I like complexity. I like simplicity. I think the world is infinitely complex; it can’t be boiled down to seven equations or even seventy million. At the same time, simplicity makes the world manageable, it’s a way of grasping reality. Think about it this way: we have five fingers. They allow us to grasp objects that are of the order of a centimeter. It would be great if we had fractal fingers that we could whip out to grasp microscopic objects and retract back when not needed. Unfortunately, we don’t. As our bodies go, so do our minds. We can only cognize entities at a certain scale. We have invented powerful mental technologies — mathematics, meditation, programs — that help us manage complexity. There’s a learning curve to these mental interfaces but it’s worth the effort, since there’s enormous value in the ability to engage with complexity.

However, we face a collective dilemma. The low-hanging fruit are gone — I don’t think science is over, but I do think that sciences that look for simple, deep explanations are tottering. It’s a cognitive problem: we have reached the limits of thought that can be cognized with paper and pencil (P&P henceforth) alone. I don’t mean P&P literally; I mean problems that can be solved with the symbolic repertoire that paper and pencil have enabled; that includes screen technologies as long as the mental interface is based on the P&P paradigm.

Apple, meet Orange

There’s an urgency to these thoughts, for I have been working with some friends in creating a centre for public problem solving. The goal of that centre is to bring scientists, policy makers, politicians, technologists, social scientists and citizens together to address complex problems that beset human society.

Consider garbage. Some of you might know that Bangalore has a garbage problem. We have been dumping our trash on neighboring villages for many years. They don’t want that anymore. They would rather we took our garbage elsewhere. We don’t have alternative land for landfills. Composting and solid waste management practices haven’t taken off as much as we would like. At the same time, there’s a huge trucking and transportation mafia that benefits from collecting and transporting trash to these godforsaken locations.

Distributed Collaboration

In other words, we have a problem. There’s no app for it. We need an array of interventions: fresh technological ideas, political will, behavior change, citizen pressure and so on. At it’s core is a system of collaboration that distributes tasks among a disparate group of agents performing qualitatively different functions.

Collaboration is common in the software world. Everyone uses version control systems for software development. It’s even possible to divide a large project into modules performing distinct functions. Modular design is a good strategy for engaging with complexity. Unfortunately, garbage doesn’t play well with modular design. It might in Germany, but it certainly doesn’t in India.

So we are where we started, with a stinking mess that calls for design thinking that can’t be sourced from Ideo. Apples and oranges will have come together in a fruit salad.

This Week’s Links

  1. John Maeda on Simplicity.

  2. The Facebook page for our new centre for public problem solving.

  3. An interesting article about applying architectural principles to product design. I wonder if we can borrow architectural ideas for complex systems design in general. Not urban planning. Something more technical with tools that can be manipulated on a screen.