Notes on Harnessing Complexity

Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier

I have been concerned by how technology is limiting openness, and I had argued margin writing as a way to enhance openness. Below is my margin writing and notes on the great introductory text on complexity.

Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier Robert Axelrod (Author), Michael D. Cohen (Author)

In determining strategies to intervene in systems to better its performance, reach, novelty, there are distinct questions that need to be asked based on the system types (Page 154).

Key questions asked if we assume systems are indeed complex can  be classified based on a framework will cover the fundamental processes of 1. variation 2. interaction and 3. selection.

The basic complexity framework leads to identify the following system elements to find out further processes that determine system evolution.

  1. Agents: An agent acts more or less purposefully and interacts with other agents, Agents have specific properties like location, capabilities, etc
  2. Strategies: Strategies are ways agent choose to deliberate actions (or as response) on its surroundings and towards its own purpose
  3. Success criterion: As strategies can change over time and will be modified by agents based on how well they are doing against certain measure of success
  4. Population: Population includes large numbers of agents as well as strategies. Populations serve as a means for learning about newer variations in strategies, or large groups of agents that can benefit from a strategy or simply as part of environment that the system operates. Most systems have populations of different types of agents and strategies
  5. Artifact: Objects that are used by agents to operate their strategies, they may have properties that are similar to agents like location or capabilities and specifically they may invoke a certain behavior from the agents. The key difference is they do not have a purpose on their own.

A system may be called complex if there are strong interactions between the elements listed above and current events continually influence future outcomes, there is change in both agents and strategies, and the population (and its parts) is adapting to better its performance in a continuous manner.

Social systems tend to behave as a complex systems so, to understand a social system we need to identify the elements above.

Agents may be  members in communities, local governing bodies, enabling bodies that deploy other agent strategies, etc.

Strategies may be routines followed by agents toward a purpose, certain norms that are in place governing the whole system, limits of certain actions, ideas that constantly come from the agents that takes them forward to the purpose.

Usually various labels are used to classify the agents and strategies.

To understand the entire system we need to understand the population of agents, its strategies and the artifacts that are purposed in the population in a continuous manner.

These act as both diagnostic and to provide direction to intervene in the system.

After we have identified the elements we need to identify the processes that create or destroy variety of agents and strategies in the system. There could be various opportunities that agents use to copy other strategies or there may be recombination of strategies.

The second part is identifying balance between variety and uniformity in the system. It may be successful for the system if agent level successful strategies are copied rapidly and the whole system benefiting from the copy. If a bad strategy is copied, or no opportunity to adapt by variation was provided in the system it may lead to system disaster.

This pattern of interaction between agents determine either exploitation of a single strategy at a larger scale or variation of strategies that lead toward exploration.

Interaction between agents or populations are triggered by multiple processes including simple following a signal or agents adopting what came in a neighborhood (physical or conceptual)

Measure of success differing at various scales necessitates the need for policy or guideline at the whole system level and hence influencing the outcomes that emerge from the system.


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