Discussion of systems thinking principles. See “Bump on a curve notepad” for others
what if you were in the first generation of humans to realize that we now need to steer
Make believe that you are in a vehicle, born there, and didn’t realize it needed to be steered or even could be. Somehow you realize if it guided itself before, you not need to start steering it around various hazards ahead, and find yourself part of the first generation of humans to realize that.
With there being no established method for doing it, no one else can tell you how. What would you do?
The first thing is to familiarize yourself with all the parts you had just taken for granted before, like all the amazingly common complex things that take care of themselves and never needed tending before. We need to look at them with fresh eyes, as if we were new born and dropped unexpectedly into a new environment.
As you survey the parts of nature that naturally take care of themselves, the climates large and small, biological cells and conversation networks, the organisms and species, the natural and human economies, you find some curious common features.
One is that all kinds of self-managing systems, animate and inanimate, use energy somewhat like economies do, collecting, transforming and distributing resources and energy using a complex multi-stage process. They’re a family of individual organizations.
You also find that things that take care of themselves have individual life cycles, and that those life cycles all begin and end with developmental processes, for creating and completing themselves. They don’t always determine their own limits or their own outcomes, but they always determine their own paths of development within their limits, and so develop unique features.
Developmental processes work by building on themselves, accumulative change in which all parts of the developing process are changing at once. It operates without central or external control, like fire, climate, technology or politics.
A different kind of science is needed to understand them, because one thing they generally don’t have is any consistent categories for comparing the things that are unique about them. We just can’t compare our economy’s experience today to that of any other ever before.
The most useful “first principles” of system change start with recognizing how periods of “self-organizing development” generally start. It is with combining some kind of seed pattern and seed source of energy. That seed pattern become’s the nascent system’s “killer app”, how it uses it’s “fossil fuel” seed of energy to start multiplying. The combination sets off the “runaway process” of multiplying “auto-catalytic” change, leading to a point where the change process changes.
That event at the end of growth may be dramatic as when a mammal ends it’s explosive growth in the womb and is born. For convection systems, like for the column of warm air in a cumulus cloud, the end of it’s acceleration is at the top of the column when it becomes turbulent and billows out at the top of the cloud.
There are lots of other individually different ways for runaway development processes to end in transforming the system that started with them. That one-two punch, growth and change, produces a “punctuated equilibrium” of change in form brought about by a regular developmental process.
The strangest of all things about growth processes may be that they work at all. They grow by inventing increasingly complex designs without a plan, without experimentation or trial and error. Isn’t that an amazing trick?! Somehow uncontrolled processes can achieve things that controlled ones never could.
They don’t have any way of having foresight, but in many ways act as if they did. Like the explosions of creativity that come with emerging technologies, growth systems are magnets for new things to fit, exposing threads of opportunity in their environments that are often previously unobservable and inconceivable.
From a deterministic view, contagions of creative design like that can only be predicted by making up rules in hindsight, and are generally too complex to individually describe. The real secret to how they work is by linking complementary opposites, like readers and books, wheels and axels, meat and fire, organisms and niche’s, investment and profit. As innovations of mutual advantage spread the resulting contagion may propagate to the exhaustion of its environment’s potential for making those complementary links.
People never really needed to explain how growth systems worked before, only to have some notion whether they would or not. When they “worked” they often worked like crazy, sometimes too crazy, with little way to tell the difference. No science ever saw a way to understand them as emergent creative processes with surprising ends before, either.
Now we need to, and find the “first principles” that have eluded us so far. The growth system for our civilization has already progressed well into its change of form at the end of its growth, and is visibly causing massive disruption in critical things that once took care of themselves.
So our growth system, anyway, is clearly NOT taking care of ITS self. As a culture we don’t appear to know the first thing about it though. What is actually happening to us is that we are being caught off guard by this change of form of our growth system beginning without our noticing.
Our whole society, its languages and laws, rules and institutions, expectations and value systems, developed and solidified a couple centuries ago with the modern age. All that developed around a culture and model of continual runaway growth. That worked fairly well for most of that time, as if it could continue forever.
In the early period of economic growth each path of opportunity exposed even greater ones, up until about 1950. At that time the pattern of ever multiplying opportunity started to smoothly switch to one of multiplying difficulties. That we still haven’t noticed is the greatest and most dangerous problem facing us. As the natural response to our increasing investment in growth reversed, we kept applying the strategy that gave us ever greater freedom before. It has produced mounting costs, complications and conflicts instead.
The longer we wait now, the more unaffordable it will become to respond to them later. As we wake up to this it may indeed seem like being a newborn dropped into an alien environment. It is indeed a situation that very different from what our culture taught us to expect.
So as you explore and organize your maps of what to look for in this new territory of ours, it’s maintaining the open questions you find and keeping yourself from really closing them, that will save you from the most dangerous pitfall of common reasoning. It’s better to have questions become richer questions, giving you a choice today and a deeper awareness of relationships for tomorrow. Without open questions it’s easy to let the subject turn to one’s own internal self-constructed world view, disconnected from what other people are referring to, leaving us to mostly just talk to ourselves.
What can connect us in the end is only the individual systems of the external world that constitute our common physical reality and of which we all naturally remain largely ignorant.