Solving Global Challenges 1: Accepting Complexity

If the blind spot of today‘s eco­nom­ic, social and envi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment can be reduced to one sin­gle word, it is con­scious­ness. High­ly spe­cial­ized actors in dif­fer­ent domains focus on opti­miz­ing their respec­tive fields of inter­est, neglect­ing inter­de­pen­den­cies and not com­pris­ing real­i­ty as a whole but rather as many inde­pen­dent real­i­ties. Bridg­ing the gap between dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines through cross-sectoral coöper­a­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion is one of today’s most impor­tant sci­en­tif­ic, polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and social tasks.

In the field of tech­nol­o­gy, there is a long his­to­ry of con­nect­ing sec­tors and play­ers through the set­ting of tech­no­log­i­cal hard­ware and soft­ware stan­dards, and through the devel­op­ment of appli­ca­tion inter­faces (APIs) that pro­vide a set of func­tions and pro­ce­dures to allow access to the com­put­er pro­gram fea­tures or data. Due to the com­plex­i­ty and the high degree of spe­cial­iza­tion of many soft­ware pro­grams, APIs allow for a mod­u­lar­iza­tion of value chains: sev­er­al dif­fer­ent actors can add their pieces of code to a final whole rep­re­sent­ing a fully-functional pro­gram. In that way, com­plex appli­ca­tions are pro­vid­ed by a col­lab­o­ra­tion of sev­er­al domain spe­cial­ists, each con­tribut­ing the best solu­tion in the respec­tive indus­try. An API model like this we need for other areas of life, as well as for life, itself. Life is too com­plex for being under­stood and man­age­able indi­vid­u­al­ly in sep­a­rate, siloed areas, life must be seen and man­aged as a whole, and by col­lab­o­ra­tive efforts.

Con­nect­ed Through API

First, the dif­fer­ent areas of life have to be con­nect­ed through APIs. Then, they have to be syn­chro­nized in order to cre­ate a func­tion­ing sys­tem. Glob­al chal­lenges, such as cli­mate cri­sis, seem to be unsolv­able when looked at from indi­vid­ual domains: experts of the field of ecol­o­gy blame cor­po­ra­tions for their envi­ron­men­tal impact. Com­pa­ny boss­es blame pro­hib­i­tive envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions for a wors­en­ing busi­ness cli­mate. Employ­ees blame their employ­ers for lay­ing them off because of weak per­for­mance. The retail indus­try blames con­sumers for a low propen­si­ty to con­sume. A vicious eco­nom­ic cycle has been cre­at­ed, with fin­ger­point­ing as the means of choice for most actors, as if it were pos­si­ble to find a sin­gle cul­prit, being respon­si­ble for the mess.

Using all kinds of tech­nolo­gies, humans have cre­at­ed a sys­tem too com­plex to be man­age­able by a cen­tral enti­ty. No sin­gle gov­ern­ment, orga­ni­za­tion or even group of peo­ple can over­see and con­trol the com­plete sys­tem. And no sin­gle indi­vid­ual aspect of human behav­ior is sole­ly respon­si­ble for unde­sired out­comes, such as wars, cli­mate cri­sis or pover­ty. How­ev­er, many peo­ple like to ask for sim­ple solu­tions for com­plex prob­lems. And, as soon as some­one starts offer­ing this kind of solu­tion, peo­ple are relieved, sup­port and rein­force this sim­pli­fied solu­tion. Typ­i­cal­ly, politi­cians of the far ends of the polti­cal spec­trum feel encour­aged to serve these needs for easy solu­tions and strong men who take respon­si­bil­i­ty and act in a straigt­for­ward way. Sim­ple con­texts, sim­ple mes­sages, sim­ple recipes, good out­comes — that could be the polit­i­cal pro­gram of shrewd rad­i­cal politi­cians who have a good feel­ing of wor­ried cit­i­zens‘ needs.

If only it were so sim­ple — let’s embrace com­plex­i­ty!

Of course, it is not. As described above, we live in a high­ly com­plex, decen­tral­ized and dis­trib­uted world. Who has worked in a decen­tral­ized team, or has expe­ri­ence with dis­trib­uted sys­tems, knows how dif­fer­ent­ly these are to be man­aged. While most indi­vid­ual orga­ni­za­tions fea­ture cen­tral­ized struc­tures and can be man­aged in a top-down man­ner — at least, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly — dis­trib­uted sys­tems need a dif­fer­ent form of man­age­ment and con­trol­ling. In dis­trib­uted sys­tems, indi­vid­ual par­tic­i­pants act on their own behalf and max­i­mize their indi­vid­ual prof­it. To cre­ate a well-functioning dis­trib­uted sys­tem, all par­tic­i­pants must be incen­tivized in a way that serves both, their own and the system‘s needs, at the same time. In other words, par­tic­i­pants’ indi­vid­ual behav­iors have to be aligned with the pur­pose and the goal of the sys­tem. If a soc­cer play­er per­son­al­ly ben­e­fits form scor­ing goals by ris­ing in the list of top scor­ers, and he coin­ci­den­tial­ly ensures his team‘s vic­to­ry, this align­ment of inter­ests pro­vides a good basis for the system‘s sta­bil­i­ty. Cre­at­ing gov­er­nance mod­els and incen­tive schemes for dis­trib­uted sys­tems is one of the hard­est tasks in the field of tech­nol­gy, but emerges as becom­ing the tough­est chal­lenge for our plan­et. But, before we can start dis­cussing gov­er­nance mod­els we must define our sys­tem with all its rel­e­vant par­tic­i­pants I’ll give it a try in the next post.

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