If you keep even a passing eye on the news then I’m sure you’ll agree that the world is full of complex problems in need of solutions.
I’ve read about the complex problems pilots face in fighting the Islamic State, the complex problem of child homelessness in Seattle, the complex problem of child care in the United States, the complex problem of policing in Poland, the complex problem of social media bullying on Instagram, and the complex problem of violent extremism in Somalia.
In the political realm, a search of the speeches, statements, and press conferences of the Trump administration, for example, reveals different times when the White House has labeled something a “complex problem”.
A similar search for the office the British Prime Minister reveals six times the phrase “complex problem” has been used by 10 Downing Street since 2012, and the term has been used again and again to describe challenges in the post-Brexit UK by everyone from The Wall Street Journal to The Telegraph to Baron Taverne in a House of Lords debate.
It seems that complex problems are everywhere – but where are the solutions to these problems?
In many cases the solutions either don’t exist or, where they do, are mostly or entirely ineffective.
Take the complexity of warfare against the Islamic State. While it is true that the challenges a pilot might face in 2016 seem new, soldiers have been facing complex battlefield situations since the invention of warfare. Child homelessness and child care in the United States are indeed complex issues, but they are neither new issues nor have potential solutions never been suggested. Policing in Poland and extremism in Somalia are complex problems, but then again they have always been complex problems. And bullying on social media, just like bullying in the schoolyard or at the office, is a problem that has always existed in one form or another despite consistent attempts to address it.
It’s these attempts to address complex problems with simple solutions that, I think, concerns me most – and the reason why is obvious.
There’s a reason that you cannot solve bullying on social media or in the playground by passing a rule forbidding bullying, and there’s a reason why providing more homes won’t by itself address the problem of homelessness. The simple yes-no choice offered to the people of the United Kingdom in the Brexit referendum belied the incredible complexity inherent in the choice to either leave or remain in the European Union. And, when it comes to fighting IS, simple solutions like ‘bomb them back to the Stone Age’ are almost singularly ineffective at diminishing the group’s influence.
Simple solutions to complex problems fail because a complex problem demands you start by admitting that complexity exists.
The best way to tackle a complex problem is not to break it down into smaller, more easily managed pieces. Doing so ignores the important interconnections between these pieces and the system effects that emerge when those interconnections generate their own impacts on the wider system. Taking a complex system apart until we find a piece of the problem we can solve means that only that piece is ever addressed – and the unintended consequences that come from only solving a small part of the problem might negate any progress made, anyway.
Instead, we should start by considering the system as a whole. We can describe it, explain how the different parts of the system work together, how each part is connected to the other parts, and what impacts changes in one part have on other parts.
We can then build ourselves a model and start asking the sorts of ‘what happens if…?’ questions that will help us address the complex problem we’re facing.
- What happens to child homelessness if we improve family support in the first two years of life?
- What happens to the demand for child care if the working week is capped at just 35 hours?
- What happens to strength of the Islamic State if we shift our focus from air to ground attacks?
- What happens to the UK economy if Brexit is delayed by a year, or by two years?
Once we have mapped and modeled a complex system, we have the power to run these ‘what happens if…?’ simulations and determine the optimal decision to take.
There’s enormous transformational social, political, and economic value in solving complex problems, but we can neither model or simulate any of these complex systems unless we first admit that complexity exists.