Alicia Juarrero: Complexity Is Not Complicatedness

Deliberate Complexity Conference, 19 July 2022

Talk description:

This talk will provide a primer of central features of complex systems, focusing on the role of interfaces as “active” sites that regulate and modulate internal and external environments to achieve functional dynamic balance.

The terms complicatedness or complication refer to either 1) disordered and randomly entangled relations between parts, or 2) relations among parts whose overall effects result from the addition or combination of those parts. We call the resulting totality complicated when the effects are difficult to track. Machines are complicated. A huge oil refinery is a complicated system, but it is not complex. Critically, in complicated systems the overall relations do not change components. The total really is the sum of its parts.

Alicia Juarrero

Complexity, on the other hand, refers to ordered relations and interactions among separate parts and processes that those parts and processes interdependent. Ecosystems and economies are examples of complex systems. Because it has effects the component parts do not, the interdependence that emerges from relations among components has novel properties that could not have been predicted from the sum or combination of the parts. Lasers cauterize, superconducting solids display no electrical resistance, and “the tragedy of the commons” harms communities. Qualitatively novel properties that arise from interdependence change the behavior of the parts from which those interdependencies are composed. Complex systems have parts-to-whole trickle up effects as well as whole-to-parts top-down cascades of relations that complicated systems do not.

The key difference between complicatedness and complexity can be found in the source of the relations that generate complexity -- in particular, in how particles and processes interact with their environment. Enabling “agents” of complexity include catalysts, scaffolds, iteration and recursion, feedback, and interfaces both biotic (cellular membranes and the eardrum) and abiotic (IT platform interfaces). Stabilizing “agents” that hold those interdependencies together include buffering, damping and entrenchment as well as rules and regulations.

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Listen to the API Resilience Podcast episodes with Alicia:
Conversation with Alicia Juarrero - part 1
Conversation with Alicia Juarrero - part 2