Sunday, 23 May 2010

Key concepts: The forest branches join at the top

The theory

For some reason, my readers have made the most comments about my post on feelings. One email said that they wished there was something about creativity on it. My first reaction to that is that creativity, whatever you want to say about it, is not a feeling! It doesn't really belong in a post about feelings.

But if it isn't a feeling, what is it, exactly? My best answer to that is: an emergent behaviour in a system. If that sounds like gobbledygook to you, let's take it slowly. First, let's remember that when we talk about systems, we could be talking about just anything that has many interacting parts: it can be a human being, a group of people, a computer network, an ecosystem, an ant nest, the solar system. "System" isn't any specific type of thing, it's a way of looking at things.

"Emergent behaviour" means that you know exactly what you put in a system, you know how the system works inside, and you know what came out, but you still are surprised by what came out. Something completely new and unexpected happened. Strictly speaking, it's just saying that you couldn't predict it in spite of having all the information. Maybe if you were a super-intelligent creature you wouldn't be surprised at all. For a cat, balls of yarn have emergent behaviour. They can't really tell which way they are going to go when they pounce on them, that's why they find them so entertaining. Children learn very young enough of how a ball moves that to be entertained by a ball they need far more complicated games.

Creativity is a great example of emergent behaviour. You tell a bunch of people exactly the same information, and some of them will come up with a solution that you wouldn't have thought of in a million years. Even better, you may give that information to a group of people, and the group may collectively come up with a solution that none of the individuals could have thought of on their own.

Some general properties of systems can tell you a lot about how the system is going to behave, including whether it's likely to be interesting - using the jargon: have emergent behaviour. These general properties put together a lot of the ideas about systems that we've seen before. That's why I put on the title of this post: "the forest branches join at the top". This was inspired by the description of a friend of mine of what it was like going to college: "You start by learning a lot of isolated things, like the separate trunks of different trees, and then you go up and up the trunks, and you wonder why you are climbing all these different trees... and then, one day, you discover that at the end of those trunks are branches, and the branches join at the top, and it's all interconnected."

These are the three main general properties of systems:
  • Connectivity: This means how much each part is connected to other parts. For example, the transport system of rich countries and the different organs inside the body have high connectivity; beachgoers and tiger communities have low connectivity. Generally speaking, systems with high connectivity are more likely to have emergent behaviour.
  • Complexity: There are many definitions of complexity, and one of the most common says that a system is complex if it has emergent behaviour. I don't like very much that definition because it's almost like saying: "A system is complex if you find it hard to understand" and that is really saying more about your intelligence than about the system. Another definition, that I like more, says that a system is complex if it's highly structured, in other words, if you can recognize a lot of clear patterns and configurations inside it. Highly structured systems almost always have emergent behaviour, so the two definitions are for most purposes equivalent. When an animal dies and decays, it goes from being very complex to becoming a rather simple system. Complex is often confused with complicated, but they are different ideas. A complicated system has a lot of different parts, but the structure may be very simple. Complicated systems are a challenge to your memory and patience, complex systems are a challenge to your intelligence - often a challenge you will fail. A city is complex and complicated; beehives are complex but not very complicated; the people on a beach and the sand and pebbles on the beach are simple systems; chess games and many gardens are complicated, but not very complex.
  • Resilience: Resilience is the ability of a system to withstand external shocks and keep its main characteristics intact. In less fancy words, a resilient system is tough, you could stomp on it (literally or metaphorically) and it will cope. Most cities and living creatures have proven to be very resilient; many tourist resorts and most gardens (those that aren't designed by permaculturists) aren't resilient.
In future posts I will say more about these general properties, what they tell us about a system, how they relate to each other, and how to get more or less of them.

The practice

Experiment 1

Think of an organization you are part of (it could be your place of work or a voluntary organization you take part in). How well connected are the people within it? Is the internal structure simple, complex or complicated? How resilient do you think it is? Have you seen the organization behaving unexpectedly? Do you think any of these properties is affecting another?

Experiment 2

Go to the nearest garden to where you live. It could be a park or a vegetable garden, it doesn't matter. How much interaction do you think there is between different plants? Does it look simple, complex or just complicated? How long do you think it would keep its character if there were no gardeners? Do you think any of these properties is affecting another? Do these observations tell you something about what kind of training the gardeners had?

1 comment:

  1. I want to steal your friend's metaphor for a class I'm teaching. It's ageless these are 7th graders. I hope it makes sense to them now and they don't have to wait until college