Went to an interesting meeting last week, a one-day inter-disciplinary dialogue under the auspices of the Institute of Physics (http://www.iop.org/activity/groups/subject/ncp/calendar/info/file_44258.pdf).  The day was spent exploring how complexity theory has been embraced by so many disciplines and discussing whether this has offered new insights or just more elegant smoke and mirrors.  It was fascinating to see how complexity is regarded by pure physicists, by economists, climate modellers and even by consultants.

Prof Peter Allen of the Complex Systems Research Centre at Cranfield produced a very elegant picture that showed how adding layer upon layer of assumptions enables one to simplify a messy, non-linear, non-stationary, unobservable world to the point where models start to become possible.  And then discussed how such models fail to represent the real world, for example failing to represent the system resilience that seems to arise from localised and micro-variations.  Eric Beinhocker, renowned for his book ‘The Origin of Wealth’ which has popularised the idea of economics as a complex adaptive system, discussed the interplay between real technologies and social technologies (such as ‘the market’ and ‘the company’)

Over lunch, Richard Bronk, author of ‘The Romantic Economist’, Eric Beinhocker  and I discussed the role of social and organisational culture in innovation and how such innovation can change both the elements of a system and the ways in which they interact.  Richard has some fascinating thoughts on the role of imagination in triggering disruptive changes in complex systems.  Eric admitted that adding ‘culture’ to his model of social technologies runs the risk of swamping the insights from his models with the sheer range of variation of cultural impacts.

As is always the case, eventually the debate turned to whether the explanatory metaphors derived from complexity are just that, or whether complexity modelling is a valuable route to gaining insight for real-world problems.  And, as always, the emergent conclusion seemed to be ‘it depends on the difficulty of the problem.’  Certainly I find the metaphors helpful in shifting mindsets and in finding new perspectives on issues of strategy, change and innovation.

In the panel sessions after lunch, Max Boisot of Birmingham Business School put forwards some elegant arguments in favour of anticipatory systems and adaptive capacity in environments that are unpredictable.  Debate also covered the role of framing in deciding what aspects of a complex system deserved recognition.  Topics to cover later in more detail.

And to add to the collection of metaphors about the difference between incrementalism and profound restructuring, we can add Schumpeter’s phrase: “Add successively as many mail coaches as you please, you will never get a railway thereby”.

A fascinating day of new perspectives and insights.