Sarah Sheard's Thoughts and Theories

Friday, July 07, 2006

Problems we have engineering complex systems

We have problems with complex systems because...

  • Cause and effect are not closely related in time. (we assume that the last thing we did was what caused the effect, but often it's a much longer train than that) Note: the lessons of simple systems, which are easy to learn, are almost diametrically opposed to the lessons of complex systems.
  • There is a tradeoff between short-term effects and long-term effects (what's good in the short term is almost always bad in the long term...picture the short-term financial health of Enron, for example)
  • We have powerful policies established in the wrong direction. Most of the policies we have, that we believe will help, have no leverage for producing change. (What went wrong in the Katrina response, for example, was whenever people self-organized to get some help, almost without exception, they were told by authorities, "Stop doing that! you're not authorized!") In fact, most policies exist solely for the purpose of preventing change.
  • We blame others for our own errors. (If we were to take blame, we would be out of office, because people believe we ought to be error-free, and that someone else will be. Therefore we are unable to take blame, so we are unable to be truthful, so we are unable to address anything like the real problems.)

(These are based on notes takes from a talk given by Jay Forrester at the recent ICCS conference, with my opinions and elaborations added, of course.

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