Cosmo Tech is renowned worldwide for its expertise in modeling and simulating complex systems and both its industry-validated approach to complexity and its augmented intelligence solutions for the C-suite build on this expertise to deliver value for clients. Yet Cosmo Tech is far from the only source of information about complex systems. Indeed, a growing library of popular science books tackle complexity, chaos, and the impact of decisions in a world that is becoming more interconnected every day.

Cosmo Tech Labs Modeler Margaret Edwards, Ph.D. has reviewed four recent titles in this space and her review is included below.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future, by Jeff Howe and Joi Ito
Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World, by Adam Grant
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, by Thomas Homer-Dixon

We live in a complex, interconnected, ever more dynamic world. In this changing world we are increasingly faced with the challenge of how to transform this complexity into opportunity and drive innovation. While many books aim to respond to this challenge, four recent titles in the popular innovation and science space go some way towards providing a rich context to this challenge while reflecting the cutting-edge scientific research that remains at the core of complexity science.

Though there is great diversity in approach and style between the books reviewed here, there are also some themes that emerge consistently and together in each of the four volumes. First, reality is complex and can be difficult to predict. Second, this complexity demands a willingness to seek out new resources and widen our perspectives. Thirdly, complexity represents an opportunity and not a threat for individuals, for businesses, and for humanity as a whole.

Complex Systems: Black and White?

Former stock trader and mathematician turned modern-day philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb developed the concept of the Black Swan in the concept’s eponymous book. The concept of the black swan earned its name from the conceptual disruption that followed the discovery of the first black swan after centuries of the widely held assumption that all swans were white. More than just a simple update of natural science, the book pinpoints the limits of human knowledge based only on past observation alone.

Similar to the abrupt change in thinking that followed the discovery of the first black swan, who would have foreseen the impact of computers, the internet, and smartphones before they first emerged on the market. Today we can barely imagine our lives without these now-essential tools, which influence in some truly fundamental ways not only our social lives but also our economies and politics, too.

This book, in part inspired by Mandelbrot’s research on uncertainty and randomness, uses matter-of-fact examples of how misleading it can prove to be trying to predict reality’s complexity by mapping it with inappropriately simple patterns despite whatever false reassurance might be found there. By missing some of the most essential elements, the complexity becomes overwhelming. However, while admitting to the scientific challenges of predicting complex systems, Taleb also highlights, particularly when complexity is anticipated and leveraged, how changes can turn into opportunities.

Whip Up Excellence

Joi Ito, the Director of the MIT Media Lab, and Jeff Howe, a well-known writer in the innovation space, joined forces to write Whiplash, a book that proposes new ideas with which to ride the wave of the a faster, ever-changing world. The authors explore the implications of moving from a rigid, static, top-down perspective and the associated norms of behaviour towards an always more adaptive, complex and collective intelligence, something that has often proven a winner in nature’s competitive game of evolution. The authors outline ten principles that help the reader to open themselves to new perspectives, and these ten can be grouped into three main tracks:

  • First, people should widen perspectives and see the dynamism of a complex system as an opportunity, not a threat.
  • Second, people should embrace the changing complex system and so move from the static to the dynamic, and from the known past to prospects for and perspectives on the future.
  • Third, people should aim to learn, to optimize, and to adapt. The goal should be to embrace the compass and not the map, so to speak: the former offers endless possibility, the latter only frames the known.

For those who embrace the dynamism of complexity there are benefits to be had and profits to be made. Our rapidly evolving and increasingly interconnected world will reward those who accept its underlying complexity and leverage it for the good of themselves, their companies, and others.

The Original Upside of Down

In his award winning and bestselling book Originals, Adam Grant offers real-life examples of the benefits of taking a creative approach in both management and business. He argues that everyone can contribute to creative solutions, shows how groups can encourage creative thinking, and how people can transform interconnected complex systems into advantages to businesses willing to embrace that complexity.

A similar perspective is adopted by Thomas Homer-Dixon in his book The Upside of Down. The professor and Director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies argues that creativity and its embrace can lead to fundamental transformations at the global level.

Where Grant sees benefits for individuals and small groups, Homer-Dixon reminds the reader that these small changes can lead to important national and even international impacts, too. As a result, it offers yet another reason to continue investigating this emerging field of science and – along with the other books reviewed here – highlights the potential and powerful implications of embracing complexity.

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