Beyond Complexity

You could argue that most our most pressing global challenges – such as the financial crisis and climate change – are as a result of too much innovation, which lead to unsustainable growth with catastrophic results.

“I would not give a farthing for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” 

Oliver Wendell Holmes

After all it was the rapid development of a wide array of new ‘innovative’ financial instruments that lead to a fundamental destabilising of the global markets since 2008. And our insatiable desire for carbon emitting ‘innovations’ means that we have just experienced the 327th consecutive month where global temperatures exceeded the 20th Century average!


Too much or not enough?

So in light of these challenges, we might well ask, do we have too much innovation or not enough?

Some people, notably Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation, argue that our only hope for more and bigger innovations to come and clear up the mess but I don’t think it’s as simple as that.

Whilst I love the big and bold ambition that underpins many grand innovation projects such as the recent discovery of the Higgs boson for instance, (which has been described as the most important scientific development of the century), the likelihood of success and the costs involved in such projects are mind boggling and getting harder to justify.

Many businesses, institutions and even countries, are under continual pressure to keep on growing regardless which is increasingly difficult. One multinational company that we know well has hardwired targets to generate a minimum of $1bn new value every year just to prevent their share price from falling, which gets harder the bigger you get.

But is bigger innovation necessarily even possible? We have lost the conditions and commitment today that took us to walk on the moon in 1969? And whilst getting to the moon was extremely difficult without question but it wasn’t nearly as complex a challenge as some of the issues that face us today.

Rather perhaps it is time that we rethink our desire for unfettered growth and relentless innovation and replace it with a more sophisticated approach to innovation which reflects the complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges we now face and the world we live in.


Opening the Echo Chamber

It is well proven in mathematics that the bigger and more connected a closed system becomes, the more susceptible it is to chaotic behaviour. Assuming this applies to our economy and our society as well, we have three choices. Either i) accept the chaos, ii) decouple and disconnect, or else iii) default to being open and transparent.

“Closed networks create echo. Open systems create bandwidth.”

Ron Burt

Whilst the first two option may appear attractive, I don’t see how it is possible or desirable for most organisations and institutions. Instead, I wonder if we have moved beyond a tipping point and rather need to embrace emergence by opening up and becoming much more comfortable with complexity.

And yet most businesses, institutions and countries, still primarily retain a fundamentally closed approach to innovation. They tend to err on the side of caution and default to being secretive and closed, and only tend to share resources or information on a need to know basis.

“Open systems always win.”

Kevin Kelly

However closed systems become echo chambers, that lead to exaggerated opinions, reputations or outcomes and can quickly spiral out of control. As much as we perhaps like to think otherwise, we must assume that anything that can be digitised, will be shared. Therefore I think we perhaps need a complete reversal of this mindset and business model, where we default to being open and transparent. Restricting access to information or resources becomes the exception, not the rule.


All or nothing at all

I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I don’t think we need big and bold ambition, far from it. The Olympic Games was a great recent example of an experiment which created tremendous value so many ways though it’s too hard to quantify by traditional measures.

Rather the question we should be asking isn’t simply about whether we need more or less innovation. Instead I believe that we need to learn how to innovate beyond complexity, and not just aim for bigger innovations and more growth. We need to rewire and rebuild open businesses, institutions and countries that reflect the connected and chaotic economy and society we live in.

“In the future we’ll all be naked so you might as well be buff.”

Don Tapscott

But this is highly counterintuitive and to do this well requires a leap of faith. Those who do so proactively are much more likely to reap the benefits than those that don’t. But it cannot be don’t half heartedly. There is a wonderful german saying ‘Wenn schon, deny schon’ which translates (loosely) as ‘If we are going to do it, then let’s do it to the max’. I think this applies to the choice that many businesses, institutions and countries are faced with right now.

Anyway thanks for reading this far. This post is considerably more epic than usual and as ever I’d really appreciate any comments and builds. I think I’ll finish this post with a song (how else?) inspired by another recent bold innovation project, namely the NASA curiosity landing on Mars. If you watch this video interview with one of the chief instigators that he chose the song they would listen to in the fraught moments just before they realised whether the 7 year project had been a success or not. He chose the Frank Sinatra song ‘All or nothing at all’.


by Roland – this blog post was inspired in particular by recent conversations with Rob Poynton and Hugh Knowles

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