Civilizations, Complexity & Resilience

Stephen DeAngelis

July 05, 2006

Mark Safranski, the erudite ZenPundit recently blogged about the relationship between civilization resiliency and increased complexity. He draws from the work of Yaneer Bar-Yam, particularly his essay “Complexity Rising: From Human Beings to Human Civilization, A Complexity Profile.” The basic premise is that the complexity of connections increases as one moves from the random actions of individuals to the coordinated movements of great civilizations. Resilience increases as you move up this continuum from individuals (who survive at best around a century) to civilizations (which can survive for thousands of years). Safranski asks where globalization fits into this scheme of things. Is globalization an ephemeral stage or a convergence of civilizations into something new?

Globalization has had the effect of increasing integration of states and societies as well as weakening or disintegrating them; a paradox which has led to considerable debate regarding the trajectory of world affairs. Possibly, instead of viewing globalization as an either-or phenomena, unidimensional in effect, a continuum of effects might be better. Placement on the continuum would depend on how the particular (societies, states, civilizations) react when they increasingly engage the universal (the global market). For example, on one one pole of globalization we see the dynamic, interdependent, convergence of civilizations heralded by Thomas P.M. Barnett, Francis Fukuyama, and Thomas Friedman where the map is new, the Gap is shrinking and the world is flat. On the opposite pole we have Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations where cultures have “bloody borders”, the map has melted and Robert Kaplan’s coming anarchy reigns over a host of states that are doomed to decline, beset by 4GW warfare and John Robb’s global guerillas. A line that can accomodate Bill Gates and Bin Laden, Burma and Britain and the West and the Rest.

I agree with the basic premise that complexity grows as connections increase. I have argued that globalization has created a complexity gap which results when organizations try unsuccessfully to meet emerging challenges with traditional solutions. I started Enterra Solutions to help fill the complexity gap for organizations and Tom Barnett and I promote Development-in-a-Box as a way to fill the complexity gap for nation-states. Safranski’s post, however, begs the question of whether tools exist to help fill the complexity gap for something larger than organizations, even larger than nation-states. He writes:

Previously, we have discussed building state resilience here and at ERMB, Steve DeAngelis has promoted “Development-in-a-Box” to orchestrate the building of resiliency tailored to the specific problems faced by institutions or states. Civilizations are a much larger, vastly older and an inherently more complex class of human organization than are mere states. Like states, civilizations are not eternal, they can decline and fall but even vanished civilizations leave behind a legacy lasting thousands of years. Many pass on at least part of their “cultural DNA” to successors, as Greeks did for the Roman, Arab Muslim, Eastern Orthodox and Western civilizations.

Among Safranski’s implicit questions are: Is resiliency is scalable? In a post-globalized world, what will really prove resilient — culture or structure? Is there a balance that can be struck between the two? Safranski believes a tension exists between civilizations that prove resilient because they are dynamic and adaptable (the kind of resiliency I most often address) and civilizations that remain resilient because they resist change. He provides some good examples of both kinds of resiliency. Safranski also notes that even great civilizations come to an end. Dynamic civilizations, like the Roman Empire, generally fall as a result of complacency and decadence. Whereas, static civilizations generally decline more gradually as the complexity gap increases and the people end up undereducated, underproductive, and impoverished. Safranski concludes:

Opting for Stasis or Dynamism and the resultant political or cultural resilience they entail, or striking some balance between the two, would appear to be a critical civilizational choice.

Turning to Bar-Yam’s paper, he writes:

Human civilization continues to face internal and environmental challenges. In this context it is important to recognize that the complexity of a system’s behavior is fundamentally related to the complexity of challenges that it can effectively overcome. Historic changes in the structure of human organizations are self-consistently related to an increasing complexity of their social and economic contexts. Further, the collective complexity of human civilization is directly relevant to its ability to effectively respond to large scale environmental challenges. We, each of us, are parts of a greater whole. This relationship is shaping and will continue to shape much of our existence. It has implications for our lives as individuals and those of our children. For individuals this complexity is reflected in the diversity of professional and social environments. On a global scale, human civilization is a single organism capable of remarkable complex collective actions in response to environmental challenges.

Although there is a Borg-like quality to Bar-Yam’s description of humanity as “a single organism,” his larger point is that we are all in this world together and many of the complex solutions to emerging challenges are going to require a coordinated effort. Since we all know how difficult (impossible?) it is to get international agreement on anything, we are left wondering how (if?) this coordinated effort will emerge. Bar-Yam provides a visual progression of structure and relations over time (click to enlarge).

Histprog If Bar-Yam is correct and we are heading toward a networked “civilization” and greater specialization, some of the topics I’ve blogged in the past will become even more important. For example, the able to create a “Medici Effect” (18 May post) among specializations will critical as will the establishment of “globally-integrated enterprises” (14 June post). The ability to establish and maintain “communities of practice” (27 & 29 June posts) will also be important. Each of these concepts shares a simple idea, when people connect good things can happen.

Bar-Yam argues that the complexities we face are incomprehensible and are only understood sufficiently to deal with when simplified and modeled. Specialists, of course, will increasingly understand the complexities found in their areas of expertise, but the relationships between specialities must be modeled in order to work with them. He concludes:

There are two natural conclusions to be drawn from recognizing that human beings are part of a global organism. First, one can recognize that human civilization has a remarkable capacity for responding to external and internal challenges. The existence of such a capacity for response does not mean that human civilization will survive external challenges any more than the complexity of any organism guarantees its survival. However, one can hope that the recent reduction in the incidence of military conflicts will continue and the ability to prevent or address local disasters will increase. The difficulties in overcoming other systematic ills of society, such as poverty, may also be challenged successfully as the origins of these problems become better understood.

Second, the complexity of our individual lives must be understood in the context of a system that must enable its components (us) to contribute effectively to the collective system. Thus, we are being, and will continue to be shielded from the true complexity of society. In part this is achieved by progressive specialization that enables individuals to encounter only a very limited subset of the possible professional and social environments. This specialization will have dramatic consequences for our children, and their educational and social environments are likely to become increasingly specialized as well.

What additional conclusions can be made from the recognition of human civilization as a complex organism? Given the complexity of its behavior, it is necessary to conclude self-consistently that as individuals we are unable to understand it, even though we comprise it as a collective. Therefore, one would be unwise to argue, on the basis of general considerations, matters of social policy. Social policy questions must be dealt with by the system by the people involved as direct challenges to the system.

However, this analysis suggests that it is possible to understand the functional structure and dependencies that exist in global civilization and organizations that comprise it. These dependencies are related to the scale of behaviors that can be triggered in response to internal and external challenges. When analyzing the nature of challenges, a similar analysis can be performed to recognize the scale, or scales, of behavior that are necessary to respond to them effectively. Recognizing the scale of necessary response should be an important contribution to our ability to address both internal and external challenges.

Bar-Yam’s conclusions support my contention that we can build a new organizational structure that combines cognition, automated rule sets to deal with complexity in a new and beneficial way. More on that in another blog. My point here is that more and more innovators are coming to the conclusion that new structures are required to deal with new problems. We are on the cusp of a new and exciting era.