By Robert Hickson 29/07/2020

An article in the EETimes suggests that advances in autonomous vehicles are not moving as quickly as expected because those working on them have confused complicated problems with complex ones.

Engineering can only take you so far in complex worlds. Complicated systems tend to have fairly predictable inputs, processes and outputs. Complex systems (like city streets) not so. Complicated systems are often designed, while complex ones are more organic.

The article notes that some of the autonomous vehicle companies are directing their focus to more predictable operating environments such as retirement villages, campuses, and long-distance trucking. These are less complex than navigating chaotic (to algorithms at least) urban streets.

It feels like we are confusing the complicated and the complex in other areas too.


The allure of the complicated

An article in Nautilus starts off well highlighting the risk, mid- to post-pandemic, of focusing on the wrong things; not seeing the collapse of multiple complex systems. It tends to drift away from that at the end (as you tend to do when encountering complexity), but it is a point well made. The introductory paragraph (while not an example of complexity) of looking at where returning RAF planes were shot is an example that I’ve kept in mind for many years.

In many recent discussions about the pandemic and what comes next government and private sector attention seems to focus on where the damage is, and respond by proposing structural changes and building stuff. That’s the complicated stuff. It’s what they know and what they can control.

As I noted in a previous post, people are eager to demonstrate that they are acting. Some of the responses are necessary. But we can’t just focus on the “shovel ready” complicated activities.

Yes, there are discussions about changing systems – more regenerative farming, lower carbon energy systems, different economic policies and systems. They aren’t so easily or quickly implemented. But there is also the risk that we bring complicated perspectives to complex issues.

Politicians want, and are encouraged, to come up with (or fund) “solutions.” That can work well for complicated issues.


A different mindset needed for complex issues

Will Allen, a kiwi, has noted that for complex issues there is the need to avoid thinking about “a change” that will fix the system, and instead consider what the key points of leverage are that will improve the system.

Allen also highlighted earlier observations made by Irene Ng that complicated outcomes can be determined, but complex outcomes are enabled. And, complicated systems can be specified, but we can only intervene in complex ones.

Enabling and leverage were also identified as critical in an excellent 2002 report on complex systems (focused on healthcare) by Glouberman & Zimmerman. They point out that the types of questions you ask about complicated systems are different from those for complex systems:

“Questions that assume a complicated problem tend to be laden with constraints of limited resources, lack of leadership, trade-offs, external control of the future and individual rights. They paint a picture of an intractable problem where compromises are necessary but not likely to satisfy many. The complex questions have a more optimistic tone as they look for existing resources.”


Energy systems as complex rather than complicated

For example, consider the recent proposal in New Zealand to examine pumped storage to help ensure a 100% renewable energy grid.

This, in the framing of Glouberman & Zimmerman, is a partial answer to a question assuming a complicated problem:

“What are the structures that we need to make our energy system sustainable?”

Rod Oram, on his Tuesday Nine to Noon radio spot, commented that the storage issue is important, but that pumped storage may not be the best solution. Not least because technology is developing quickly. He suggested that battery storage may become more viable. But big banks of batteries are already being questioned in the UK.

However, in the face of rapid technological changes, alongside other social, economic and environmental changes, the energy system isn’t a complicated problem.

Seeing the energy system as a complex issue leads to questions like

“How do we build on current structures and practices to improve sustainable energy use and generation?”

They take a broader look at the issue, such as the practices and uses, not just generation, storage and transmission.

Oram noted that political parties seem to be taking a piecemeal approach to energy, focusing on projects or plans, and not picking up on some of the good thinking in the Productivity Commission’s 2018 Low-emissions economy report.  Even the Green Party’s clean energy plan seems to view it as a complicated rather than complex issue.


Enabling the future

The most important observation I think Oram made is that the main political parties still have what I call a Field of Dreams “build it and they will come” mindset.

They aren’t thinking about inter-generational governance and operation of the big structures they propose. “We’ll build more dams, geothermal plants, or wind farms and our job is done”-type thinking.

This is something that isn’t commonly picked up by futures thinkers. They tend to focus on new trends and developments, and less about governing for the long-term. There are, of course exceptions, like Jonathan Boston’s Governing for the future.

Political parties also don’t seem to be thinking as much about how they, alongside the private sector, can help enable rather the determine change.

That seems just like patching up the holes we can see and not thinking too hard about the ones we don’t.

This isn’t limited to the energy sector. As the Nautilus article notes, there is damage to multiple systems that we are not looking at, or for.

Real “transformation” won’t come from just more infrastructure and other projects. It will come when we perceive the challenges differently, and change the questions we ask.


Photo by Kacper Chrzanowski on Unsplash

0 Responses to “It’s complex”

  • It sounds like Rod Oram hasn’t looked into the background of the pumped hydro project. Batteries are for balancing supply and demand on a timescale of hours, the Lake Onslow proposal would do it over months and years. The funding is to do exactly what you suggest, namely to look at the whole electricity system. The Zero Carbon Bill is meant to operate on timescales of up to 50 or 100 years – surely that is long enough? It’s a landmark in setting up long-term structures. In terms of actually cutting emissions, I think we have all our eggs in the ETS basket – if so, then “building on current structures” is not necessarily the right way to go.

    Perhaps eliminating transport emissions is an example of a complex system. Transport involves the shape of our cities (past and future), of our work, it’s paid for by all individuals and all levels of government, the choices are influenced by powerful industries, the environmental costs are borne individually, locally, and worldwide. The status quo is support by multiple interlocking agreements at many levels.