Within complex systems everything and everyone is connected to everything and everyone else, whether directly or indirectly. While seemingly obvious, we tend to think about reality in more compartmented ways. Academic disciplines have trained us to view economics, politics, culture or psychology as seemingly separate human systems. However, from a complexity perspective these are best thought of as mere viewpoints, giving us different outlooks onto the same collective reality. In this sense, perhaps a better way to think about human systems is as holistic social ecologies.
In biology, an ecology is defined as “the branch that deals with the relations of organisms to one another, and to their physical surroundings”. This comprises of the complex myriad of species, their interrelationships through food chains, the unique niches they carve out for themselves and each other, their distribution across communities and their relationships with the abiotic matter around them. All these of course within the wider global weather and geographical patterns that engulf them. At their essence, human ecologies are similar in nature, forming a vast web of interrelationships and habitats.
Crucially, the falls and fortunes of individuals and/or whole communities cannot be separated from those of others within the ecology. A bit like throwing a pebble into a pond and watching the water ripples glide across it, changes in any one part of the system will resonate throughout. This is because all elements within an ecology comprise of one vast and interconnected network. As the theoretical physicist Jeoffrey West explains - all of life is controlled by networks. From the intercellular, through the multicellular, to the ecology level in nature, but also to human scale at large, even “cities are just a physical manifestation of your interactions”.
Once human systems are explored as network-based ecologies, it becomes easier to understand the interdependency that drives it. Take for example two seemingly unrelated macro patterns emerging from the actions of completely different sets of players - industrial production in China, and home burglaries in London. Could there be a connecting effect? One such explanation given by a BBC historical review of the last decade suggested how cheap manufacturing in China has completely undermined the average London burglar’s business model. While breaking into someone’s home has always been a risky business, with the right expertise one could break in, grab a DVD player and sell it off in the stolen goods markets. However, Chinese manufacturing had brought down the price of such goods to such an extent so as to lead to the inevitable conclusion that “a DVD that costs £19.99 is just not worth stealing”.
Of course, over the last few years other technological developments in other parts of the system such as media streaming, have made DVD players mostly redundant anyway. Yet altogether they help us better understand why London home burglary rates have come down so significantly, with or without better policing. Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story, as further systemic shifts create other new patterns that shape criminal behaviour.
While the economic rationale for breaking into homes might have decreased, the one for stealing smart phones and laptops off people on the street has shot up. This emerging macro pattern holds different characteristics, its new business model, while more lucrative, requires confrontation in public and at least the threat of physical violence. This newly emerging crime pattern could in turn affect many other economic, technological and political formations including public support for more intrusive public surveillance or the creation of new insurance markets.
Whatever they may be, like all other systemic interplays, they will emerge out of the accumulated individual interaction amongst countless others, each reacting to new conditions created by the cascading effects in their own immediate local environment (see Emergence). Thus, the very actions taken by different players, across different fields of operation and geographical locations, will continue to create an endless stream of simultaneous effects, rippling across our interconnected global pond, inevitably creating systemic change.
SO WHAT does that mean in terms of creating impact?
From a strategic perspective connectivity and interdependence highlights two issues for consideration:
A) Any action taken can never do just one thing: Whatever the aim of the intervention and however carefully designed it will inevitably hold wider rippling effects - unintended consequences. Some could end up beneficial to your initial cause, while others less so. Operationally this requires continuous monitoring of the impacts generated, and with it a continuous adaptation of action.
B) Impact can be generated from anywhere: if we are operating from within a vast network where everyone and everything is connected to each other, you can theoretically impact the system from anywhere. While different positions across this network might provide different leverages, all players hold agency. The key to strategic design is to identify the means to take advantage of it! For more on the “how” go to Building Blocks.