Managing the Super-Exponential Growth of Civil Complexity

The public service must look beyond its traditional scope and provide global leadership in order to manage the super-exponential growth of civil complexity while maintaining the planet’s health.

Consider these assumptions and conclusions:

  • Assume: In order for any system to continue it must not kill it’s host
  • Assume: Human civilization is a vast complex web of humans, technologies, super-structures and infrastructures situated in a sub-structure called the planetary biosphere, and in which the whole system is greater than the sum of the parts (i.e. synergy emerges from interdependencies);
  • Assume: The combined growth rates of the human population, networked communications, access to information, literacy, basic and advanced education, technology innovation and automation, public services and standards of living, are creating compounded (or super-) exponential growth of civil complexity;
  • Assume:  Psychology studies show that the human brain is not capable of intuitively grasping the nature of exponential growth or very large numbers;
  • Assume: Anthropology/anthropogeny studies show that the human brain evolved over eons while living in communities of no more than ~350 individuals (breeding populations) in ecosystems that would support that size of population, within relatively simple ecological parameters in which we attended to, and had names for, perhaps ~500 natural environmental phenomena;
  • Therefore: The capacity of the human brain may be taxed beyond its normal and healthy thresholds.
  • Therefore: The problem is not a private problem, but a collective one, and the solution cannot be a private solution, but a collective one.
  • Assume:  Civilization is a complex, yet single, dynamic system that has a measure of intelligence;
  • Assume: The first law of cybernetics states that ‘in order for any intelligent system (living or robotic) to continue, it must be able to match the variety (complexity) of its environment with appropriate behaviours’. This is the foundation of the popular SWOT analysis of strategic thinking: matching organizational Strengths to environmental Opportunities and Threats to protect organizational Weaknesses. In other words, any viable civil system must be able to match the complexity of its environment;
  • Assume: Anthropologists and ecologists have modeled population growth and are quite familiar with the predictable growth and collapse cycles;
  • Assume: The growth of the human population, combined with higher standards of living, are creating an exponential rate of natural resource depletion (e.g. “peak oil’).  Many demographers feel that the world is already over-populated and seven billion is ultimately unsustainable;
  • Assume: Technology fixes are not easily predictable, and though necessity is often the mother of invention, there is often insufficient time to create and implement viable solutions (lag time between problem and solution);
  • Assume: Every system parameter has thresholds within which it can operate – a maximum and a minimum – with an optimum somewhere between.  When these outer thresholds are approached the whole system is strained and certain other system components are particularly strained.  There are uncertainties in every system so we usually don’t know the critical linkages or breaking points (including domino, spiral and cascade effects, etc.) in advance;
  • Assume: All technology is to reduce human labour, harm and discomfort and we tend to invent things we feel we need;
  • Assume: Modern human civilization has routinized technology innovation so that product lifecycles are ever-shortening, diversity of products is growing at a super-exponential rate, and transformative platform changes are becoming routine;
  • Assume: Innovations are standardized through competition until new innovations emerge to become the new standards (i.e. bio mimicry of evolution).
  • Assume: Compounding this is the fact that formulaic practices for innovation and commercialization, as well as mass production, marketing and distribution, are well developed, documented and replicated to the point of being standardized and subject to conscientious continuous improvement;
  • Therefore: The doubling time for the volume of public information, that used to take centuries, is now happening in a matter of months;
  • Therefore: In many disciplines, current specialized expertise can never be captured by any single expert because there are thousands of disciplined experts around the world simultaneously pushing ‘the edge’ forward in slightly different directions;
  • Assume:  As animals, humans tend to adapt to change incrementally, often overlooking the big picture trends in favour of mundane explanations, i.e. we don’t see the forest because the trees routinely keep us preoccupied;
  • Therefore: People are adapting to information overload with strategies such as “pruning” prior knowledge (forgetfulness), avoidance, and invoking “willful blindness”. More radical approaches include remaining single and childless,  “cocooning”, and “moving off the grid”;
  • Therefore: People are reacting to information overload with family breakdown, obsessive entertainment, substance abuse, personal anxiety disorders and depression, and with stress-triggered latent mental illnesses specific to an individual’s biological predisposition;
  • Assume:  Bureaucracy has long been used as a means of extending human intelligence, to manage more complex environments.  We now find that there is a diseconomy of scale for organizational or collective intelligence (i.e. we reach a practical limit to growth);
  • Assume: The adoption of management science and practice (business intelligence, decision support systems) has enabled many competitive corporations to rapidly grow to global proportions with tens of thousands of employees, and hundreds of product lines and supply chains;
  • Therefore: With the growth of increased organizational capacity to manage complexity we have created a system of complex organizations – a civil environment of compounded complexity for everyone;
  • Assume:  The increasing rate of replacing human mental labour with artificial intelligence is forcing the lagging, yet continuous, retraining of the workforce for ever-higher value-added occupations.  It often takes more time and costs more money to retrain a human than to install a new computer app.  This lag may be growing;
  • Assume: “Cultural lag” is the response time between the introduction of a technology and the successful civil integration of that technology into society.  The term was coined about 100 years ago yet few people know about it or understand how it works (itself a cultural lag).  Cultural lags can accumulate and escalate tensions until something ‘snaps’, triggering a major paradigm shift in the relationship between humans and technologies;
  • Assume:  Much of our modern ‘legacy’ worldview is founded on concepts, principles and frameworks that emerged out of 17th Century European common sense (Adam Smith, August Compte, Jean-Jacques, John Hobbes, etc.).  These ideas have conventional assumptions that are questionable in light of emerging 20th and 21st century ‘information sciences’.
  • Therefore: The ways in which we have ordered the world, our worldview, is outdated and ineffective to deal with today’s complexity, let alone tomorrow’s;
  • Assume: If we see the human condition in relation to the planet as a single complex equation, in which there is a limited range of viable options for humanity, then we can see the potential for chaos and collapse if this equation should approach a critical threshold of tolerances in any of a very large number of parameters;
  • Assume: Although mathematical modeling of biological/ecological phenomena is quite advanced, apparently no one has a strong insight into this ‘human condition’ equation;
  • Assume: According to systems theory, every period of exponential growth, anywhere in nature, is followed by some correction, which may be incremental (controlled), chaotic (semi-controlled) or a general collapse (uncontrolled);
  • Assume:  We cannot solve today’s problems using the thinking that got us into this situation.  Competition is natural, but we humans are so effective at competing that we have the potential to kill all life that needs air, soil and water.
  • Therefore: Due to compounded exponential growth of civil complexity there is a need to reframe our thinking about the human condition;
  • Assume: Over the past 25 years much progress was made in data compression in the computer world, making the web commercially viable.  This was possible through the use of compression algorithms. A similar approach to civil systems is possible;
  • Therefore: One way to increase our personal and collective capacity for information (complexity) is to apply a kind of compression algorithm. This might be to consciously and deliberately reorganize our shared worldview in a far more systematic way, incorporating sciences of information, communication, cybernetics and management, and the theories of probability, chaos, decision-making, games and simulation, complex adaptive systems, etc.;
  • Therefore: We need to proactively blueprint and manage the coming paradigm shift using the best science available today, guided by a reframing of the human condition with a view to our place on the planet and in our common future. This includes the appropriate adoption of management sciences in the public services, the same management sciences that have enabled global corporations to effectively grow to dominate industrial sectors;
  • Therefore: The individual is not the exclusive unit to preserve, we need to preserve the exo-system, the functional civil system and natural environment (the ‘host’) in which we can properly function as individuals organizations and communities;
  • Therefore: The competitive model of nature has worked well for the human economy to date; however the collective human civilization is now evidently constrained by natural planetary thresholds and parameters;
  • Therefore: When every individual and every organization sees itself as an independent agent, the system as a whole is neglected. We need to reframe humanity’s place in time and space;
  • Assume: Any single profit-oriented corporation that looks beyond its profit oriented raison d’être to optimize the human condition is in an untenable compromised competitive position;
  • Therefore: This challenge of managing a paradigm shift is ultimately a public service challenge.  It is in every individual human’s best interest to look beyond short term interests and focus on our collective well-being and move to a sustainable future. We cannot allow our civilization to fail.

Published by Randal B. Adcock

Independent author on philosophy and the human condition The ideas expressed in this blog are wholly my own and do not represent the opinions of any other organization or entity.

2 thoughts on “Managing the Super-Exponential Growth of Civil Complexity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: