Complexity and size

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Smaller isn’t less complex

Globalisation is a complex system, that is itself interconnected with other complex systems (financial, geo-political, social, etc.). Ten years ago, back when I lived in France, I remember shopping in a local supermarket store. As any good french (playing on stereotypes), I wanted to buy some onions, but to my surprise, when reading the label I realised these came from a faraway country: Chile. I wondered, how comes that in France, we have to bring onions from South America? In France?! Onions?! From Chile?! Not only the onion travelled further on the planet than I ever did (and I travelled reasonably before), but it didn’t make sense for an onion to be grown so far away! Moreover, it wasn’t an expensive onion, so I questioned how much was actually going to the chilean farmer, what was his/her situation, what was the country’s situation, how onions were transported, etc. I couldn’t find any logical explanation to why this would be a better idea for everyone to have onions imported from that far rather than local production. Afterall, onions are robust, they can grow almost anywhere and require little maintenance. 

The problem actually comes from the interconnection between the local economy and the global economy. Before the 1970’s, you didn’t have any supermarkets in France, what you had was local convenience stores, butcheries, bakeries, local market, grocery stores, etc. But, since the end of the second world war, the borders between countries started to open up. With a big push after the risk of nuclear war threatened Humanity in the 1960’s, the world was suddenly getting smaller as if nothing couldn’t be at reach. Our means of transportation was getting so cheap to perform, and most people thought that oil was still almost unlimited (climate change wasn’t a thing back then), that countries started to export and import basic goods and commodities. It is in fact, cheaper to grow an onion in Chile than in France today. If you take into consideration the price for the land and water, paying the people who will cultivate this (with a difference in taxes), and the cost to conform installations and environment safety to the norms, you end up actually spending less money on just producing the onion. 

But it was all an illusion. The world wasn’t getting smaller, it was only a perception because it took suddenly half of the time to reach a destination by plane thanks to the rocket engine. So, time is thought to be compressed and therefore shortens our perception of distances. In reality, what happened is that the world was getting more and more complex as connections were made, and ended-up shaping overtime as this vast network of exchange that forms what we know today as Globalisation. This increasing complexity turned Globalisation into a macro-organism that cannot survive without all it’s micro-parts moving in harmony like a clock. But it isn’t a clock, it is much bigger and much more complex than a clock. A clock can be worked by a single watchmaker expert as he/she knows what the problem is and how to solve it. If Globalisation was just as complex as a clock then we should be ok, but it isn’t. Globalisation is actually so big and interconnected that if something disturbs the system on one side, it will disconnect the chain, disrupting the system from functioning as intended. 

This is what we are seeing at play in Egypt, at the end of March 2021, a massive container-ship is accidentally blocking the Suez canal. A minor accident you would say, but give it enough time and this accident could harm dramatically the global economy and potentially initiate some geo-political conflicts. If the authorities manage to clear the immense boat then the impacts will be limited.

Bigger isn’t better 

The size of a complex system matters, so is the size of the things that constitute parts of such a system. Not only this event of the blocked Suez canal is disrupting the delivery of goods and commodities at a scale that it will in turns impact the global economy (already speculations are made on oil), but on a smaller scale, it was actually the simple fact a boat of 400 meters long, a mastodon longer than the width of the canal itself, disrupted the traffic of other gigantic container-ships about to engage in the canal, which is putting at risk the global economy and the livelihood of millions! If we wouldn’t have allowed boats that were no longer than half of the Suze canal width, a reduction of the traffic would have occurred instead of putting a halt to it for days. Like with the Titanic, one thinks large things tend to be less vulnerable. 

There is a form of “nonlinearity” with complex systems, that is to scale such systems you have to simplify its parts to the smallest function possible, meaning that if the system scale but doesn’t simplify itself as it goes then the system will break (the more interconnections, the more “rigid” is the system, preventing it to behave with fluidity, thus responding with agility to stressors). The largest organisms that ever lived on this planet are all extinct, with for example the dinosaurs or the prehistoric megafauna — mammoth, giant sloths and bears, teeth-sword tigers, etc. Some prehistorians and archeologists theorise that it was us, humans, who hunted to extinction these giant and truly frightening animals back then. But I will argue for such an event to have happened, it would have involved a huge amount of resources and organisation from humans for hunting the entire megafauna down! Not only this, but it will mean that prehistoric humans would have had the need for all the meat, leather and bones the world megafauna would have provided. Such theories don’t make sense and are now being replaced by more sensible ones involving more solid arguments in favor of a cosmic impact (smaller than the dinosaurs’ one but still harmful) leading to the disparition of most vegetation after a cloud of vapor covered the entire planet’s sky. Because large animals need a lot more food and to find larger shelter, most of them probably died in the aftershock of the impact from hunger and cold (so was probably our largest close relative, Neanderthal).

In the opposite fate, smaller animals had greater chances of survival to dramatic events. We’ve seen this in evolution, with the giant dinosaurs being wiped out, it was the rise of mammals, who were parts of the smaller animals living back then. Ever wondered why what we call nuisible animals are hard to get rid of? Maybe it’s because they are small, they can hide in tiny spaces away from harmful events or products, they are resourceful, resilient, and they can satisfy their hunger on a few crumbs left and they multiply fast, which helps next generations to grow stronger quickly.

But we are no mices, we could have thought twice before engaging ourselves into an unstoppable race toward growth. 

Don’t Spread Thin: Sub Focus

Now that we have seen that large and complex systems are more exposed to “nonlinearity”, meaning that the bigger they will become the more harm risks to be done to them if something goes wrong, we have to also understand another dimension to the distinction between one large thing and a multitude of small things.

Imagine you work on a project. You have a fixed amount of resources allocated, you have an incompressible two weeks time to complete it and suddenly the scope increases. There are new requirements that weren’t expected and you can’t ask for more resources, neither change the deadline all in the name of efficiency (“we want more but we are paying the same” type of approach). What do you do? Well, you work your *ss off day and night to try to fit everything, making you spread really thin on the project. The problem is that your attention at work is spread thin too, not to add that the lack of sleep drastically decreases your attention (it has a “nonlinear” effect, the first nights without sleep are ok, but as you move on with this routine you will get exponentially worse). At the end, you will perhaps deliver everything required, but without the same quality as if you could have had more resources or time to focus.

The bias here is that you don’t have to do it all. What if this project is actually a multitude of small parts and tactics, some more beneficial to the success of your project (must have) than others (nice to have). The solution lies in identifying what are the smallest things you can do within your set of constraints. If you now have a list of small things to do, you can then start organising them accordingly to their outcoming benefits. In short, you reduce the volatility of your situation, and minimise the risk of delivering nothing, by focusing on the key pieces of work to deliver, that will make an impact, you now have a much more manageable goal. Like with the blocked Suez canal, by building bigger boats that could carry even more goods, wrongly thinking it was more efficient like this, we made our system more vulnerable to small errors. Instead, we should avoid putting all our eggs in the same basket, by having lots of small units we can divide the risk and therefore minimise the harm. Today, we hear this slogan that says “think globally, act locally”, I believe that it can apply to all large and complex systems if one wants to remove the fragility of such systems. 

If you have a collection of subunits (smallest functional parts of your system) that are autonomous, but all come together to serve a greater cause, then you have an antifragile complex system that could strive. 

But, if you start removing the fluidity of the subunit layer by imposing a rigid structure, then you create the conditions for compounding small errors into a big harm.