Systemic Complexity

This year, 2008, has been a year of both challenges and opportunities. Based on the multiplicity of happenings, it is interesting to hear the pundits predict the events of 2009. Some see doom and gloom. Others see hope and upward movement.

Due to the complexity of socioeconomics and geopolitics, it is technically difficult to call the events of 2009 with total accuracy. The United States finds itself in an economic meltdown coupled with escalating strife in the Middle East. Terrorist threats continue to be very real worldwide. The United States is embarking on an unprecedented (in monetary numbers) economic bailout for the nation. No longer does the world live in systemic simplicity wherein cause can predict effect. We now live in systemic complexity wherein a stimulus can set off a chain of multiple events that have surprising effects on the several subsystems that make up the complex system.

Great leaders should have the ability to look ahead in consideration of their complex systems and create scenarios projecting the effects of various stimuli on separate subsystems within their structural environment. These scenarios should be rehearsed in advance in the event that they might happen. Leadership today involves asking the right questions and proposing workable solutions ahead of time in order to be ready in case the projections actually happen.

For example, a local community is composed of multiple subsystems, therefore by definition, a community is a complex system. Such subsystems as governmental entities, educational institutions, various citizen groups, civic organizations, various businesses in the community, health care institutions, individual citizens, non-profit organizations, and faith-based institutions are the major entities composing the complex community system.

Orchestrating these subsystems is the responsibility of community leadership. The knowledge level of the leaders for managing complexity coupled with the ability to move the subsystems in a common direction will determine the ultimate success of the community.

When one of the subsystems is out of order or in chaos, then all the other subsystems are affected. In a community, if the business sector is out of balance, for example, the success of the community as a whole is penalized. Or if the citizens are polarized over various issues, the other entities of the community cannot function properly, and the total community cannot move forward.

On a national level, this principle can be applied to the current economic crisis. There has been a tremendous shock to the global system. Chaos could have broken out in unprecedented proportions. Most subsystems of the global community would have been deeply affected. Due to quick action of the United States government as well as other governments throughout the world, the chaos has been lessened, and much shock has been absorbed. There will continue to be much fallout for the next several months—even years. However, a deep economic depression has probably been averted. That systemic remedy has trickled down to local communities, and those systems have suffered less than they would have otherwise had solutions not been applied.

Of course, there is the great debate concerning what caused all these problems in the first place. The short answer: multiple trends collided. Such driving forces as globalization, deregulation, increasing greed, lack of proper oversight, and increasing market competition collided to form the condition of near economic collapse. These trends had been cruising to the collision point for over thirty years, so this condition should have not been a surprise, but seemingly it was to many people.

When leaders make decisions, they must realize that their decisions can have unpredictable effects. Therefore they must be very careful to think through the effects of their decisions on each major subsystem before putting their suggestions into action. Leaders with the ability to assess consequences of their actions on complex systems are rare. This skill will be required in the 21st century and has not been developed well up to this point.

So what do I think will be the outcome of all this global chaos on the United States? I believe that the best days of our country are ahead despite what many others are predicting. It will take several months–even several years–to work through the problems we now confront. There are many subsystems that are not 21st century-ready. I believe that we will diagnose our problems, solve them, move forward with resolve, and innovate our way out of this quagmire. The challenges are great, but so are our abilities to meet them. Experiences can be instructive while the future can be constructive.

Happy New Year.

 © 2008, Carolyn Corbin.

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