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.

Framing Public Policy

Framing Public Policy

An intelligent discussion of public policy should begin with the broadest understanding of what public policy really is. Usually citizens, the media, public servants and politicians think of public policy in terms of general rules made by governments for decision making on specific issues of public interest.  The policies will guide not only politicians but the general public and corporations in their specific behaviour within the political jurisdiction.  Usually all parties agree to abide by approved policies even if they disagree with them. Citizens of all positions in society respect our civil institutions out a sense of civic duty and channel dissent in prescribed ways.  There is an implied social contract. A secondary civic duty under an implied social contract is to question public policies and argue for better ones.  We instinctively resist coups that would bring about collapse or chaos unless the current regime is dire and hopeless.

What is the ‘Public’ in Public Policy?

The 21st century worldview is primarily a legacy of more than 5,000 years of western thought.  The modern Eastern worldview is based on the Eastern intellectual legacy but, due to recent industrialization, the East has been more influenced by the West than the West has been influenced by the East.  Our idea of ‘the public’ evolved from ancient times and it retains many ideas that suit our biological human nature as it was intended for a hunting and gathering existence.

It is interesting to note that the Eastern world, broadly speaking, places a greater emphasis on public duty than on individual liberty, while in the West, priorities are reversed.  In a hunting and gathering civil system, East or West, the public community is important for defence, the group is important for food production and the extended family is important for parenting.  The individual contributes to and benefits from the commonwealth according some culturally defined prescribed rules.

Our intellectual heritage has served us well and it has continued to evolve to serve us better, although there have been missteps along our journey.  Sometimes the changes have been dramatic and other times subtle.  We, as individuals, groups and organizations also continue to consciously learn and deliberately develop while civilization evolves in a life of its own.

The 21st century worldview is both integrated and diverse.  Some values and beliefs are widely held or even universally accepted.  These, we might assume, are close to our evolved human nature.  There is also a wide range of values and beliefs that are in conflict and apparently mutually exclusive.  Over time we collect a lot more ideas that are not integrated with many other ideas.  Limited time in a life and limited ability to consciously juggle a number of thoughts simultaneously means that we must invoke coping techniques like filters and wilful blindness more frequently in order to stay on our game. Different individuals use different constellations of coping techniques to reconcile the growing diversity of ideas.

Over time we have made agreements on our understanding of what “the public” means.  It has come to be identified with the domain of governments, elected or not.  Every actor within the political jurisdiction may be considered a decision making agent. The public policies, or rules, govern the behaviour of these agents within that jurisdiction.

The intent behind public policy has been to protect private interests within the public domain.  That is, ultimately, each person is a private agent serving private interests while acting within a public domain.

However, there can be a specific advantage to broadening our understanding of “public” to include decisions for actions that have an impact on other people.  Almost every action a private agent is likely to have, or has the potential to have, an impact on other people.

We are social animals and we have always had rules for social behaviour, even before homo sapiens could speak.  All social animals have instinctive rules for social interaction.  They could not function without them.  Even bees and ants have “public policies”.

Ancient civilizations guided social behaviour by embedding them in moral stories, fairytales, and mythology and in religious parables and rituals. Compliant behaviour was ensured by application of sanctions.  There have also always been dictators who enforced their own will through brute force and coercion. Dissidents lacked the clout to enforce their own public policies.

What is the ‘Policy’ in Public Policy?

Policies are general rules for behaviour.  They can be made specific to any relevant situation through logical deduction and set theory.  The general rule implies a set of specific and concrete applications.

When we look closely at the nature of decisions we see two thing.  First, we see that all decisions are part of a system of decision rules that have the structure “if x, then y”.  In other words, “If certain condition x exists, then take action y”. If we look more closely we can also see that the system of decision rules is actually a hierarchy with a few very general rules at the top and many very specific rules at the bottom.  This pattern is repeated throughout nature in every living thing.

This decision rule hierarchy is parallel to what we have come to cal the hierarchy of needs, which is also universal among living organisms and any artificial intelligence.

For every action taken by any living or artificial intelligence, there must be a decision to act and that decision is embedded in some decision hierarchy.

One may take this line of thinking further and consider the possibility that an action-decision is simply the delineation of a path of continuity through space and time.  Even though living things create order against the inevitable tendency to disorder (entropy) of the universe, the laws of physics are not actually broken by living organisms.  Organisms are ‘net consumers’ of energy because we give off a lot of heat.  That things continue on a trajectory until acted upon by another force is still true for living things.  Actually, it is this very fact that defines life.  Living entities actively avoid being acted upon by forces that would prevent their continuity and act to engage with forces that perpetuate their continuity.

The brain is a storehouse of decision rules that have proven effective in the continuity of individuals through countless generations.  Our social nature, embedding in our ‘hard wiring’, is actually a set of rules for working in collaboration to achieve greater probability of continuance for the individual and the collective. Over time, genes represent an investment in equity.

Public Policy Rewritten

If we now consider public policy in light of these new ideas we must rethink how we conduct public policy. Public policy concerns every action of every actor and is linked to every other decision and decision rule.

Every action decision any person makes will have some impact on other people, large or small, and should be considered as public policy. Every action decision is part of a larger hierarchy of decision rules and should be consistent and coherent with those other rules.  Every action decision is derived from other rules to greater or lesser degree shared with other people with whom a person is likely to be interacting.  Where there are differences in action decisions there is likely to be conflict and tension with the potential for either win-win, lose-lose or win-lose resolution, depending on the rules applied.

Every conflict can be broken down into component parts for discovery of the origins of the differences.  Every civilization has rules for managing competition. Sometimes there are losers. For a civilization as a whole, there are rules to preserve the integrity of the civilization insofar as it is serving the interest of its constituent members.

Continuity is something that all civil subsystems strive for.  There are instinctive forces that bond pairs, families, workgroups and communities.  Beyond communities, our largest naturally occurring social system, we have extrapolated our communal tendencies to create binding forces such as national patriotism, ethnocentrism and anthropocentrism.  Thus the personal identity is expanded to include other people defined by culturally significant similarities and differences.

Humans have a capacity to find agreement on criteria on who is in and who is out.  This is a fundamental decision area for social animals.  Just over 100 years ago people were allowed to own slaves.  In some remote cultures, cannibalism was accepted as recently as 60 years ago. Less than 100 years ago women were not allowed to vote or to own property as citizens.  Genocide and ethnic cleansing are still practiced occasionally in various parts of the world today.  But also today in different parts of the world, we are deciding to allow homosexuals fully into society.  These are all demonstrations of public policy surrounding those with whom we will share a common destiny.

We have yet to determine whether it is possible for people to continue without having some other people to point to as ‘outsiders’. Can the human family really be united as one? Or are they compelled to find critical differences and to create some factions to target as evil?

The Whole or the Parts?

In consideration of public policy written for agents acting within a civil system, does it make sense to apply the same policies when we know that the planet’s resources are limited and human potential for reproduction is unlimited?  Does an open competitive marketplace make sense in this scenario?

Civil Entropy

Entropy is the tendency of everything to become less ordered. Life is made possible against this tendency because we shift organized energy to accumulate order while generating a lot of waste energy.

All living systems, including civil systems, are organized in six dimensions in three couplets – space and time, energy and information, and communication and control.

There can be information in each of these dimensions, including information about information. That information is subject to the force of entropy.

Information is a measure of entropy.  When everything becomes similar there is less information. But for complex systems to be functional there must not only be differentiation but specific qualitative differentiation that aligns with the hard wiring of the human brain. In other words, it is not the mere the volume or quantity of information, but the specific qualitative variety that is important for civil system continuity.

The specific configuration of a civil system is important to its continuance. A civil system can only operate within a range of optional configurations. This is complicated because individuals are designed by evolution to operate within small hunting and gathering systems and within relatively confined geographic space.

The complexity of modern life can lead to a degeneration or degradation of information and lead to system failure.

The early symptoms include the personal sense of information overload and subsequent stress, and reduction of personal resilience, agility and coping.

The Constraints on Civil System Stability

The main constraints on civil system stability, sustainability, resilience, agility and ultimately continuance, are largely resident in the evolved hard wiring of the human brain. What are we psychologically capable of managing successfully and satisfactorily?

We need to explore these constrains under various civil system configurations.

Undoubtedly size will be an important factor in every dimension of the civil system.  This includes the size of the global, regional, national and local populations. It includes the size of our communication networks, the number of variables in the shared worldview, the number of worldviews, the number of types of worldviews, and number and frequency of points of interaction with people of different worldviews.

Language is the common tissue that holds a civil system together.  There are limits to the functional variability of words.  When words take on too many meanings people get confused and need to ask for clarification. We do not all share the same intuitions regarding context or focus.  This slows the processes of collaboration and social bonding. In other words, it produces civil entropy.

Meanings have entropy.  If a word acquires 1,000 meanings, it becomes meaningless. People will not use the word.  They will choose or create a word that has more specific meaning.

When numbers get very large they lose their meaning. When rates of change become exponential, they lose meaning.

A civil system can be highly ordered in many ways and be functional.  It can also be highly ordered in many ways that are completely dysfunctional given the needs and resources of it human constituents.

A civil system may lose order and become dysfunctional or lose order and its subsystems become independently functional in new ways.

Subsystems of the civil system may lose the ability to function independently but may become more functionally integrated into a bigger civil system.