We Don’t Need More Athletes and Models – We Do Need More People Who Understand Complexity

Have you seen the Verizon ad?


The one that starts with LeBron James walking towards the camera. He tells us “We don’t need more LeBrons” He’s followed in quick succession by other celebrities, including model Adriana Lima, quarterback Drew Brees and soccer star David Villa, all saying we don’t need more of their kind. The ad wraps up by saying what we do need is more people in science and technology to fill the 4 million jobs available. Verizon is pitching in by supporting education in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The world, apparently, needs a lot more engineers.

Fair enough. The world runs on science and technology. But there’s an unintended consequence that comes with that. Technology is making the world a more complex place. And what we really need is more people that understand what complexity means.

By complexity, I don’t mean complicated. Those are two different things. I mean complexity in its classic sense – coming from the Latin “com” – meaning “together” – and “plex” – meaning “woven”. “Woven together” is a pretty good starting point for understanding complexity. It’s a concept that depends on connection, and we are more connected than ever before. Whether we like it or not, with connection comes complexity. And when we’re talking about complexity, we’re talking about a whole new ball game where all traditional bets are off.

There’s another funny thing about complexity. It’s nothing new. The world has always been complex. Biology has long been the domain of complex adaptive systems. This is true of all of the physical sciences. Benoit Mandelbrot found fractal complexity in leaves and the coastline of England. Quantum physics has always been around. It wasn’t invented at the beginning of the last century by Max Plank, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. It just took us most of our history as a species to discover it, hiding there beneath the deceptively simple rules of Isaac Newton. Complexity has always been part of nature. We’ve just been ignoring it for a long, long time, believing with all our hearts in a simpler, more comprehensible world.

Humans hate complexity, because complexity brings with it unpredictability and an inherent lack of control. It leads naturally into chaos. We much prefer models with foreseeable outcomes. We have been trying for many years to predict the weather, with very limited success. Why? Because weather is complex and often chaotic. And it’s getting more so, not less.

But the extreme weather we’re seeing more and more of is analogous to many parts of our world. Complexity is rearing its head in more and more places. It lies beneath everything. In the words of the Santa Fe Institute, the self-proclaimed world headquarters for complexity science — “(they) endeavor to understand and unify the underlying, shared patterns in complex physical, biological, social, cultural, technological, and even possible astrobiological worlds”

Which means complexity is everywhere. It impacts everything. And almost none of us understand it. But we’ve got to figure this stuff out, because the stakes are huge.

Let’s take something as important to us as democracy, for instance.

There is nothing especially complex about the idea of democracy. But the model of democracy is a different beast, because it relies on the foundation of our society, which is incredibly complex. Democracy is dependent on unwritten rules, which are in turn dependent on conventions and controls that have been inherent in our society. These are what have been called the “soft guardrails of democracy”. And they are being eroded by our newly connected complexity. A few weeks ago, some of America’s top political scientists got together at Yale University to talk about democracy and almost all of them agreed – democracy is in deep trouble. Yascha Mounk, from Harvard, summed up their collective thoughts succinctly: “If current trends continue for another 20 or 30 years, democracy will be toast.”

So complexity is something we should be learning about. But where to start? And when? Currently, if people do study complexity science, it’s generally at the post-grad level. And that’s just a handful of people, at a few universities. We need to start understanding complexity and it’s implications much sooner. It should be covered in grade school. But there’s no one to teach it, because the majority of teachers have no idea what I’m talking about. In a recent dissertation, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania asked science teachers in a number of schools in Singapore if they were familiar with complexity. The findings were disheartening, “a large sample of ninety Grades 11 and 12 science teachers in six randomly- selected schools across Singapore revealed as many as 80% of the teachers reported that they did not have prior knowledge or heard of complex systems.” By the way, Singapore is consistently rated best in the world for science education. Here in North America, we trail by a significant margin. If this is a problem there, it’s a bigger problem here.

If you’re old enough to remember the movie the Graduate, there was a scene where “the Graduate” – played by Dustin Hoffman – was wandering around his parent’s cocktail party when he was cornered by a family friend; Mr McGuire. McGuire offered a word of career advice. Literally – one word:

“I just want to say one word to you – just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.”

That was 50 years ago. Today, my word is “complexity.”

Are you listening?

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