Dr J. Marczyk:  Sustainable growth and development are objectives of every corporation, society or civilisation. But is sustainable growth possible for ever? Not quite. The world is getting more complex: more connected, uncertain, unpredictable, chaotic and more difficult to understand. We all know that. But how complex is the world?

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Dr Jacek Marczyk

Based on OntoSpace analysis of data collected by the CIA (World Fact Book) we have seen that the yearly global growth of complexity is around 5-6%. At this rate, we estimate that we will hit our Upper Complexity Bound around 2040-2045. Around that time we can expect an acceleration of decline in a broad sense, as entropy will erode our social, economical and political structure. There are of course regions of the world where complexity accelerates more than average. In actual fact, entropy-driven decline of societies is more evident in the so-called first world countries.

The so-called science of complexity has been around for a couple of decades. There are numerous research centres and institutions around the world that study complexity and complex systems. The strange thing is that there is no established definition of complexity! But if there are ‘complex systems’, then there are also ‘simple systems’. So what is a complex system? What is a simple system? None of the numerous books on the subject provide a definition of complexity. But if you don’t even have a definition of something, how can you possibly measure it? And yet, the act of measurement constitutes the basis of any serious scientific activity. No measurement no science. So, is there a science of complexity? Is there a complexity theory? The closest you will get to a ‘definition’ of complexity is: self-emergence, spontaneous self-organization, the edge of chaos, the twilight zone between order and chaos, order for free, etc., etc.

The list is of course incomplete. The one thing that these ‘definitions’ have in common is that they make measuring complexity practically impossible. But how can you study complex systems if you can’t measure how complex they are?

At Ontonix we believe that complexity is not a phenomenon. We are convinced that complexity is an attribute. Every system has a particular amount of complexity, just like every system can be characterized by energy, momentum, mass, etc. When, in a given system, complexity reaches certain thresholds, certain phenomena can take place. A minimum amount of complexity is needed, for example, in order to sustain life, just like a minimum amount of energy is needed to reach a stable orbit. Just like in physics, a certain amount of energy is necessary for a phase-change to take place, so an ensemble of autonomous agents can spontaneously lead to the emergence of new structures when each agent possesses a minimum amount of complexity. Our measure of complexity is a function of structure, entropy and granularity, or coarse-graining. Based on our work on a wide variety of dynamical systems and their evolution, we have come up with the following general rules:

  • Complexity is increasing everywhere. It is a fact of life.
  • Complexity is necessary because complexity means functionality.
  • The more complex a system is the more functions it can perform. This is why corporations, for example, want to grow and expand – to achieve more.
  • However, there is an upper limit of complexity up to which any given system can naturally evolve. This is also a fact of life. Systems close to this limit are critically complex.
  • Critically complex systems are difficult to manage. They can easily run out of hand. This is why more complex systems are more difficult to manage than less complex ones.
  • More difficulty in management means lower ability to reach goals and objectives. The risk that things can go wrong is, therefore, higher.
  • Once the critical complexity is reached, the system starts to lose functionality. Unless corrective actions are taken.
  • The objective of management is to keep a corporation or process from becoming critically complex.
  • Without knowing one’s critical complexity it is impossible to speak of sustainable growth and development.
  • The amount of risk is inversely proportional to the distance from one’s critical complexity.
  • Highly complex systems possess an interesting duality: they are robust and fragile at the same time.

The important, yet at the same time somewhat obvious lesson we have learned, is that complexity always reaches a peak value, close to which a given system – ecosystem, society, economy – becomes fragile, and therefore vulnerable. This simple and fundamental fact allows us to rationally re-think issues such as sustainable development or globalization. And be a bit more realistic about our conclusions.