It’s too complex!
by G. Koch

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I can’t remember any conference which I attended in the last few years where at least in one major speech the subject of complexity was not prominently addressed. There is no longer any discussion on the future of society, economy, finances, education or science in which the contributors do not admit that the interrelationships and dependencies have developed towards a size, a level of opacity and multi-dimensionality which can only be characterized as complex – not just complicated. Being complicated is not being complex; it means that a certain effort is needed to solve a problem, but it is manageable anyway. Not so a complex problem.


Everybody knows what complexity is because everybody has a subjective or a professional interpretation and a way of coping with it. For example, a mathematician aims to find formulas describing phenomena that have proven hard to capture, such as changes in weather or financial markets. The interest of a technician is to learn how to master a huge and virtually impossible to understand machinery or facility. A medical doctor is hardly in a position to consider all factors which are relevant in a disease which is new or not yet curable. A psychologist or a cognition scientist may wonder how people take decisions in situations in which they do not have all data and facts needed and may be irritated. At the “lower end” of obfuscations, computer scientists do research on the complexity of algorithms, and, at the “upper end” they are confronted in understanding the complexity of large system, the largest being the Internet. And finally, sociologists seem to have surrendered in interpreting how society in its rapid development can be explained.


There is no question that in such a situation, where large parts of society no longer understand in a logical sense what is happening in politics, economy and science tend to adopt esoteric models of explanations communicated by some self nominated Messiahs, most often consultants who want to make us believe that complexity can be reduced, as though factual complexity could be spirited away. In the best case we may admit that there exist “recipes for thinking” about how such hydra can be fought. At least, we may acquire the courage to fight against it.


On the other side there exist options in terms of research institutes and researchers on world scale who take up the challenge to study and to resolve complexity, as are the Santa Fé Institute in New Mexico, the IIASA Institute near Vienna, Austria, the COSY research group of Stefan Thurner in Vienna or the department for foresight research at the Austrian Institute of Technology. Their intellectual foundation can be found in the constructivist school of thinking. As an individual researcher and laborious worker, consider John Casti, living as well in Vienna, who was doing research in several of the above mentioned institutes and who wrote several books on the subject of complexity. All these experts are quite engaged; however, within the large community of scientists they are represented only in subcritical numbers. One of those colleagues in the domain of complexity research told me that for his scientific career he has to work during the day in a classical discipline (say, physics) and in the evenings he invests in the still little-respected discipline of complexity science.


As a veteran of many years in science management it is clear to me that a full generation and several failed existences of scientists are needed until a new direction becomes accepted, the benefit of which cannot be immediately recognized. Nevertheless, I cannot understand that a discipline to be called “complexity research” and the resulting knowledge body about complexity and its mastering still has not yet been introduced in universities, given that everybody perceives that the problems at hand, i.e. the Grand Challenges, by their nature are complex. This holds especially for all the different aspects of securing our future living conditions, e.g. climate, demography, diseases, finance, etc. It is even worse: the ignorance of methodologies for coping with complexity seduces one into taking decisions too often with catastrophic consequences, which, in retrospect, we must wonder how naive and with how little analytical competence the authorized decision makers have acted. There exist many such examples – think of Chernobyl or of the current catastrophes in the financial sphere – which seem to hit us like unpredicted meteors.


More and more citizens are starting to see that those owning the power and sitting in the governments evidently are not as much in the know as they make us believe. Polls made recently e.g. in the Austrian Parliament finding out about competences of the MPs in the field of financial politics disclosed concussive  results. And this is not a singular case. We must recognize that even highly respected personalities in world politics lack the know-how in the kinds of complex matters they are engaged to resolve.


In general I think that the reason for such non-understanding has its roots in the still predominant paradigm of the past which makes us believe that mankind is challenged “to subdue the earth” and that this is doable somehow with deterministic thinking. Albert Einstein, who himself was convinced of the rational and logical foundations of the world, was intelligent enough to state that problems cannot be solved with the methods which have produced them. In a metaphoric (!) sense, this conforms to Kurt Goedel’s discovery, which tells us that within a formal system of mathematics there may exist mathematical problems which cannot be decided if they can be solved within that system. Thus, the paradigm which limits our potential in understanding complexity results from the enlightenment of 250 years ago. So far its “laws” were helpful and produced the whole body of knowledge on which our modern society and technologies relies. However, the example of not understanding complexity demonstrates that we need new foundations of thinking. This is being achieved in science – an excellent example is quantum physics – but certainly not yet in everyday life.


In my own environment so far I could identify one new direction in founding a new paradigmatic basis that is helpful in dealing with complexity. The “ideological” precondition, which makes us humble in our expectations, resumes from the discussion on constructivism. It tells us that in the end we only can master what we can understand, i.e. what we can explain, being founded on scientifically sound insights. We may not believe that beyond our own competences and capacities there exist absolute and objective truths, which at the end of time will solve all our problems anyway. The only way to cope with (and, if you want to) “master” complexity is to behave in a competent and educated way versus complex situations which means, not to lose one’s head or even to panic. The future, which is always a complex animal, cannot be foreseen, but what we can do is to participate actively in its design, and that is mainly what constructivism tells us.


What is the practical consequence? Besides the formal accreditation of “complexity research” as an official meta- and trans-disciplinary art, its methods and insights have to become part of any program in research and education. As science history proves with respect to new scientific directions in economy, psychology or constructivism, a place like Austria always has been a fertile ground to let such new disciplines grow. We have sufficiently many scientists who are able to found and to grow research groups in this field. There is an intensive need for results from “complexity science” in politics and management, mainly in domains of financial business, environmental regulation, infrastructure development / operation, social organizations, etc., etc., etc.


A new enlightenment movement will emerge through the employment of ever higher levels of understanding in trans- and meta-disciplines, such as a science of complexity.



Günter Koch, former CEO of the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT), currently General Secretary of The New Club of Paris and recently initiator of the “Humboldt Cosmos Multiversity” in Tenerife, Spain.

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