"To say that we don’t know enough about complex systems, so we’ll just assume they’re not complex, is completely wrong."
"People say complexity economics isn’t mature enough, so we’ll just use the standard economic models. Except that we know that the economy is a complex system, and that the standard economic models, certainly the macroeconomic models, assume it’s not. And so that’s just not okay."
"[At] the complexity institute of the University of Amsterdam ... you have people from different disciplines who share a language and an approach to problems which is immensely enriching. I’ve witnessed conversations of people who were trying to model the origin of life, and others who were trying to model the human immune system, with people who were trying to model the economy. And they actually learn from each other about how you capture the dynamic of those systems, and they share tools and insights and tricks."
"Reductionism is an approach that’s used across most sciences. It’s just it’s become so routine that we never name it."
"Learning is a complex process, and it literally is a phase transition when you gain a new insight."
"The very idea of a guru in a sense is a reductionist concept."
On teaching complexity to youngsters: "Kids are much better learners than adults. And in a sense, they were thrilled I think because it did justice to their intuition about the world, their world of social media and gender ambiguity, and all sorts of things that kids at that age wrestle with. It is deeply not reductionist, and here you had a class that actually allowed them to see those things, and many of them got really excited."
- Book - Quark and the Jaguar - Murray Gell-Mann
- Book - Complexity - Mitchell Waldrop
- Book - Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics - Ralph Stacey / Christopher Mowles
- Book - The Nature of Technology - Brian Arthur
- Online resources - Complexity Explorer
- Course - Singapore Complexity Institute
- Course - Complex System Summer School - Santa Fe Institute
- Course - Introduction to complexity - Santa Fe Institute
Roland Kupers - Bio
Roland is an independent advisor on Complexity, Resilience and Energy Transition.
He's Dutch and speaks 4 other languages fluently.
Originally a theoretical physicist he’s worked in business management in AT&T then in Shell where he held several senior positions.
He has written books on scenario planning, resilience and complexity in the context of public policy. And he’s writing another one on climate change at the moment.
He lectures in complexity and he’s an affiliate of Institute for Advanced Studies in Amsterdam.
Mark: Hello, I’m Mark Foden. Welcome to The Clock and the Cat, a podcast of conversations about complexity. The Clock and the Cat explores the emerging science of complexity, ultimately to help you generate better ideas and make better decisions whatever you’re involved with. This is episode four, and I’m going to be talking with Roland Kupers about how you can learn about complexity.
But before that, if this is your first experience of The Clock and the Cat, and you don’t know what it’s about, please do go back and listen to episode one for a seven-minute, no faffing about, introduction to the podcast.
If you did go away, welcome back. Here I am with Roland Kupers. Roland is an independent advisor on complexity, resilience and energy transition. He’s Dutch, and speaks four other languages fluently. Originally a theoretical physicist, he’s worked in business management in AT&T, then in Shell where he held several senior positions. He’s written books on scenario planning, resiliency and complexity in the context of public policy, and he’s brewing another one on climate change at the moment.
We’ve worked together on several projects, mostly to do with resilience, and in fact, we co-hatched the idea of The Clock and the Cat a couple of years ago. Roland’s been teaching complexity at all levels from children to chief executives for many years, and I’m sure you’ll find what he has to say really useful.
Roland, welcome. Thanks very much for joining us.
Roland: Hi Mark, good to be back.
Mark: Today on this episode, we’re going to talk about how to learn about complexity. If you heard Episode Three, then Roland and I were talking about what complexity actually was, so if you’re interested in more detail, then you go back to Episode Three. But this is for people who are interested in knowing more about complexity, so I thought what I’d do, Roland, is could we just start off by talking about the maturity of the science of complexity, because it’s comparatively new, isn’t it?
Roland: Yes, and no. Like most questions. Every decent thinker probably since the 18th century knew about complexity, and actually has made footnotes of one kind or another saying, “Well, actually this reductionist thing really is a bit of shortcut and we should look at the complexity,” and there’s a wonderful paper from the thirties from Hayek about complexity of economics. And it has quite deep and long roots, and if you go back to the ancient Greeks, there’s all sorts of stuff you can find. But as a Western scientific discipline, it’s a couple of decades, maybe three decades old, that it’s really entrenched itself in our academic environments.
The question of maturity is one that is hard to answer, because how mature is economics? How mature is genetics? How mature is theoretical physics? These things, it assumes some sort of having cracked the problem, and I think for all of those sciences, you can say that they haven’t. And the same is true for complexity science. It hasn’t cracked complexity, but neither has economics cracked the economy.
But there is enough really fascinating stuff that we typically haven’t learned about as part of our education, so I think that’s the first thing. There’s a lot of intellectual running room there, which is really fascinating stuff. The other thing is that to say that we don’t know enough about complex systems, so we’ll just assume they’re not complex, is completely wrong. So that is not an excuse. And it sounds funny, but it’s one I’ve heard particularly about economics, actually. People say complexity economics isn’t mature enough, so we’ll just use the standard economic models. Except that we know that the economy is a complex system, and that the standard economic models, certainly the macroeconomic models, assume it’s not. And so that’s just not okay.
Mark: What’s the extent of teaching? Let’s start with universities, for example. What’s the extent of teaching about complexity in universities? I’m sure it’s pretty variable, but what’s your sense of that?
Roland: It’s present in every university, and actually interestingly enough in every discipline at PhD and post-doc level everywhere. And it’s only starting to make its way into masters and bachelors programs, and there it varies greatly, because it literally changes year by year. We’re at the cusp of it infiltrating much more deeply into bachelor and master, but at universities, it’s present everywhere.
I think that’s really fascinating … For example, the institute I’m at in Amsterdam, the Institute for Advanced Studies, which is really the complexity institute of the University of Amsterdam, is that you have people from different disciplines who share a language and an approach to problems which is immensely enriching. So I’ve witnessed conversations of people who were trying to model the origin of life, and others who were trying to model the human immune system, with people who were trying to model the economy. And they actually learn from each other about how you capture the dynamic of those systems, and they share tools and insights and tricks, et cetera.
Mark: So in that sense, then maybe complexity is a bit like mathematics in the sense of its general use? Can we think of it that way?
Roland: As a formal theoretical physicist, I would always give mathematics a more … I always think of mathematics more like music, it’s kind of a really fundamental description of an abstract space. So in some sense, but I think in a way complexity also uses mathematics, so I think they’re really at a different level.
Mark: But it’s an interesting idea that it’s applicable in lots of disciplines. That was the only driver for saying that.
Roland: Yeah, the parallel in some ways it’s comparable to reductionism. Reductionism is an approach that’s used across most sciences. It’s just it’s become so routine that we never name it, but actually it’s a shared methodology, so that may be the best comparison.
Mark: That is an interesting insight. Going back to formal learning about complexity. You actually teach complexity, don’t you? Can you just talk about what you do and how that happens, and the kind of things that you talk about?
Roland: Yeah, so I am a little bit unusual in the sense that because of my experience in business and policy, I teach complexity to those people because I speak their language. There are also people who teach highly technical courses and are much more learned than I am, they teach classes on network mathematics or modelling, et cetera. And that’s another part of teaching complexity. But what I’m particularly interested in is creating that bridge with practitioners. And the trick there is not to turn into a consulting gimmick or something, with some frame that is described by four words that happen to start with the same letter or something like that.
Mark: Guilty as charged, Your Honour, by the way.
Roland: So what I try to distinguish is complexity science and a complexity frame, is that for policy makers and managers and people in organisations, I think understanding complex systems and framing particular problems through these concepts of complexity in itself has huge value, because you talk about and you do justice to the underlying dynamic of the thing you’re trying to deal with. And a next step would be to say, “Okay, is there some scientific methods we can apply to this and do some modelling, et cetera?” And that may or may not be the case, because there are … all these immensely complex. But just talking and using the right words and language and concepts, and being aware of those, in my experience makes a huge difference to the way we tackle problems.
Mark: Speaking practically then, if someone had been listening to Episode Three, or is listening to this episode about learning about complexity, what do they do next? For example, could you recommend a book or several books or whatever that people could pick up and learn about complexity?
Roland: Yes, well the absolute best way is to read my books of course.
Mark: Roland’s books would be listed in the show notes, so you can look at those.
Roland: But there are people who are much more eloquent than I am, I’m sure. But I think everyone has their own journey through these. There are a couple of books that in my early engagement with complexity were very useful for me, and in particular, there’s a book by Waldrop called Complexity, and he was a scientific journalist who was invited to witness the early days of complexity science, and writes really well about it, including a bit of human interest et cetera, which gives you a sense of what questions people had when they started on this journey. What were they thinking about, what were they worried about, and I think that gave me a huge amount of insight into why this is important. More philosophical, there’s one of the foremost physicists of the 20th century, Murray Gell-Mann, an amazing educator, wrote a book called The Quark and the Jaguar.
Mark: Gell-Mann was the guy who discovered the quark.
Roland: Yes, and named it because he was a great fan of Finnegans Wake, and …
Mark: Oh, is that where it comes from?
Roland: That’s where quark comes from, yes. He’s probably one of the few people who managed to make it through that book, but … Those are very good, but there are a lot. There are a lot that get published, and some will work for one person and not for another. I found that as with all profound insights, is that at some point, you get a phase transition in your head, and in fact, I’ve spoken to quite a few people who are interested in complexity, and most of them can name a time and a place where the coin dropped for them, and they said, “Okay, I understand why this is important.” And it doesn’t mean that they’ve been magically enlightened or something There are a million other questions that follow from there. It’s not that you’re happy ever after. You have to soak in these things, and read a number of books on that, and one thing will work for one person and the other for another.
Mark: That’s interesting because I think a lot of learning happens that way. Leaping into my head is when I was learning about matrix mathematics. I remember struggling with it for quite a long time, and really not understanding it. Left it for a few months, and then came back to it. Suddenly the penny dropped and it all worked. Being confused by something and struggling with it is okay.
Roland: Yes, because as far as we know, learning is a complex process, and it literally is a phase transition when you gain a new insight, and so these things aren’t just an image, they’re actually quite literally relevant.
Mark: Are there any particular gurus that you would point at, apart from your good self of course?
Roland: No, well I wouldn’t put myself on that list. I don’t think so. Gell-Mann, possibly. The whole thing started in the late 80s at the Santa Fe Institute, so the early people who were there, there’s somebody called Brian Arthur who’s an economist, who spearheaded complexity economics, which is still struggling.
Because it goes across so many disciplines, you’ve got somebody we both know: Stephen Lansing here at the Complexity Institute in Singapore who’s an anthropologist, so again, has a very different story. You get people in all these different disciplines, and they bring their own flavour, which eliminates a little bit the guru thing, because you have people associated with all these various disciplines, who bring different things.
Mark: One book I’m reading at the moment, and I’ve forgotten the title but I’ll put it in the show notes, is Ralph Stacey’s book about strategic management, and he does sort of run through all of the main stages of management thinking, starting back at scientific management post the industrial era, all the way through the learning organisation, and eventually ending up at the ideas of complexity. And I’m thinking that’s a really good book if you want to put in context the management teaching over the past 30 years. You’ve read his stuff, haven’t you?
Roland: Well, some of his papers, not that particular book. But yes, he’s great. In some sense, the very idea of a guru in a sense is a reductionist concept. The same Brian Arthur wrote this absolutely wonderful book called “What Is Technology?”, which is about innovation, and he tries to get to the heart of what innovation really is. He basically describes it as follows: There are no new ideas, is that innovation is the recombination of existing ideas, and then recognising which ones are important and work.
It’s a little bit like the story we had in the previous episode about decisions, is that the person who’s the guru who grabs the Nobel Prize, is often the person who names it, and who recognises it. And yes, they certainly have done their share of thinking, but the way we talk about gurus and inventors et cetera is we project the entire process that happens before onto one individual, and give him or her the entire credit.
And inevitably, they all come up with these images, slightly embarrassed, and say, “No, but I’ve stood on the shoulder of giants,” and all these kinds of things, because they actually know that it’s not them, there’s a whole network before them, and they just added the catalyst at the end to get it across the finishing line.
Mark: That’s very interesting. I did listen to a podcast a couple of months ago where there was an eminent person who was talking about how you actually become that person from amongst your peers, which I just thought of as just a bit odd, really. But hey.
Roland: There are people who are outstanding educators, for example. And that’s a really important function. Some people explain better than others and get more credit, and all those things are important, but the very strong emphasis we have on the hero CEO or the inventor or the Nobel Prize winner, I think again, is misleading particularly for young people.
I remember a very long time when I was young, I also found those things confusing, because you think, “Well, how do I ever become that?” And actually, you don’t. The point is teamwork and collaborating and making the whole better. And yes, sometimes you happen to stumble into a position where people assign some credit for that to you, but more often than not, it’s not deserved. It’s a much broader phenomenon.
Mark: Absolutely. Just summarizsing where we’ve got to: we’ve talked about some people that people could look out for, and we’ve talked about some books, so there’s a complexity book by Waldrop, and “The Quark and the Jaguar” by Murray Gell-Mann. So what about courses? If you wanted to do an online course or something, what would you do?
Roland: Yeah, there is actually quite a lot of really fantastic stuff. There’s a thing called “The Complexity Explorer” that has all sorts of online courses and material that you can look at. There’s a thing called “The Complexity Digest”, which is an overview in a very succinct way of what gets published across various disciplines on complexity. And I find that incredibly valuable, because you get once a week a download with a few lines on various research papers, and kind of from the corner of your eye, you can see the kind of things that people are working on, and you pick out interesting stuff, and it gives you a sense of what’s going on everywhere.
Mark: On the “Complexity Digest” thing: I do follow that on Facebook, but I do find it quite technical. I was completely new to the field, then I probably wouldn’t pay a lot of attention to it, because there’s a lot of very deep stuff in it. Is there a more kind of general higher level thing that folks could look at?
Roland: There are MOOCs. The Santa Fe Institute has got an introductory course, and a number of universities do as well. It’s literally spreading quickly. There’s the course you went to, here at the Complexity Institute in Singapore, and while that looks an awfully long way away, it’s actually rather comfortable to spend a week in Singapore.
Mark: I spent a week in Singapore in March, and I did the short course. They call it the winter course in complexity, which runs at the NTU, which is the National Technical University, is that right? Is that where you are, Roland?
Roland: Yes, Nanyang Technical University.
Mark: Right, Nanyang. That was excellent, because there were about 40 of us on the course. Very interestingly, half of the people were Singaporean civil servants who were learning about complexity, which I thought was absolutely fabulous. And then all sorts of people: a contingent from the university in Amsterdam, and people from all over the world. Absolutely fascinating, coming together to cover all the full range of complexity techniques, and complexity ideas. That was really, really brilliant. Okay, so there’s some short courses you can do. I know there’s a summer course at Santa Fe, isn’t there?
Mark: But that takes quite a long time. You can do a week in Singapore, and there are lots of other courses like this popping up everywhere.
Roland: Yes, there are. And there are a couple of main hubs though. Santa Fe, Singapore, the Amsterdam Institute, and there’s quite an important complexity hub in Vienna as well, so you’re starting to see a couple of them.
But on the other hand for a general introduction, you really don’t need endless depth, you really just need somebody who’s a good teacher, and gives you an exciting program, and you should be able to find that relatively close by and certainly online there are all sorts of things. But again, don’t expect the coin to drop in one go. This is unpredictable. Maybe on the first day, you think, “Oh, no, I don’t understand.” Or maybe at the end of the week, you’re still confused at a higher level.
Mark: You’ve been involved in creating a curriculum for the International Baccalaureate.
Roland: Yes. One of the things I’ve always found curious is this thing that you could go through high school and a bachelors degree and a masters degree, and never encounter complexity. And then you’d sign up for a PhD program, and people would say, “Actually, things are a little bit different. Maybe you should look at it this way.” Which is really weird, because it’s so fundamental. I was always intrigued by thinking whether you could make a program for school kids and see whether that would work. And so I worked together with the International Baccalaureate, who have a number of advantages. It’s taught at 5,000 schools around the world. About half to them are public and half of them are private schools, however you use those terms, realising that in the UK and the rest of the world, they mean something different.
We wrote a 14-hour curriculum, together with a wonderful German young scientist, and taught that twice, and then did an evaluation with the students et cetera. And it was great; students just loved it.
As ever, kids are much better learners than adults. And in a sense, they were thrilled I think because it did justice to their intuition about the world, their world of social media and gender ambiguity, and all sorts of things that kids at that age wrestle with. It is deeply not reductionist, and here you had a class that actually allowed them to see those things, and many of them got really excited. They said, “Oh, now I see all sorts of connections that I hadn’t seen before.” It was really great, and so I hope that the IB rolls it out further.
The IB itself as any large organisation, is also a complex adaptive system, and has its change issues of its own, so these things are not easy. But it was exciting to do, and also to see that this is really possible and really welcome.
Mark: Yes, so I read the curriculum, the IB curriculum that you’d done, and I thought it was quite instructive in itself what was actually included with it. Actually, some of the exercises that were in there were really interesting too. Do you think the kids that you’ve taught it to, does the penny drop straight away, or … You say it comes more naturally to them.
Roland: Yes. In fact, the irony is, I spoke to a lot of teachers in the course of developing this program, and all the primary school teachers were sublimely uninterested, and at some point, I really wondered why. And I talked to a number of them from around the world, and they all said, “But this is what we do. At the primary school level, we teach systems thinking to kids. That’s all we do. And because kids are natural systems thinkers.” I said, “Well, so then what happens?” And then they said, “Well, we just hand them off to secondary school, and it gets beaten out of them.” That’s literally how … It wasn’t one teacher; many of them framed schooling, which I found really interesting. And that may or may not be true, but it is clear that small kids have an enormous aptitude for thinking in terms of systems, and if you get to them early enough, I think in early high school, they’ve not been ruined by reductionism yet.
Mark: Okay, so I’m going to interpret that as great hope for the future.
Look, Roland, thank you very much. Once more, thank you very much indeed for spending the time to talk about how to learn about complexity. And so that’s it. Before we finish, if you’ve found what you heard interesting, please do subscribe and there are more interesting people lined up to talk to in the next few months. And also can I give you the very important job of spreading the word, because it might help someone else, and please do it right now before you forget. Message, email, tweet, Slack or otherwise let your mates know about The Clock and the Cat. Thank you very much indeed. Hope you listen again. Bye bye.