A piece in yesterday’s New Scientist titled ‘Can Complexity Theory Explain Egypt’s Crisis?’ explores ideas of complexity in the context of the ongoing events in Egypt. It draws on the insights of two noted complexity thinkers – Yaneer Bar-Yam and Thomas Homer-Dixon. Excerpts are reproduced below with permission:
Egyptians are the world’s biggest wheat importers and consumers, and most are poor. As a result, the government maintains order with heavy subsidies for bread. It also runs the ports where imported wheat arrives, the trucks that haul it, the flour mills and bakeries…
[Such systems] are fine so long as the top of the hierarchy is in place, and can recover quickly. But take the top away – as is happening in Egypt – and the entire system risks collapse.
The early signs of this are showing. Bread is getting scarce in Egypt’s capital, Cairo. Bakeries are closing for lack of flour… Imported wheat is sitting in ports as cranes and lorries stand idle. The interlocking dependencies that tie modern economies together spread dislocation further. Even where there is food, Egyptians have little money to buy it, as businesses and banks close, cash machines empty and wages dry up…
…The stresses of decades of dictatorship might have turned the entire Middle East into a “self-organised critical system”… The build-up of stresses makes such systems vulnerable to cascades of change triggered by relatively small disruptions…
The key argument of the article is that a hierarchical system (like the Egyptian government) facing a dynamic and interconnected problem is – in the extreme – prone to catastrophic collapse.
Regular Aid on the Edge of Chaos readers will know that this resonates strongly with previous reflections on this blog. The growing interconnectedness between finance, fuel and food systems was the focus of a recent piece exploring the ‘Globalisation of Vulnerability’. The maladaptive nature of organisational and governance systems in the face of change have also been covered on numerous occasions, including in a piece on ‘History on the Edge of Chaos’.
Without a doubt the most astonishing feature of the unfolding events in Egypt has been the leaderless, self-organised, networked movement that emerged and managed to maintain a peaceful and resilient presence – despite the efforts of the pro-Mubarak contingents.
As well as insights into collapse, complexity science can tell us something about how such movements happen, and give insights into the dynamic social processes that play out. It can tell us something about resilience in the face of oppression. It gives insights into the information and communication networks that feed and shape a movement. The ideas of complex adaptive systems can help us learn more about emergent collective action, and – through this – about how beliefs are reinforced, about how passion is shared and about how courage builds.
And – as we have seen repeatedly since January 25th – cascading, unpredictable change can have a profoundly human face.
Complexity science does more just than provide new ways to theorise descent, freefall and collapse. It can also help further our understanding of what human beings are capable of achieving. As Thomas Homer-Dixon, mentioned above, put it in the title of his book: there is an Upside to Down.