Interconnected systems

Great that the LSE now has a YouTube Channel. So we can re-post one of their most recent public lectures we’ve been using in class:  Tim Harford sharing some of his amazing research and ideas on “preventing financial meltdowns”. He uncovers common elements and questions of design and contingency planning (or the lack of it) studying  cases of  industrial and nuclear accidents, recording the stories of the survivors of drilling rig disasters. Many of these events had an aftermath with investigations that in some cases took many years to unfold, leaving many questions unanswered. We learn how safety systems designed to prevent a potential problem contributed to making the problem possible and/or extended the damage they were supposed to control and contain.

Link to the clip in YouTube. It’s a long clip but it’s also easy to follow for Harford is an excellent storyteller.

The author of several books and a financial reporter of the Financial Times, Tim Harford interviewed experts in many fields, (including domino contests) to try to understand how tightly coupled complex systems work, especially when something goes wrong. As systems thinkers tend to do, he observes that certain problems require a different set of thinking tools to those you would use if you were just trying to describe or solve a simple problem.  Rather than looking for an immediate solution,  you might want to focus on the series of relative actions that circumvent the problem. This form of inquiry  often times facilitates a re-definition of the problem, which doesn’t call for a redesign in so much as it may need the development of productive actions and evolutionary strategies.  This type of thinking is what Francisco Varela proposed in 1988 with his essay that responded to Royal Dutch Shell Corporation’s request for cognitive tools to “better understand a complex system that is also a learning system“.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson would also argue that redesigning programs per se won’t be having much of an impact on underlying realities and embodied practice. Having better devices, study manuals and control systems as are for instance, more costly evaluation systems in education, a new ministry of gender issues or a new and costly building to deal with technology and innovation, mean nothing more than a costly expenditure if  we don’t follow through by meaningfully engaging with actual failures and learnings. As a cultural trait we tend to focus on given models and representations of things, and a lot of it is useful, but we forget that many of the “things” we are dealing with are “not things, but activities”, evolving (or not) human activities. Lakoff and Johnson who studied and wrote extensively about “the metaphors we live by”, namely about discourse, linguistics and mind, challenge many of our given thinking mechanisms and concepts.

The new book by Tim Harford “Adapt. Why success always starts with failure.” seems to be arguing in favor of adaptive learning activities and experimentation:

The world has become far too unpredictable and profoundly complex… we must adapt -improvise rather than plan, work from the bottom up rather than the top down, and take baby steps rather great leaps forward“. (Tim Harford – Adapt web site)