In This Issue
Winter Issue of The Bridge on Complex Unifiable Systems
December 15, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 4
The articles in this issue are a first step toward exploring the notion of unifiability, not merely as an engineering ethos but also as a broader cultural responsibility.

Complex Environments

Friday, December 18, 2020

Author: Brian S. Collins

There’s often a tendency to simplify complex systems. One should realize the risk in doing so. Simplification of complex matters does not improve the situation of the issue at hand. To deal with a system’s complexity it is necessary to understand the scope and interdependencies of its subsystems.

The word environment has been captured by those interested in how (what is regarded as) the natural world functions. In recent years it has come to mean many things: climate change, biodiversity, and extreme weather. Humans are part of this environment and it is now clear that anthropomorphic effects on the atmosphere and oceans are at such a scale that they have significant impact on what is considered the natural environment and are now also affecting human existence. Thus, the tacit assumption that the separate consideration of human existence and the natural environment is reasonable is no longer valid.

Interdependence of Humans and the Natural Environment

The systems that make up the natural environment and those that have been regarded as describing human existence are individually complex and extremely closely linked. If they are dealt with separately and in an over-simplified manner, the reality of their interactions and the consequent emergent properties are not addressed.

It is therefore essential that the disciplines and approaches of complexity research be applied jointly to human beings and the environment to improve the situation for both.

An example of this is food production. To produce more food in the right places for people it is necessary to analyze the nature of the soil, weather, and water supplies; the presence of other species that may affect the crops and domesticated animals; and the economics of the communities, the cultural acceptability of certain food types, and the maturity of the social and physical infrastructure to support any new initiatives. Thus in conditions where little water is available, crops need to be developed that resist drought; for areas subject to locusts, food crops that locusts don’t like should be researched; and if it were possible to rear animals such that what they eat produces considerably less methane, that would be advantageous for their effects on the atmosphere. All of these should be researched and delivered taking into consideration broad economic and social contexts.

Similarly, pollution of the oceans by plastics, fuel spillage, and runoff from agricultural practices should be considered when looking at fish stocks. Such pollution has critical impacts on the salinity of the water and its albedo and on very delicate food chain mechanisms in the deeper parts of the ocean.

Consideration of these examples of impacts of human activities that are meant to sustain the population (currently 8 billion and rising) is absolutely vital to understanding how to enable the human species—which has no more right to not become extinct than any other species—to survive the stresses and strains of life on planet Earth. As Carl Sagan famously said, when viewing the image (one pixel) of Earth from the Voyager satellite near the orbit of Saturn, “preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Emergent Properties

The concept of emergent properties, which is core to how systems of systems are viewed through a complexity analysis lens, is also worthy of consideration. It may be that such properties are only those that people fail to understand because they are seeing them for the first time. It may also be that understanding of the basic mechanisms underlying system-of-systems interactions is so poor that it is difficult to forecast their likelihood. And it may also be true that in certain circumstances the statistical properties of those interactions, when analyzed through an appropriate mathematical process, show that it will be impossible to ever predict an emergent property.

The interaction between complexity science, on the one hand, and man-made and natural (if they can indeed be separated) environments on the other is vital to the continuing survival of humanity. Without global cooperation there will always be activities that put human lives at risk over the long term. Therefore forums for such cooperation (e.g., the UN Sustainable Development Goals) must be pursued with vigor and with mission-oriented, coherent, high-quality, and properly assessed research. Such activity must also include approaches to financing and valuing outcomes of activity in a broader way than pure financial growth.

Current efforts to improve understanding of the value to society of such activities are crucial to being able to achieve the necessary level, depth, scale, and speed of collaboration. Unfortunately some governance mechanisms do not lend themselves to this scale of collaboration and integration. This is where most efforts are needed.


About the Author:Brian Collins is emeritus professor of engineering policy at University College London and former chief scientific advisor to the UK Departments for Transport and for Business, Innovation, and Skills.