lessons from elBulli

Cooking up new ways to do things

Good chefs know a lot about innovation in complex environments as they prepare meals for their customers. We can learn a lot from watching what they do and how they do it.

There is a renaissance in the food industry that is underway where local, seasonal foods and attention to regional specialties are replacing a homogenous generic set of flavours and dishes. Yes, we still have our fast food chains, but traveling to different cities in North America, it is refreshing to see that difference is beginning to replace the same-old-same-old. While there are arguments to made for how local food positively impacts flavour, economic development, sustainability and environmental responsibility, one positive is not efficiency. Cooking local, organic or ethically all add layers of complexity to meal planning and preparation as certain foods are simply not alway available and some require serving in very small windows of time.

For these reasons, chefs and their kitchens are ideal case studies for innovation and complexity.

Perhaps nowhere is this more true than at elBulli, the restaurant often considered to be the best in the world with its chef, Ferran Adria, considered to be the best as well.

Chef Adria was recently interviewed for the Harvard Business Review where he spoke of the innovation process at elBulli and how that applies beyond the kitchen. In that interview, he places a high value on the concept of creativity and how it is nurtured through teamwork. When asked about how this collaboration and creativity produces innovation, Adria replies:

First, if it opens a new path, and second, if it excites you.

That second part is what excited me (after opening a new path, so I guess this interview was innovative!) is the emphasis on personal engagement. Yet, this engagement also requires collaboration with others who think differently. Complexity requires exposure to diverse perspectives to address issues sufficiently and to this end, Chef Adria clearly advocates for going beyond the discipline:

It’s also very important to be connected to other disciplines: the world of art, of design, of science, of history. When an architect designs a building, he has to work with engineers and people in new technologies. It’s the same in cooking. We need experts in other fields. We turn to science, for example, to explain the “why” of things. Exploring and getting to know things is fundamental to ensuring that you don’t shut yourself off in your own little world.

The other key ingredient in this chef’s innovation pantry is focus and attention. Through the interview and others I’ve read of him, I see great attention towards the craft of cooking and keeping mindful attention on the task and doing it with a team.

It’s like any work. You need concentration and professionalism. And it’s very important to have passionate people with their own imagination. I’m the boss, and I pick the best team. We have 40 people in the kitchen and five managers with a great deal of focus. Everyone participates. And you create an environment that gives them space and the sense that they’re taking part in something very important. You can only improve the ones who are already good; you can’t do anything with the bad ones. Talent and capability lie with the person, not with the teacher.

The last point is worth noting too: teachers aren’t everything. I’ve been critical of our teaching environments and the way we structure formal learning as being too teacher and curriculum-centred and not creativity centred.

Finally, Adria emphasizes taking time to learn and integrate. Even when a famous restaurant that is open only 6-months a year, the creative pressures are still too much. More is needed. So, elBulli is closing. When asked why, Adria stresses the following:

The pressure to serve every day doesn’t offer the kind of tranquillity necessary to create as we would like. For the model we’ve had, six months a year was sufficient, but our new format will require a different focus. The most important thing is to leave time for regeneration. It’s important to “oxygenate” ourselves a bit—to let ourselves recycle and to adapt our vital and mental rhythms to a new set of demands.

In the health sector, we do the opposite: cram as much in as possible, despite the health implications.

So perhaps there is even more we can learn from the restaurant business and its lessons for innovation. Time to start cooking.

** Photo Cooks in an Italian Restaurant Kitchen, 1959 from Seattle Municipal Archives

complexitydesign thinkingeHealthhealth promotionpublic health

Complexity, Interaction Design and Social Media

Social Media Targeting for Head & Heart

Social media, like all human activities, involves designed interactions in a complex environment. How we design for this space is as much about the social — and the complexity that results from it — as it is the media.

Yesterday I participated in a webinar on social media strategy hosted by the Program Training and Consultation Centre’s Media Network. The focus was on how public health professionals can use social media to engage their populations of interest to advance health promotion. Examples of how social media is being used were presented from ParticipACTION, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and my own research group’s Youth4Health initiative to show how these tools could enhance health communications.

What might have caught some of attendees by surprise was the introduction of complexity science concepts and design thinking into the discussion. These terms are not often used in public health, but as I’ve argued many times in this space, they ought to play a much larger role.

The other potential surprise for some might have been the emphasis on relationships, connection and the kind of things that Brian Solis showcases (see infographic above). Solis describes social media as:

Social media is a deeply personal ecosystem that I lovingly refer to as the EGOsystem. As such, there is a “me” in social media for a reason. It is quite literally a world in which we are at the center of our online experiences, a place where everything and everyone revolves around us. – Brian Solis

When a person is at the centre of an experience that is human formed and technology mediated, design is very important. How one engages with others and the opportunities afforded within that environment or EGOsystem is largely a product of design. For example, Facebook provides a great deal of opportunity to bring in your close “friends” into a conversation, but is relatively poor at bringing in strangers. In contrast, Twitter is about bringing anyone into the conversation, particularly strangers. As I like to put it:

Twitter enables you to learn answers to questions you never thought to ask, have conversations you could have never planned, and meet people you never knew existed

In both of these contexts, the manner in which one designs for interactions has a profound influence on what kind of conversations take place. To use Solis’ model above, attention to interaction design qualities of the technological and social space helps amplify the white arrows, dampen the effect of the blue arrows, with an aim of enhancing the power of the red arrow (belevolence).

This attention to these kind of patterns is at the heart (no pun intended) of complexity oriented planning and why social media, design and complexity require mutual consideration in developing strategy. When in complex spaces, the tempo, rhythm, and pattern of information exchange shifts constantly, just like in a regular conversation. So approaching the program from the perspective of a traditional, more linear-focused mindset will inevitably lead to a misalignment between program activities and the outcomes produced.

If you’re expecting to get a firm outcome from a social media strategy, you might be disappointed. If you are looking for surprises, consider more flexible outcomes, then social media may deliver the goods — but only if you design your strategy to suit the complexity of the context. A complex setting is one where there are multiple agents interacting and producing emergent new properties through such interaction. It it therefore fitting that the concept of interaction design be considered in examining how we engage in these environments.

Much of the discourse on social media from marketing and communication leaders hints at these concepts, but doesn’t name them. By explicitly making complexity, design and the social part of social media a focus we can more intentionally create better experiences that will engage our audiences, and in the case of public health, promote health.

complexityeducation & learningevaluationsocial systems

Complexity and Child-Rearing: Why Amy Chua is Neither Right or Wrong


Science strives for precision and finding the right or at least the best answers to questions. The science of complexity means shifting our thinking from right answers to appropriate ones and what is best to good. The recent debate over parenting (particularly among Chinese families) illustrates how framing the issue and the outcomes makes a big difference.

Amy Chuais probably the most reviled mother in America” according to Margaret Wente writing in the Globe and Mail.  In her column, Wente is looking at the phenomenon that Chua writes about in her new book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. What has drawn such attention to Chua and her book is that she advocates for a very strict method of parenting in a manner that achieves very specific objectives with her children. The payoff? Her children are very successful. This is not a new argument, particularly when it comes to Chinese and other Asian cultural stereotypes. But like many stereotypes, they emerge from something that has a kernel of truth that gets used in ways that gets applied as a universal, rather than in context. Judging by the comments on the original Wall Street Journal story that attracted attention and the Globe and Mail’s review page, I would say that there is some truth to this stereotype and some wild overstatements as this gets applied universally to parenting.

A summary of the comments and commentary on this, crudely, fall into two camps (which, for reasons I’ll elaborate on later is ironic given how problematic the whole idea of reducing arguments into twos is, but go with me on this): 1) Amy Chua is recalling my childhood or parenting reality and its nice to hear someone acknowledge it and 2) Amy Chua is promoting harmful, inaccurate, racist stereotypes.

Child-raising is a common example of a complex system, showing how past experience is not necessarily a formula for future success. Thus, you can have the same parents, same household, even same genes (in the case of twins) and get two very different outcomes. Complex systems do not lend themselves to recipes or “best practices”. You can’t shoehorn complexity into “right” / “wrong” and either/or positions.

What is interesting about the discussion around Chua’s parenting style, which she claims reflects traditional Chinese behaviour (I am not Chinese so this is out of my realm for comment) is that the focus is on raising successful children, not necessarily happy, well-adjusted, self-determined or even creative children. And success, in the terms referred to means achieving or exceeding certain prescriptive standards for socially acceptable activities. This might mean acceptance at a prestigious school, an error-free performance, or a straight A report card. It is a rather narrowly proscribed form of achievement based upon a particular set of cultural conditions and assumptions.

One of the problems I see in this debate is that people are conflating the two types of outcomes, which is where the complexity comes in. What Chua has done is actually refer to parenting in line with a set of complicated activities and outputs, rather than part of a complex system. She has sought to reduce the complexity in the system of parenting by focusing on issues of tangible measurement and has created a familial system aimed at reducing the likelihood that these objectives will not be met. Her benchmark for success are visible outcomes, not the kind that come from growing one’s self-esteem, building true friendships, or learning to love. This isn’t to say that her children or those raised by “tiger parents” don’t have such experiences, but this isn’t what her method of parenting is focused on. And therein lies the rub and why much of the debate surrounding Chua’s book is misaligned.

If you are assessing the life of a person and their total experience as a human being, Chua’s method of parenting is quite problematic. Success in this situation has many different paths and may not even have a clear outcome. What does it really mean to be successful if love, happiness, and self-fulfilment is the outcome of interest – particularly when all of those things change and evolve over a week, a month or a lifetime? It is the kind of task that one might use developmental evaluation to assess if you were looking to determine what kind of impact a particular form of parenting has on children’s lives. Margaret Wente’s article uses some examples of “tiger parenting” outcomes with those who achieved much “success” using the benchmarks of externally validated standards and found mixed outcomes when “success” was viewed as part of a whole person. Andre Agassi grew to loathe tennis because of his experience, while Lang Lang appears to love his piano playing. Both have achieved success in some ways, but not all.

These two examples also go to show that with human systems, there is little ability to truly control the outcomes and process. Even if one can reduce outcomes to complicated or simplistic terms, those outcomes are still influenced by complex interactions. Complicated systems can be embedded within complex ones or the opposite. So no matter what kind of prescription a person uses, no matter how tight the controls are put, the influence of complexity has a way of finding itself into human affairs.

So is Amy Chua’s method of parenting successful or not, supportive or harmful, right or wrong? The answer is yes.

complexitydesign thinkingeducation & learninginnovationresearch

Embracing Complexity / Science

Seeing Complexity for What it Is (CC - Flickr by nerovivo)

SEED magazine recently posted on the concept of early warning signs in complex systems that I found quite provocative and important.

Science is a creative human enterprise. Discoveries are made in the context of our creations: our models and hypotheses about how the world works. Big failures, however, can be a wake-up call about entrenched views, and nothing
produces humility or gains attention faster than an event that blindsides so many so immediately.

There are so many key points in this one phrase that are worth discussing at length.

Science is a creative enterprise . For reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, I think that science needs to embrace its creative side more than ever and embrace design. This isn’t a universal, but if we (scientists) approached problems from the multidimensional manner in which designers typically approach them, we might create new innovations and discoveries that are different than the ones we’ve made before. Why is this important (beyond the obvious to those whose business it is to discover)? Complexity. The problems we are dealing with now more than ever are likely to be complex ones, which require different ways of approaching them and (some) different science and practice.

And as Albert Einstein famously said (or at least many people have attributed this to him — I can’t verify it, but it works nonetheless):

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Discoveries are made in the context of our creations: our models and hypotheses about how the world works. In public health where I work, the dominant models remain those rooted in reductionist science. We are asked to ‘prove’ the links between certain activity and the outcomes they produce. This works relatively well in areas like sanitation, toxicology, (some) pharmaceutical or vaccination interventions, and injury prevention. It is for these reasons that the top achievements in public health, including massive increases in life expectancy and reductions in premature death took place in the 20th century. But that was then. The challenges we face now are into the realm of complexity, unless we fail to support fundamentals in public health and then we’ll have both simple and complex challenges on our hands. The point here is that our models will only take us so far without some acknowledgement of the complexity of the problems they seek to explain. The context of our creations is complexity.

Big failures, however, can be a wake-up call about entrenched views. The key term here is “entrenched views” . My colleagues Alex Jadad, Murray Enkin, Shalom Glouberman and others once had a group called the Clinamen collaborative that wrote a great piece on the problem of complexity when dealing with entrenched health care practices. Their recommendations are essentially:

1) there are no recipes for universal success,

2) pay attention to local conditions,

3) intervene small and often and then scale,

4) aim for stability first, then change.

In science, we’re failing a lot and rather than see this as a potential positive, I see more conservative approaches to science based on risk aversion. Providing support for smaller, rapid response scientific studies that are encouraged to fail will do more than these big, non-adventurous team projects that provide high-level window dressing for grant funders and avoid making anyone look bad.

and nothing produces humility or gains attention faster than an event that blindsides so many so immediately. Humility is a word that is too often absent from my profession. I’m not talking about the kind of humility that comes from acknowledging the limitations of a scientific study or the recommendations of a report. I am speaking of true humility, where one “seeks to first understand, then to be understood”. Indeed, I would argue that we are lousy at both more often than we’re successful. Our understanding comes from a scientific perspective that holds us up as the experts. Once you’ve labelled someone or yourself an “expert” conversations immediately shift. Watch a classroom where the instructor insists on pure lecturing, being called “Dr.” and where “right” and “wrong” are regular parts of the conversation. Then watch a classroom where students learn from each other, are encouraged to share their experience and challenge the material, where the professor doesn’t push her or his titles and credentials, and where there is interaction between everyone. You’ll see a very different sense of humility from students and teachers alike.

When I encounter others on genuine, authentic and intimate level of learning I never cease to be left in awe. That comes from humility and is something I was fortunate to have modeled to me. I was once told by a retiring professor who was leaving on the day I was convocating from my undergraduate degree:

“When I was in my undergraduate, I new everything. Now that I am a retired professor, I realize I know nothing. Every year of learning serves to teach me that I know less and less.”

The SEED article goes on to point to the current problems in science in dealing with complexity and the imperative towards collaboration and cross-disciplinary engagement:

Examples of catastrophic and systemic changes have been gathering in a variety of fields, typically in specialized contexts with little cross-connection. Only recently have we begun to look for generic patterns in the web of linked causes and effects that puts disparate events into a common framework—a framework that operates on a sufficiently high level to include geologic climate shifts, epileptic seizures, market and fishery crashes, and rapid shifts from healthy ecosystems to biological deserts.

The main themes of this framework are twofold: First, they are all complex systems of interconnected and interdependent parts. Second, they are nonlinear, non-equilibrium systems that can undergo rapid and drastic state changes.

Complex systems require the kind of deep attention that science brings, the spirit of engagement and problem solving that designers offer, and a space to bring them together. With their focus on reductionist science and the lack of embrace of design, universities haven’t been the home to this kind of thinking. But things can change because, after all, this is a complex dynamic system we’re talking about.

behaviour changecomplexityeHealthinnovationknowledge translation

The Face-to-Face Complexity of eHealth & Knowledge Exchange

The Public Health Agency of Canada‘s 2010 Knowledge Forum on Chronic Disease was held last night today in Ottawa with the focus on social media. The invitation-only affair was designed to bring together a diverse array of researchers, practitioners, policy developers, consultants and administrators who work with social media in some capacity. There were experts and non-experts alike gathered to learn about what the state of the art of social media is and how it can support public health. By state of the art, I refer not to the technological side of things, but rather the true art of public health, much like that discussed earlier this year at the University of Toronto.

Last night began with a presentation from Leanne Labelle that got us all thinking about how social media is radically different in the speed of its adoption and breadth of its social impact drawing inspiration from this video from Eric Qualman’s Socialnomics website.

Today we got down to business and started working through some of the issues that we face as a field when adopting social media. I would probably consider myself among the most experienced users in the audience, yet still gained so much from the day. Although I learned some things about how to use social media in new ways, what I learned most was how others use it and what struggles they have. This is always a useful reminder.

What stuck out was a presentation and related discussion from Christopher Wilson from the University of Ottawa’s Centre on Governance and a consultant on governance issues. In speaking about the challenges of doing collaboration, Christopher pointed to the problems of a ‘one-size fits all’ strategy using a diagram illustrating the fundamental differences between engagement at a small scale (under 25 people) and what is the mass collaboration that folks like Clay Shirky, Don Tapscott, and others write about. His diagram looks like this:

Technology Spectrum of Social Collaboration by Christopher Wilson

What Wilson stressed to the audience was the role that complexity plays in all of this. Specifically, he stated:

The more complex and interdependent things become, the more people need to be aware of the changing context and the changes in shared understanding.

As part of this, groups are required to engage in ways that enable them to deal with this complexity. In his experience, this can’t be done exclusively online. He further stated:

As complexity increases, the need for offline engagement increases.

I couldn’t agree more. In my work with community organizing and eHealth promotion, I’ve found the most effective means of fostering collaboration is to blend the two forms of knowledge generation and exchange together. The model that my research team and I developed is called the CoNEKTR (Complexity, Networks, EHealth, and Knowledge Translation Research Model).

This model combines both face-to-face methods of organizing and ideation, with a social media strategy that connects people together between events. The CoNEKTR model has been applied in many forms, but in each case the need to have ways to use the power of social media and rich media together with in-person dialogue has been front and centre. Using complexity science principles to guide the process and powered by social media and face-to-face engagement, the power to take what we know, contextualize it, and transform it into something we can act on seems to me the best way forward in dealing with problems of chronic disease that are so knotted and pervasive, yet demand rapid responses from public health.

complexitysocial mediasocial systems

The Complexity and Peril of Either/Or Thinking in Systems and Social Media

Malcolm Gladwell recently authored an article for the New Yorker that has been widely circulated and debated within the social media world. The piece, entitled Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, takes the stance that Twitter and other social media tools are not much better at facilitating social change than the coffee houses were before.

The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns.

Read more

If you read Mashable, TechCrunch, Wired, GigaOm or any of the other major social media sites as I do, it becomes easy to get wrapped up in each device announcement with the idea that the world had indeed changed. The term “game changer” is used both as hyperbole, but also because many in the tech world really do believe that their game is changing with these new tools and technologies. Listening to podcasts like Search Engine or Spark, it’s easy to get seduced into the idea that everyone is using new media and cares when something new comes out.

I know people who are genuinely shocked to find out that certain folk don’t know the model number of their Blackberry, or give a hoot whether there is a new tablet computer. They aren’t in line for an iPad and can’t even imagine why one would do such a thing in the first place.

The problem with “everyone” is that they don’t exist. Outside of breathing oxygen, consuming nutrients and water, and life-sustaining bodily functions, there is pretty much nothing that “everyone” does. Indeed, there are actually few things that “most” of us do. But yet, this doesn’t prevent people from trying to proscribe things that are good for all of “us” or trying to show how terrible other things are for that same group of “us”

Gladwell’s essay is just another volley in a ping-pong match between the techno-utopians and the techno-skeptics, the true-believers and naysayers, the Jets and the Sharks and so on. It is so easy of a target to focus on the bad and the good and lump things into Black or White.

Grey is a much more difficult: it is not a solid colour.

We inhabit a world of greys. To defend Gladwell, he is right on many points. Twitter may have added a lot of context to the uprising in Iran, or the Moldovian revolution, but to hear those on the tech side speak, you would have thought that such events could not have happened without them. Look closely at the numbers and you’ll see that to be folly. However, what I would argue is that these tools made these two events much more visible to the world outside of those countries. If you were out of the loop on politics, but active on Twitter, the tweets from those countries could have awakened you to an entire social world — literally — out there that you were not aware of. That is where social media comes in.

Either / Or thinking makes for great copy in the news media business, not for policy and programming. For organizations working to reach their audiences, for health professionals looking to advance knowledge translation, and for people wanting to learn, eschewing social media because it’s no better than anything else before it is silly, just as foolish as embracing it to the point of believing that it can transform the world without paying attention to the social context in which those tools exist.

Social media is a “complexifier” of sorts. It adds more variation into a system, promotes networking among divergent perspectives (although not nearly as much as many techno-utopians would suggest according to research (see example)), and is dynamic and flexible. Social media permits voices to be heard in ways that could not be done before to the same extent, by offering multiple media channels. It is also global and mobile, but at the same time it only serves to connect those who are interested in using it, have the technological means (devices, networks, skills, resources), and are in a position where they can actually use it.

So as Canadians sit down for our Thanksgiving dinner today, consider how useful that Tweeting the play-by-play is when you’re trying to eat your turkey, stuffing or whatever you might be fortunate to have served. Perhaps talking to your table mates face-to-face might be more effective and leaving the tweets for later. In doing so, you’ll see how some conversations work at a distance, some work face-to-face and some will occur with people who have no idea that you can do both.

Happy Thanksgiving!

complexitypublic healthsystems sciencesystems thinking

Complexity and Emergency Reactiveness

This past weekend a fire broke out in a large apartment block in Canada’s most dense and multi-ethnic communities.

The fire, not as large as one could imagine when you hear “6-alarm blaze”, was still far greater in its impact than its size would suggest. As of last night, there remain 1700 people unable to return home. The building’s structural integrity is now in question, which could pose even further problems for a community that is not well prepared to cope with it. Reading through the stories of what happened in the community, which is where much my research group‘s work is focused on, it is hard to imagine how difficult it must be for people living in a modern city to be camped out in makeshift shelters that are propped up throughout the downtown.

One quote from the Torontoist’s coverage points at the cascading set of problems that these problems cause:

“I just want to know what’s going on,” said Romaniuk, a fourteen-year resident of 200 Wellesley Street with long red hair and an accent that was difficult to place. She had arrived home from work last night only to be denied access to her apartment by emergency responders. “At some point I need to get in. I need to go back to work. I have no clothes to go back to work.” She said she’d slept at her cousin’s home, and that she’d do so again tonight, if necessary. For those who had nowhere to go, the Community Centre was filled with cots, draped with Red Cross blankets. Some residents slept at other ad-hoc downtown shelters last night.

Here we see a remarkable dichtomy between the a part of the world where such sites are rare and those parts where such sites are common, perhaps even semi-permanent (PDF). In Toronto, emergency services have done a decent job of handling the crisis and moving quickly to find places to hold residents who are without a home. But what passes for good in these situations is usually a matter of perspective.

The cascading set of problems that these problems cause are usually examples of complexity in action. The interconnectedness between events and the unintended consequences that emerge from simple actions have ramifications that our post-event analyses only scratch the surface upon. They also cause much discussion about the suitability of emergency preparedness plans. Such plans, often designed to help communities respond quickly in a disaster, tend to work well when the parameters are known and the system constraints are reasonably tight. Airplane emergency safety planning is one area. In an emergency, those in a plane have very few options for escape and in those situations where a problem occurs and there is a chance of survival, most of the strategies, imperfect as they are, will do the job of getting people to safety. A plane is a closed system.

Communities are more troublesome beasts. They are open systems and it is virtually impossible to imagine the variety of scenarios that could unfold in the event that a large scale disaster takes place. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina showed clearly the flaws in both their plan, but also in the mindset that goes into planning in the first place. The mere act of planning is problematic when you consider a complex system.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a plan as:

plan |plan|
1 a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something : the UN peace plan.
• [with adj. ] a scheme for the regular payment of contributions toward a pension, savings account, or insurance policy : a personal pension plan.
2 (usu. plans) an intention or decision about what one is going to do : I have no plans to retire.
3 a detailed diagram, drawing, or program, in particular
• a fairly large-scale map of a town or district : a street plan.
• a drawing or diagram made by projection on a horizontal plane, esp. one showing the layout of a building or one floor of a building. Compare with elevation (sense 3).
• a diagram showing how something will be arranged : look at the seating plan.

Consider the terms. The first is a detailed plan of what you are going to do. This means having some idea of what the context will be, what the parameters are, and the agents involved. How often can we do this reliably?

The second part, intention, is far easier. This is something that one can develop abstract, but focused sets of ideas about what is to be achieved.

The last part is about as problematic as the first.

Colin Powell had a more realistic, complex view of planning:

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy

Since Katrina and as the potential spectre of a pandemic influenza sits in our minds, public health has been focusing on emergency preparedness. Thinking in complex terms might enable us to get the best of our intentions to gel with what Powell speaks of: contact. The Toronto fire example provides a decent case for planning, but as the unplanned for consequences begin to reveal themselves (lack of ability to work, loss of pets, missing medication schedules, eating nothing but pizza for three days straight to name a few) the strength of this plan will be forgotten. Considering things as complex from the outset means that plans are no longer solid documents, but fluid, adaptive processes that require new ways of engaging this complexity.

I don’t see much of that. But then, I’m too busy planning for other events that are equally as ludicrous (classes, papers, research projects). Perhaps we all would be wise to heed John Lennon:

Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

For those interested in learning more or doing more for those affected by the fire in Toronto, here are some links:

ongoing activities and news:

co-ordination wiki:

fundraising opportunities:

complexitydesign thinkingpsychology

Emotional Complexity

Over the past week I’ve been writing about the issue of simplicity and its relationship to complexity. At the focus of this has been the work of John Maeda and his Laws of Simplicity. Today I wrap up my critique looking at the 7th Law: Emotion.

In this law, Maeda states:

More emotions are better than less

The idea is that emotions help us frame the context in which things exist and could be used and thus, the more emotions we apply to an object or phenomenon the more we are able to see the simple.

My early training in psychology and a lifetime of experience suggests that, like my previous critiques , this law overstates things somewhat and requires an asterisk.

Emotions animate interest in things, but they also obscure the phenomenon that one views. So perhaps there is greater simplicity, but the  clarity that comes from simplicity is removed.

complexitydesign thinking

Complexity is to Difference as Simplicity is to…?


Today continues the discussion about the role of simplicity in relation to complexity with my look at the work of John Maeda and his Laws of Simplicity. I this Maeda’s on to something, but I also disagree with some of his Laws and today I look at the 5th Law: Differences.

Differences: Simplicity and complexity need each other.

Some have argued that differences create. Keith Sawyer addressed this issue in his recent blog post looking at the various commentaries published over the years on ideas around innovation, self-organization and diversity and particularly the recent work of Matt Ridley and his work on the Rational Optimist. In his review of a review, Sawyer writes:

the new portion is Ridley’s emphasis on archeology and the fossil record, to support his claim that human advancement always happens where trade brings together more ideas from more people. (That reminds me of another recent similar book, The Medici Effect, where Johansson calls it “the intersection”.) Ridley argues that the key innovation in history was trade, and when humans started trading about 45,000 years ago, history and cultural change suddenly accelerated.  He rejects previous explanations of this sudden burst that appeal to individual-focused explanations, like a sudden genetic mutation that resulted in greater individual creativity, and argues that individuals didn’t change at all–what changed was social organization.

I agree completely, but that idea isn’t really new either. It’s long been a fundamental tenet of economics that trade makes everyone better off and accelerates innovation.

The above quote might be a long way of getting to the point that differences matter and exposure and interaction of diversity is what creates innovation and complexity in complex systems. Maeda’s comments about simplicity and complexity needing each other might be partly true, but like my previous critique, it is problematic enough to be questioned as a Law and explored more fully.

In The Laws of Simplicity, Maeda deftly illustrates that:

The more complexity there is in a market, the more something simpler stands out.

While I agree, the idea that simplicity is gained by adding more complexity tells me that we have more complexity — and that’s problematic when you’re trying to make sense of something. True, it makes those efforts to simply things more noticed, but those efforts must be affixed to the most useful things (which is no guarantee) otherwise one has a lot of simple things that are less useful and complex things that are confusing.

It also somewhat reduces the potential benefit that diversity brings, despite the challenges it also brings. For a great analysis of the role of diversity in complex systems, I suggest you look at my Library Section to find the reference for Scott Page’s excellent work The Difference.

complexitysystems thinking

Rethinking the Relationship Between Simplicity, Complexity and Knowledge

Today I continue to look at the concept of simplicity and its relationship to complexity by focusing on the work of John Maeda, designer, artist and president of the Rhode Island School of Design. Maeda has devoted much of his career to understanding the role of simplicity in art, design, business, technology and everyday living and his book, The Laws of Simplicity, may be the most cogent analysis of simplicity in a manner that adheres to the very laws it espouses. As a designer, academic, and innovator, Maeda’s interest in simplicity reaches to the core of his craft and because of this, his work on the subject is worth paying attention to.

The Laws of Simplicity outline 10 laws, of which most I agree with. However, there are three that I see as problematic and, in some cases, actually inspire greater complexity rather than reveal or produce simplicity. I begin with Law #4: “knowledge makes everything simpler”.

In the fourth law, Maeda argues that simple things often require knowledge to fully unlock their potential. One of the examples he gives is the screwdriver and the screw. Two simple things, but it requires knowledge of how they fit together and which way to use them through such mnemonic devices like “righty tighty, lefty loosy” to make the simplicity work (p.33).

Using the examples of learners tackling new and difficult problems, Maeda discusses how the development and application of knowledge creates opportunities to create simple solutions by understanding the basics relative to the more complex parts — something systems thinkers might consider relating the entire system to the components within it. Using the screwdriver example, this law becomes quite evident and could easily be supported. However, to use tools like screwdrivers as the metaphor, there are problems that require many tools working at the same time to solving them. It is here that a little information helps to a point, but then as starts to fall back on itself because the volume of knowledge required to fully understand things gets too much. In complexity terms, this is where interactions and feedback enter and the previously independent points of knowledge converge, requiring someone to attend to multiple things at the same time. As the metaphor goes, the vise, the saw, the planer, the drill and the screwdriver all need to be thought of at the same time in order to solve the problem. New mnemonics or “simple rules” need to be found.

Indeed, there is a point where more information helps, but my experience as an educator and health researcher suggests that there is a threshold in which knowledge sews confusion rather than yields insight. Below is a schematic drawn from my experience paired with insights from cognitive and information science that illustrates what happens when there is too much information. However, before reading this consider the following assumptions in which this model was based:

If we surmise that complex information is more difficult to fully comprehend than something simple, then the likelihood of a message being understood goes up if it has greater simplicity than complexity.

If we consider knowledge as being the understanding of information, then we can conclude that more information equals more knowledge.

Limits to Knowledge in Complex Systems

In the diagram, there is a steady increase in the amount of clarity that knowledge provides up to a point where it levels off and then, as information increases, the complexity rises and the confusion grows. At some point, the information and knowledge load becomes too large for the problem and the simplicity starts becoming complex. This I describe as a law unto itself, because I have yet to find an issue where this doesn’t apply.

Edmunds and Morris (2000) looked at this phenomenon in a review of the literature published in the International Journal of Information Management, concluding that information overload is a serious problem for organizations and the individuals within them.

To illustrate this problem of knowledge and simplicity, consider a socially conscious trip to your average North American grocery store. I love food and want to eat in a manner that is healthy, ethical and environmentally and economically sustainable. As a result, I devote a lot of time to researching food to find out what options are available to me. This knowledge has transformed something simple like buying groceries into an event of uncommon complexity (or joy into angst on some days). My knowledge of healthy eating means that foods with trans-fats, excess sodium and sugar, and high levels of carbohydrates, fats and calories are out. Add to that what I know about socially responsible farming and the environment, and I’ll try to choose products with less packaging, organically (and sustainably) grown, local (when appropriate), and those that use little harmful chemicals that unnecessarily damage the environment and the creatures within it. I also want my food to be of good quality (fresh) and good value (which often means low cost). Each one of these issues — healthy vs. not, organic vs. not, expensive vs. cheap — are issues where some more information can lead to making the decision simpler. Multiplied together, and this becomes complex.

As author Neil Johnson puts it:

Two’s company, three’s complexity.

Perhaps it should be:

Two’s simple, three’s complex.

So with regards to the Law, I agree that it is correct for certain problems, but not all. Rather, I suggest amending Maeda’s 4th Law to read:

Some Knowledge Makes Some Things Simpler, While Lots of Knowledge Makes a Lot of Things More Complex