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Complexity, Leadership and Policy Making: A New Hope?

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The 17th century gave humans a new set of eyes with the invention of the microscope. The pioneers who built these lenses allowed us, for the first time, to see the world of the very small. Their vision -- then ridiculed by the scientific community -- nevertheless changed our world and resulted in miraculous discoveries of microbiology and how our bodies function. And yet, understanding the inner workings of a human body is not sufficient to understand an individual's behavior. And it is certainly not enough to understand the collective nature of social beings.

Think about the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement. Do you know how and why these events even occurred and how they impacted the state of the world, each in their own way? The socio-economic context, interconnectedness, interdependence, and a great variety of other reasons are advanced as theories. Yet, explaining the emergence of these collective behaviors is very hard, more complicated. But if things were merely complicated, the life of people in charge would be simple. As we can tell, life is not simple for leaders. Why? Because the world is not a complicated system: it is a highly complex one that most institutions and people in charge are not yet properly equipped to handle.

Fortunately there is a new lens to help us understand these strange patterns of behavior, a form of "human macroscope." That lens is the science of complex systems, simply applied. It gives us the power to understand how small and large numbers of 'things', be they people, cars in traffic, or actors in a financial system, interact and create dynamic patterns of behavior. These coordinating patterns occur frequently, at all levels of observation, from neurons firing in the brain to a crowd acting in unison. And like all complex systems, predicting collective patterns is anything but simple. This is because there is no direct, linear and unequivocal relationship between individual and collective behaviors.

We believe that people should stop thinking that a linear approach, where a leader, or group of leaders, decides what regulation or safeguards, should be used to solve a crisis. Linearity is not enough to understand our world and try to solve its problems. It simply does not work. Looking at a crowd, for instance, we might feasibly know the individual behavior of each person, each component of the system. We might even be able to determine the interactions of some of these components. But, crucially, we cannot predict with any certainty what the outcomes will be. At least not with the linear models most leaders have been trained to use.

We have a new awareness of complexity and interconnectivity. We are just starting to comprehend the profound impact these two factors exert on our world. If people in charge think they can control financial markets, the Internet, or crowds, thanks to linear strategies such as classical regulations, incentives, chains of command or orders, they are merely on the highway to failure.

Whether it be ruling a country, or running an organization, we should stop thinking linearly, relying exclusively on top-down strategies. In our global, interconnected economy, the opening created by freedom to think, to express oneself, to share information at high speed, exposes the risks that old-style leaders may be marching towards irrelevance. Linearity is obsolete. May it rest in peace. Whether linear thinking ever properly explained the past is open for debate, a debate that linear thinkers would lose instantly were it not for the pleasant benefit of post-hoc rationalization of events.

This does not mean that policy makers and agents of change are powerless in this complex world; the toolset is different. The outcomes are more unpredictable. Thankfully the scale of success can be dramatically improved on historic linear thinking as complex systems themselves are not random: patterns always emerge. These self-organized patterns could be seen as guided by an invisible hand, but they appear through heuristics or 'rules of thumb' applied by individuals within the complex system, and in the interactions themselves. There is no form of top-down decision-making: there is no 'ghost in the machine'. On the contrary. Not only can we not find a ghost, but we cannot create a ghost to manipulate, control or even regulate the complex system.

As the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum is about to open in Davos (Switzerland) on January 25, there is a palpable sense of urgency given how ineffective most of the current policy strategies are turning out to be, and hence a need to look at the world through the lens of complexity. This would help understand what is happening in the diverse worlds we inhabit, and begin to provide us with more predictive capability. Then, drawing on developments in our knowledge of heuristics, and the creation of patterns, perhaps we can begin to steer the 'system' towards better quality outcomes, for the betterment of everybody.

Properly addressing complexity has become a prerequisite for growth to both explain events, and to help guide strategists and policy makers in leveraging its attributes. This highlights today's major challenge: if we are to face the world of complexity openly, and harness its great power, we need to be educated, particularly government and business leaders, on the world of complex, adaptive, interconnected and interdependent systems.

A true innovator, the World Economic Forum has sensed this necessity. This year at Davos, complexity is likely to be the true star of the event: for the first time, some of the world leaders in complex systems -- ranging from theorists to experts in ecosystems or even neuroscientists -- will interact with global leaders in a series of public and private sessions. Advocates of the science of complexity could not have dreamt of a better platform to showcase how their work can help design more efficient policy and improve the state of the world. As we head to Switzerland, we are hoping that Davos will once again set the pace, and many governments and institutions will then embrace the science of complexity in policy making. If they do so, there is hope for a novel kind of policy making that would dynamically and rapidly evolve and match the changes in context. A kind of "adaptive governance" that will require us to start designing laws, incentives, regulations or safeguards that have the same self-organizing principles than the complex systems they are meant to deal with.

The microscope unarguably forever changed our understanding of biology, life and growth -- in all their forms. The world will never be the same once great leaders open their eyes to see the world through the human microscope provided by the pioneers of the science of complexity.

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About the Authors

Olivier Oullier, Ph.D, is a full Professor of behavioral and brain sciences at Aix-Marseille University (France), a research associate at the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences and a 2011 Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. He heads the "Neuroscience and public policy" program, a unique initiative in charge of evaluating the benefits of insights from psychology, behavioral economics, complex systems and neuroscience in designing more efficient strategies to improve people's health and well-being (www.emorationality.com).

Mark Turrell is the founder and CEO of marketing and strategy agency, Orcasci, an Associate Professor at Hult International Business School, and a 2010 Young Global Leader (www.orcasci.com).