The property of a system consisting of many complementary tasks carried out by highly specialised parts, which are joined up in networks of information, control and distribution.C238

Each part of a complex system depends on most, or all, of the other parts being in good working order at all times and providing them with the reciprocal services they need. This means that a complex system is vulnerable to shock. If something goes wrong, it is in trouble. It has poor recovery-elastic resilience, but it compensates for this by having well-developed preventive resilience: it is good at keeping itself out of trouble. A complex system, in general, is gifted. It learns. It invents. It adapts. It can be extremely intelligent. One remarkable example of a complex system is Aristotle.


Complex systems and modular systems

The counterpart of a complex system is a modular system—a system consisting of parts which are similar to each other and substantially self-reliant.

A modular system has poor preventive resilience, but it compensates for this by having well-developed recovery-elastic resilience: it is good at repairing the damage after failing to keep itself out of trouble (for a summary of the four types of system discussed below and throughout Lean Logic, see the summary table in Systems Thinking).

An antelope is a complex system, consisting of highly diverse parts (organs, limbs) with widely different, complementary roles, linked with taut connections and strong interdependence. A herd of antelopes, on the other hand, is a modular system, consisting of rather similar parts with narrowly-similar roles. These parts may be competitive or cooperative, depending on circumstances, and are linked up with slack connections and weak interdependence. Complex systems (such as antelopes and humans) need modular systems to live in, for they need the freedom to apply the ingenuity and competence which a tightly-connected complex system would not provide. The slack connectedness of a modular system provides the elbow-room needed for their competence to be expressed.

Modularity does not lend itself to major collective projects. Modular systems do not have the capability—the power of thought, invention and collective achievement—which complex systems have (although there is a special-case exception to this, as noted in Modularity). So, suppose that, starting with a modular system, such as a community of communities, the decision is made to go for a grand project. The objective is, say, to build a pyramid, a railway system or an empire, or to have a war—or, more generally, to follow the long path of intensification which leads to a civic society. The modular structure is not going to achieve such aims. To carry forward these ambitions it will be necessary to join together to build a structure that approximates to complexity. The modular parts of the system take diverse roles, although they cannot take the strongly diverse forms of a genuinely complex system.

In a human society that has achieved ‘complexity’ in this sense, the differentiation in function intrinsic to all complex systems takes the form of a differentiation in roles between people, represented in differences in wealth, class and privilege. These differences may well reach exaggerated, pathological levels, leading to a society which is grossly inefficient in all senses, including a profligate use of environmental resources.C239 High levels of intensification in a large-scale society, with its large intermediate economy, will inevitably lead to a relatively high level of demand on the ecology.C240


From complication, back to complexity

Imagine that there is a little society with, say, four participants—they might be thought of (though not too literally) as four small villages. In order to look after themselves, they have to provide four different goods and services: bread, clothes, electricity and teaching.

Now, there are two ways of dividing this work up. Each village could specialise in just one thing, sending off supplies (or transporting people) every day to all the others. Or each could do all four things for itself.

If the villages specialise (as they do in the society of Noss), there has to be a lot of swapping around, and there are lots of chances for things to go wrong. When there is a shock—e.g., to the bread producer—it tends to ripple through them all. There is standardisation; there is separation between producers and consumers. Transport has to bridge the gap between producers and consumers. It is harder to maintain a closed-loop system because the large-scale production creates a lot of waste, making it harder to sort, and users of large quantities of unsorted waste are hard to find. This is a society of separation, distance and dependency, kept going by rivers of traffic.

The other little society (Scarp) doesn’t like this complication. It prefers complexity. In place of separation, there is integration. Each village provides all four goods and services for itself. Each locality contains a full range of skills and facilities; there is integration between what they produce and what they consume; this is a hands-on—or hands-in—culture, in touch with its own food and its own needs. It has free agency, and the interdependencies between the villages in Scarp take place across a rich range of subjects and interactions. Diverse cultures and solutions can be sustained; instead of just one standardised procedure for baker/tailor/energy-supplier/teacher, there are four variants of each. There is evolution, guided by trial and error since, if one village innovates successfully, the others can imitate it, whereas if the innovation is a failure, the others are not affected. It is robust: a shock tends to be localised: if one bit gets knocked out, others can cover for it, or simply get along without.


Complicated systems

Lean Logic’s name for this approximation of a complex system is a “complicated system”. In place of local self-reliance and sufficiency there is specialisation and interdependence. In the case of a community of self-reliant communities, the advance towards complication reduces their connection with the local. Where there was local provision, complication requires a network of transport links; local music is upstaged by a national orchestra. Complication—‘as-if complexity’ in a system which would otherwise be occupied by modularity—signals the intention to go for results more ambitious than the community of communities could aspire to.

Let us stay for a moment with this idea of a modular system transforming itself into an ‘as-if complex’ one, and think about the case of a decentralised agricultural society evolving into a centralised urban state. What happens is paradoxical.

First, there is that transformation from the modular to the complicated—with the result that the system as a whole will now collectively be more effective and capable than it was before. It will build big infrastructures for production, transport and waste disposal. It will be able to make history. Every public figure will see that as a good thing. The increase in complexity is self-evident.

But, secondly, the transformation is also a process of simplification. Communities that once produced everything they needed now find themselves—not entirely but substantially—concentrating on just one thing. They become specialist exporters of that one thing and importers of everything else. And there is simplification in the sense that when a community that was formerly self-reliant becomes the specialist provider of a few large-scale services, it moves away from the multitasking it is accustomed to; its task becomes conceptually much simpler than providing the whole range of goods and services that are required by a robust, self-reliant and broadly-competent locality.

So, what we have here is a combination of greater complexity and greater simplicity. Complicated systems put up with this trade-off because of the great increase in capability they acquire by doing so. The agricultural scientist, Kenneth Dahlberg, gets close to this:

Industrial societies are ‘complicated’ (like a clock which has many interlocking parts, but only a few ‘species’—gears, springs, bearings etc) . . . [They] are not complex.C241

As we have seen, such complication is ‘as-if complexity’. And it has profound flaws. Its skill in sustaining preventive resilience comes at the cost of intensification: the process of developing ever more elaborate structures which bring new problems of their own, in turn requiring yet more workarounds, regulation and elaboration. More complication becomes a short-term fix for the problems of complication. Once that journey has begun, it is hard to stop. As we see in the Wheel of Life, the complicated system’s interdependent connectedness inexorably leads it towards a “release” or “breakdown” phase, where the system crashes like an avalanche under its own weight.

That story of rigidity, elaboration, high costs and ultimate collapse under excess complexity is well-recognised by other writers on these matters, but Lean Logic’s use of “complication” is not standard in other studies of complex societies, and there is potential for confusion here (though no real dissonance of meaning). Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, for instance, uses complexity as the key defining characteristic of civilisations, listing properties such as these:C242

• A high degree of stratification and social differentiation.

• Economic and occupational specialisation of individuals, groups and territories.

• Centralised control; regulation and integration of diverse economic and social groups by elites.

• Behavioural control and regimentation.

• Investment in accomplishments that define the concept of civilisation, such as monumental architecture, artistic and literary achievements.

• Substantial flow of information between individuals, between political and economic groups, and between a centre and its periphery.

• Sharing, trading and redistribution of resources.

• Overall coordination and organisation of individuals and groups.

• A large territory integrated within a single political unit.C243

Almost all of these are aspects of complication—Tainter calls it complexity, but when you centralise, standardise, and control, you simplify. The ‘complexities’ in Tainter’s list are simple; even dumbed-down in comparison with the nuance, diversity and detail of local complexity. There is an aspect of the big civic societies which is grossly simplifying, and it is implied in Tainter’s list: regulation, regimentation, coordination. And in this sense we can see reduced complexity in many of the characteristic structures of civilisation:

• The ecology of the landscape under intensive agriculture is vastly simpler than that of the small-scale biological husbandry that it replaced.

• The economic and cultural life of a commuter town is simpler than that of the traditional town it replaced: there is comprehensive disappearance of the local industries on which it could once depend; there is less diversity of social and practical skills.

• The successful, yet unplanned, diversity of public and voluntary institutions is taken over and simplified by centralised administration. “Orderly” (in the sense of Harmonic Order) becomes “ordered” (in the sense of regulated and standardised).C244

• The complex range of food crop varieties suited to particular locations and purposes is standardised to a small number of approved strains.C245

That is to say, the standardisation and specialisation of a complicated society comes with aspects of diminished complexity, relative to the decentralised self-reliant order prevailing pre- and post-civilisation. In some ways, civilisation explores the extremes of complexity; in some ways it is greatly simplified. Indeed, intensification—a society’s accomplishment of a massive expansion of work by the division of labour—comes at the cost of extreme simplification not just for places, but for people, as observed by the division of labour’s leading advocate, Adam Smith:

In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations; frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.C246

What Kirkpatrick Sale advocates is in complete contrast to this:

I wish to complexify, not simplify. It is our modern economy that is simple: whole nations given over to a single crop, cities to a single industry, farms to a single culture, factories to a single product, people to a single job, jobs to a single motion, motion to a single purpose. . . . Human organisations are healthy and they survive when they are diverse and differentiated, capable of many responses; they become brittle and inadaptable and prey to any changing conditions when they are uniform and specialised. It is when an individual is able to take on many jobs, learn many skills, live many roles, that growth and fullness of character inhabit the soul: it is when a society complexifies and mixes, when it develops the multiplicity of ways of caring for itself, that it becomes textured and enriched.C247

The complication of a large-scale system leaves a trail of simplifications. A Bruckner symphony is certainly more complex than home-grown music, but the act of going en masse to sit in orderly rows to listen to Bruckner, rather than making danced, sung, inventive, ecstatic, self-sufficient music of our own, integrated into local life, makes an evening out in our complicated spectator-society look, by comparison, quite simple (Carnival).

On the other hand, you may prefer Bruckner’s symphonies to Anon’s dances. Sometimes it is a good idea to stop straining at orderly explanations . . .


Related entries:

Resilience > Resilient Systems, Ecological System, Butterfly Effect.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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