When confronted with a problem, our education tells us to sort through all of the information given, identify what is relevant, clarify what is known and unknown, develop an appropriate problem-solving strategy, and then apply the accepted laws, functions, and equations to arrive at a solution. When the problem is more complex, we are to spend more time eliminating extraneous information, clarifying and organizing the knowns and unknowns, the causes and effects, and developing a clear strategy to arrive at a defensible solution. When the problem is very messy, we are driven to get rid of as much extra information as possible, separating the wheat from the chaff, and to zero in on a rational explainable solution.
We are reassured by this approach because we find unknowns, complexity, and uncertainty uncomfortable and even intolerable. We prefer simple understandable solutions even when we know they can’t be complete or perhaps even correct.
Rational problem-solving approaches that yield simple solutions cannot address the complexities of the technical world we have created, especially as it interfaces with the natural world. For example, I doubt many people asked the question “How will plate tectonics impact British auto workers in 2011?” If we did, our rational problem-solving approach could not have yielded the answer. As we now know, however, a shift in tectonic plates caused the earthquakes and tsunami that damaged the nuclear power plant in Japan which shut down numerous Japanese manufacturing facilities, including an auto parts plant, which in turn led to work suspension an auto manufacturing facility in the UK that depends on parts from Japan.
How do we predict such consequences in a complex dynamic world and protect ourselves from them? The answer is that we don’t – we don’t take the predict-and-protect rational problem-solving approach. We need to change how we view problems and the systems in which we operate. We need to relax our need for certainty, expand our comfort zone to accept unknowables, and focus instead on resilience, adaptability, and transformability. This is how nature has successfully managed complexity and unpredictability for billions of years. We can learn from nature and apply nature’s strategies to our human challenges.
[This blog was inspired by the article “We’ve made a world we cannot control” by Branden R. Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz, New Scientist magazine 14May2011]