Among the first was that the roofs of people’s houses began to fall down. The DDT was killing a parasitic wasp that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. Worse, the DDT-poisoned insects were eaten by geckoes, which were eaten by cats. The cats died, the rats flourished, and people were threatened by outbreaks of sylvatic plague and typhus.
To cope with these problems, which it had itself created, the World Health Organization was obliged to parachute 14,000 live cats into Borneo.
This story, told by Hunter & Amory Lovins, shows how, in complex dynamic systems, any attempt to solve isolated problems without adequate consideration of their systemic context can trigger multiple unintended side-effects and even new and often more severe problems.
The German systems scientist Frederick Vester identified a number of common mistakes that occur as teams try to intervene in or ‘manage’ complex dynamic systems. Vester’s insights drew on a series of experiments by the psychologist Dietrich Dörner who had challenged various transdisciplinary teams of 12 different specialists to improve the overall system and infrastructure design of a fictitious country in the developing world. A computer program modelled the impact of their strategies over a century of repeated cycles of interventions.
The focus of the study was on how teams of experts approach problem-solving, planning and systems interventions. Vester’s analysis of Dörner’s work provides the basis for a useful list of questions that we can ask ourselves to avoid the most common mistakes in dealing with complex systemic issues.
Have we defined our goals correctly? — Are we trying to maximize isolated parameters or the whole system?
Instead of focusing on increasing the capacity of the system as a whole to survive, we tend to get lost in solving individual problems, one at a time. We tend to search out ‘manageable problems’ and inadequacies in the system, and we tend to define these problems from the perspective of a single discipline rather than a whole-systems perspective.
Have we attempted a joined-up systems analysis by paying attention to dynamics rather than static data?
We tend to be obsessed with collecting huge amounts of measurable (quantitative) data. But without paying attention to the qualitative aspects of the underlying interactions and relationships we often fail to generate a joined- up and coherent understanding of the whole system.
By exploring the potential feedback loops, limits, dynamics and key relationships within the system we can look for organizing principles and policies that structure the system and drive its behaviour. Since complex systems are living entities that change over time, it is often more useful to focus on dynamics and qualitative relationships.
Are we avoiding the trap of creating irreversible emphasis?
There is a tendency to target issues that were initially identified as being the central parameters. If there are partial successes within a particular problem, it can become a favourite at the neglect of others. ‘Blind spots’ in our systems understanding can have severe consequences. We can be surprised by unexpected side-effects of particular actions, and fail to prevent dangerous run-away effects as our focus is elsewhere.
Are we paying enough attention to the potential side-effects of our actions?
It can also be helpful to work with different scenarios. This allows us to explore and compare the potential outcomes of proposed actions and anticipate the possible results.
Are we avoiding over-steering or over-reacting?
Initial interventions aimed at problem-solving tend to be made hesitantly and usually start small. If, over the short term, there are no visible effects on the system, what follows tends to be a large-scale intervention. Once faced with the first unexpected feedback from the system — as the time-delayed effects of the initially small interventions have accumulated and are now amplifying the effects of the large-scale intervention — the most common reaction is to hit the brakes or try to reverse the interventions.
Are we avoiding acting in an authoritarian way?
Knowing or believing that we have the power and ability to change the system, along with the often mistaken belief that we have understood the system, often results in dictatorial behaviour. This cannot work with complex dynamic systems.
A more appropriate and effective way is to work with rather than against the flow of the system. Frequently personal ambition is the main driver behind large-scale changes that jeopardize systems dynamics. Individuals try to impress through the size of the project they are proposing rather than its functionality.
Striving for power and respect tends to negatively influence the way we deal with complex systems. Appropriate participation in complex systems is about living these questions in humble awareness of the limits of our knowing. We have to keep asking ourselves:
How can we act with humility and future consciousness, applying foresight and transformative innovation in the face of the unpredictability and uncontrollability of complex dynamic systems?
This analysis is drawn from Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Wahl.
Daniel Wahl: Designing Regenerative Cultures
Hunter and Amory Lovins: (1995) ‘How Not To Parachute More Cats’, The Rocky Mountain Institute
Frederick Vester: (2004) Die Kunst vernetzt zu Denken, Der Neue Bericht an den Club of Rome, Deutscher