Highlights from the Second Constructed Complexities Workshop
I was asked to present a ‘Summary’ at the end of the second workshop, but discussion was so intense that time ran out before I could take the floor. This was somewhat of a relief to me, as summarising the day’s fascinating and wide-ranging talks adequately would have been well nigh impossible. However, I did pick out a number of interesting thoughts from the presentations that are worth highlighting:
- Any real system will go through crises that involve structural change, and we cannot know in advance what will happen after the crisis.
- Evolution occurs through structural instabilities.
- Organisations are bundles of social, technical and institutional practices. An industrial sector is an ecology of species of organisation.
- Models cannot be used to make policy predictions if they will influence people to take evasive action to avoid the bad things that the models predict (the reflexivity problem).
- Modern economies are highly ordered, self-organising and self-transforming open systems. Capitalism provides both rules of order and incentives for change.
- More than one level (cell/genome; organism/species; society/individual) is essential for evolution.
- While we don’t know what will evolve, we do know a lot about the processes of evolution.
- Policy actors generally agree that their world is complex, but also that the actors above and/or below them force them to act in an orderly fashion.
- A response to complexity is to try to simplify the environment. An example is that social constructions are much simpler than the reality they represent (e.g. ‘money’, ‘justice’).
- In science, just like in love, an exclusive focus on technique leads to impotence (attributed to Minzberg).
- Evolution performs many experiments in parallel, the vast majority of which fail, but governments perform just one at a time.
Running through the talks, although somewhat in the background, was an interest in how institutions emerge. Several speakers insisted that it is not possible to explain the contingencies that affect the history of particular institutions or organisations (the analogy being that if you throw a live duck, you know its path for a few metres, but after that, you cannot predict where it will be), but it was thought that one could make generalisations about the processes that lie behind the development of institutions. For example, we can investigate the mechanisms behind frequent corporate re-organisations , such as that endured by NHS. It was suggested that the re-organisations may partly be due to the ‘IMT’ principle for new appointees: people appointed to leadership posts feel that they have to make their mark ‘in my time’, and institute re-organisations that may not be necessary or desirable. Another example of a process that affects the history of an institution is the mechanism that pushes the UK welfare benefit system in cycles that alternate between personalised targeted payments (subject to criticisms of low take-up, complicated assessments and opportunities for bias and prejudice) and standardised payments that fail to take account of local variations and individual need. A third is the ‘something must be done’ response to social policy incidents, such as extreme child abuse or terrorist attacks, in which new regulations are imposed to ‘stop it ever happening again’, although the event being prevented is very rare and regulation has many unintended costs (e.g. the rules about liquids in flight hand luggage).