Title: 1st International Workshop on Complexity and Real World Applications: Using the Tools and Concepts from the Complexity Sciences to Support Real World Decision-making Activities
Date: July 21–23, 2010
Location: Southampton, England
Hosted by: ISCE Publishing (US) and Decision Mechanics (UK)
Contact: Kurt Richardson, ISCE Publishing (email@example.com)
Alice Munro, the Canadian writer, once said, “The complexity of things—the things within things—just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.” The more time we spend studying complexity, the more her sentiments are shared.
Of course, the very pervasiveness of this complexity is the reason we gravitate towards it—like basin-dwelling moths to the attractor flame. The increasing number of “complexity”-focused journals stands as a testament to the progress that is being made in this young discipline.
Our passion, however, lies in the possibility of releasing all these ideas into the wider ecosystem. While many of the more beguiling concepts have embedded themselves in everyday language, complexity thinking, as a formal discipline, is clearly much less widespread. There are islands of success, but the intellectual tectonic shifts required to make them continents have not been forthcoming.
Why is this? Maybe it’s partially down to the packaging. Complexity thinking is hard. Much of the research draws on sophisticated philosophy. This hinders the broad adoption of the ideas in the professional mainstream. The fact that the amount of research in the area of tools is dwarfed by that in the areas or philosophy and theory serves to compound the problem. A rough analysis of the papers published in the journal Emergence: Complexity & Organization, for example, in 2007 shows that less than 10% of them were primarily concerned with the development of tools for practitioners.
There is no doubt that the packaging of complexity into a neat, user-friendly shrink-wrapped “box” is a tall order. It’s difficult enough to just describe the damn thing! Maybe this is because we’ve been gradually increasing the complexity of complexity. As we’ve experienced the failures of the systems engineering paradigm, and seen the limitations of “new reductionism”, our definition of complexity has become increasingly elaborate. Naturally, this has trickled down the pipeline to challenge the tool developers.
But, maybe we can best approach tools from another theoretical direction—and use our understanding of complexity to evaluate and enhance them. Richardson (2008) has discussed the notion of a “modeling culture” where a practitioner uses linear tools in a nonlinear manner. This results in a kind of “cyborg” tool where man is responsible for providing the complex context. However, as complexity researchers, surely we’d like to provide man with more assistance in this area.
The motivation for this workshop is to further this endeavor. The organizers want to receive submissions that focus on real world applications of complexity thinking. Theory will certainly not be discouraged, but it must be followed by at least one case in which the theory-informed tool that was developed was used (successfully or not) to aid a real world decision-maker. By this we do not mean the application of a complexity framework to reinterpret a past event. Furthermore, we are very keen to attract those from outside the “traditional” complexity community—such as software developers, for example. The development of tools sensitive to complexity requires a multi-/cross-disciplinary effort, and the “complexity” community does not hold any particular claims to having the best language and concepts to confront and manage complexity. For example, much of the development in the complexity community over the past 15-20 years had already occurred within the soft systems community, and from both communities, simultaneous efforts have unfolded that, although approach matters from different directions, share similar aims, philosophies, and methods.
In order to provide at least some basic topical guidelines for the boundaries of the event, a number of characteristics of “complexity-sensitive” tools are listed below. These are presented purely for guidance—please feel free to ignore our “arbitrary” framework if you have better ideas.
The process of boundary critique is arguably the key feature of complexity thinking. We view this as the central element, with the remaining elements we will define being corollaries of the commitment to it.
Life is defined by where we draw the lines. The fact that defining these boundaries is so difficult is part of what makes life interesting. All boundaries are no more than temporary patterns resulting from a filtering process (e.g., based on personal values). As such, they are to some degree arbitrary (at the same time both quasi-objective and inter-subjective) and require ongoing review to understand how they shape our context of interest—and how our context of interest shapes them.
Given the non-reality of all boundaries (…very Buddhist…) we cannot rely completely on any one perspective. All perspectives are ideals and the real world is not idealistic. Mono-paradigmatic approaches are risky as they only tell part of the story.
Perspective is being used here in the broadest possible sense. It refers to individual opinions as well as particular methodologies. In a sense, these perspectives can be equated with stakeholders as they all have a vested interest in being recognized as relevant and important in the war of ideas—a kind of evolutionary memetics.
Being aware of multiple perspectives equips you for more effective boundary critique, of course. This is one of the processes that helps provide crowds with their wisdom.
Synthesis is closely related to pluralism. It relates to the attempt, through the use of boundary critique and pluralism, to tailor descriptions (models) to the context of interest, rather than have the model shape the context. Or, to put it another way, have the dog wag the model tail, rather than vice versa.
Of course, it is never this simple. By definition, the context of interest must pay some lip service to the model. If not, the model would have to be as complex as the reality it seeks to explain. It is quite reasonable to take a particular context and evolve it so that it can be more easily understood through a model. The key is that the “evolution” is reflected in the real world and is not just something that happens in the mind of the analyst. So, through boundary critique, an incoherent plurality is beaten and brutalized into a context specific and provisionally synthetic whole.
This synthetic whole can still only be a bastardization of the real world. It can only, therefore, be a tool for thought, rather than a proxy for reality. We need to maintain some ontological distance from our constructions. The commitment to “boundary critique” and “pluralism”—and maybe “improvement”, as in Critical Systems Thinking—is more important than the final model itself.
The starting point of an analysis should not completely predetermine the end point of the analysis. This should lead us to be wary of purely systematic approaches. We need the flexibility and confidence to wander through “analysis space” (evolving as a consequence of our boundary critiques) in a way that acknowledges the emerging view of the real world, rather than the favored method/methodology. In addition, we need to recognize that the real world will collectively conspire to respond to our design interventions in a variety of ways—some of them not considered by the “designers”.
This requires us to engage in a tricky balancing act. Being overly prescriptive leads to narrow-minded analysis, while “anything goes” analysis can lead nowhere. Emergence requires some kind of container to filter out the cacophonous noise of reality. The structure of that container, however, should not remain fixed or overly restrictive.
Although the allocation of boundaries (in both space and time) is essential to “doing stuff”, control/design in complex systems is a never ending process. Most models used in support of decisions will, at best, only have short-term applicability. To guide any complex system in a particular direction requires ongoing analysis and intervention. And, of course, with the analyst being part of the complex system he seeks to affect, the notion of a “particular direction” will itself evolve. No room for long-term dogmatism here!
The event is deliberately called a “workshop” as number will be limited to no more than 20 participants. It is planned that the presentations given will be used as much as a source for further discussion as they are platforms for individual speakers to present their tools. As such, the bulk of the time will be set aside for structured discussion of the tools presented—and ideas for future tools.
An ISBN-referenced proceedings will be available in print shortly after the event (and available to non-participants on order—complementary copies will be provided for each workshop participant). A special issue of the journal Emergence: Complexity & Organization may also be produced depending on the number of submissions received. Paper submission is not a prerequisite for attendance, but authors of accepted papers will be given priority.
Please let us know of your interest in attending this event as soon as possible. Attendance at the event will be strictly limited to 20 so as to encourage genuine dialogue amongst participants – selection of attendees will be determined simply on a first-come first-served basis (with the additional consideration of paper relevance, of course).
A block of rooms will be reserved at the workshop hotel as soon as final arrangements are made, and a special rate negotiated. Specific location details will be provided shortly.
Extended abstracts of around 1000 words to be submitted to Dr. Kurt Richardson (firstname.lastname@example.org) by end of March, 2010—but please notify us of your interest as soon as possible.
The decision by the review board (comprised of members of the hosting organizations) invite submission of a full paper—to be no longer than 5000 words—will occur by end of April, 9, 2010. Please note that paper submission is not a pre-requisite for attendance, but that priority will be given to paper contributors.
Full papers to be submitted by end of June, 2010, to give enough time to prepare them for distribution to all participants before the event itself.
The cost of registration will be US $595 and must be paid in full at the time of final paper submission – a registration form will sent to participants after the decision regarding paper acceptance has been made. As well as administrative and location costs, fees will also cover lunch and coffee/tea breaks during the event as well as a dinner event at the close of the first day. Participants will be responsible for their own hotel costs.
If you would like to attend the workshop please send an email to Kurt Richardson (email@example.com) with the following information: name, affiliation and position (if any), address, phone, fax, and email. Kurt will contact you with further information regarding hotel confirmation and payment of workshop fees.
If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact Kurt.