My new paper, “Total Systemic Failure?”, is out (this link should get you a free copy for a limited time). I wanted to write something that was more a big picture look at how the world is working. Or perhaps how it isn’t working. I think there is a problem that the world is stuck arguing about whether climate change exists when it is a least possible that multiple global-systems are failing. I also wanted to write something that is very clearly about complexity theory and systems analysis.
So what is systemic failure? The paper goes through how complex systems theory describes how the world works. It then moves onto the idea that if a system is put under enough pressure, and this starts to affect the relationships between the parts of the system, then that system could collapse. This might either be a change in the nature of the system, so that the global system behaviour changing significantly. Or it might be that the system collapses completely.
We don’t have particularly good methods for understanding if a system is likely to collapse. How close it is, or if it is in the process of failing? We don’t know what we need to know. If we did then we might be better able to understand which systems are likely to fail, and perhaps what we might do to change that.
Total Systemic Failure
So what is different about total systemic failure? Here we are asking the question of if a number of systems start to fail, will this result in all systems failing? Systems are connected, and the degree to which they are connected and the significance of these connections is difficult to understand. Therefore, could the failure of one system precipitate the failure of another system? If this happens could it cause a cascade of failures? We do not understand how individual systems failure, we are even further away from understanding how a system-of-systems might fail.
What Can We Do?
We need to work out what state we are in, perhaps there are things we can do. Perhaps there is an opportunity to build a connected, distributed, sensor network that can provide data on global systems? It will not be easy to build this network, or analyse the data. Artificial intelligence could help, perhaps we can build AIs that can help develop the sensor network and also analyse the results. A global distributed sensor network. The AI could learn about what data is needed and what interventions could be made.
We need to start thinking more about the big picture. Otherwise we are going to find ourselves in a real mess with little hope of getting ourselves out of it.
I have been thinking about what Donald Trump means for the ‘system’, by system I am thinking about the complex system that is the US Government Machine and its associated parts. Part of my thinking is that systems of Government have learnt how to persist, they have adaptive to promote and maintain their own existence. The internal system dynamics and relationships are an evolved, and are an emergent property of the ‘system’. The people in the system don’t even really know they are part of it. You could make the argument that this is plausible as a Government needs to be transparent enough to its citizens so that they don’t revolt, but not too transparent that they revolt. This adaption is a buffer between the people and the Government, and allows the system to persist (not statically, its a quasi-stable state). Its not just the Government that as adapted to this way of persisting, its the media, the elite etc etc. The laws, process, norms and culture make it hard to radically alter the system quickly without a massive shock or tremendous effort.
It does bring us to the question of Trump. Trump is a major upset to this entire system, he is a massive shock. So the question is, is the ‘system’ just going to grind him down into nothing. Has the US state ‘system’ seen enough Trumplike behaviour that there are emergent process that will just kick in and slowly squeeze him until he disappears. Maybe the position of stable state will move a bit, its always moving, but not much.
The other possibility is that he is enough of a disruption or shock that the whole system just breaks apart, and self-organises into something completely new… That could produce anything.
I am not sure which is worse.
Our Royal Geographical Society panel, “Risk and Complexity in Finance and Beyond” has been accepted for this years RGS annual conference!
Some details below:
Session organiser/s: Philip Garnett, The University of York, UK; John H. Morris, Durham University, UK
Session chair/s: Philip Garnett, The University of York, UK; John H. Morris, Durham University, UK
Session authors and presenters: Louise Amoore, Durham University, UK; David Chandler, University of Westminster, UK; Nat O’Grady, University of Southampton, UK; John H. Morris, Durham University, UK; Spencer Cox, University of Minnesota, USA; Philip Garnett, The University of York, UK; Eli Lazarus, Cardiff University, UK; Vanessa Schofield, Durham University, UK
The conference takes place at the University of Exeter from Tuesday 1 September 2015 (when registration opens from midday and there will be pre-conference workshops and an evening plenary/welcome event), through to Friday 4 September 2015. Sessions may be scheduled at any time between 9am and 6:30pm on Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 September, or between 9am and 4.20pm on Friday 4 September 2015.