On the eve of Brexit, it has never been more important to understand the connected systems in which we live. The cascade of elections that followed the referendum highlight how disconnected people felt with the current system. The failure of UK leadership to listen and understand these feelings after the financial crisis has culminated with those people finally finding their voice.
The internet has connected and given voice to hundreds of millions of people, enabling them to organise and communicate globally with a touch of a button. At the same time it has given us visibility and increasing awareness of the diverse and decentralised complexity within countries and the world as a whole. We often struggle to make sense of this new awareness flooding our senses, leading to confusion as our previously held beliefs are challenged. Our inability to reason with our previous way of thinking has led to a collective crisis in identity and confidence. As a result, reasoned and analytical decision-making has given way to short-term modes of thinking that risk ill-informed choices and outcomes.
The failure to predict the financial crisis and the aftermath that has led us to this point highlights this struggle and the reality that dynamic complex systems are notoriously difficult to understand and model. As we embark on designing a new system for our nation, we need confidence that we have the right tools to help us navigate through uncertain times. It's very difficult to know how to act when the confidence in our decision-making tools has been shaken.
Previously, we've trusted specialist institutions to build these tools, but as our confidence wavers we rightfully challenge them and seek alternatives. But where do we find these? Most of us start on the internet, however, by doing so we launch ourselves, often without thinking, into a digital world of targeted advertising and promotion-led media competing for our attention. As our attention is squeezed, our propensity for us to believe alternative facts increases as we struggle to verify whether these alternatives use high quality research methods demonstrating replication, peer-review and a robust evidence-base. If we can satisfy ourselves that alternative explanations adhere to these high standards then we can accept and rely on these new insights. But if we lower our standards, it becomes easy to accept unverified explanations, especially those that are packaged in a way that appeals to our individual psychologies and biases.
Our faith in our institutions may have temporarily wavered but this does not mean we should abandon the principles on which these institutions were built. Rather, these principles, that have driven centuries of progress, need updating to take into account modern realities.
By shifting our perspectives to embrace complexity and uncertainty, we can free ourselves from confusion and paralysis to make decisions and choices with confidence. But how can we do this?
Considering the whole
A complex system is a system composed of interacting and interconnected elements. The behaviour of the system is not centralised, it emerges out of its interacting elements, illustrated using an analogy of a flock of birds flying towards a skyscraper:
"The flock will split and go around the skyscraper to merge and reform at the other end. There is no predetermined group plan to form as a flock, rather, each bird follows a simple set of rules that governs its own actions and consequently, the interactions between birds. The "flock-like behaviour" emerges as a result of those momentary interactions. The same idea applies to the systems of the internet, cells, the brain, the Universe, and virtually any other system with multiple interconnected components."
Taking the time to understand a system and its interconnected parts as a whole enables you to shift your perspective and think holistically about how to effect meaningful positive change and maximise the impact of your intervention.
Design; co-create; collaborate
In order to design interventions that effect positive change, systems and design-thinking provides us with toolkits to analyse and map systems in relation to interconnected elements. Each element often has its own set of stakeholders so visualising the system in this way enables you to better understand the underlying stakeholder processes that drive system behaviour. You can therefore use this approach to invite crucial stakeholders to the design table to participate in co-created, collaborative and inclusive design processes.
The word "process" is important here and it is something that David Bohm, a contemporary of Einstein, considers deeply in his attempt to explain the discrepancies of traditional interpretations of quantum mechanics. His interpretation emphasises the importance of structure and process over individual objects, objects being the observed approximations of an underlying process.
Understanding the processes that drive behaviour is crucial to understanding how the system will react to a new set of conditions and how the interconnected elements will respond as the system changes. We often focus on the elements themselves as that is what we observe through our senses. However, looking beyond this to consider how and why elements are connected enables a more informed and nuanced appraisal of our observations.
Therefore, if we design tools that take into account a system of interconnected elements we can be better prepared to understand how an intervention will change the system. Then if we can identify critical points that maximise leverage and minimise harm we are able to design interventions that enter the system at points that will maximise positive change and impact.
We hope that Britain is ready to embrace complexity and uncertainty as we move into uncharted waters. Future prosperity is not guaranteed, however, by embracing new ways of thinking and enabling creative and inclusive dialogue we can design a system that delivers for all, not just singular.
In our next article, we look at how we can embrace uncertainty to better inform our forecasts, predictions and strategies.