Noah Raford – Collapse Dynamics: Phase Transitions in Complex Social Systems

Posted: July 25, 2010 in Complexity, Overshoot & Collapse
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Embedded below (viewable in browser) is a video recording of a guest lecture given by Noah Raford @ The London School of Economics & Political Science.  Raford is a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  The presentation (1st & 2nd parts of video + slideshare embedded below) discusses the work of various complexity theorists including Perrow, Sornnette, Tainter, Gunderson & Holling, and the late-maverick jet fighter turned military strategist – John Boyd.

The key take-aways I’ve gleaned from this important piece of work were as follows (quotes & paraphrasing)

1.  Phase-transitions occur when an interactive system crosses a critical threshold and flips into an alternate state of organization – the idea of multiple stable states

2. As systems grow in complexity & connectedness, the probability of cascading failures increase.  Complexity is a function of: many interactive parts, tightly coupled functions, human incomprehensibility, and stochastic escalation

3. The more complicated a system, especially one involving automation, optimization, and human oversight, the more likely it is to fail.  Tight optimization in a dynamic environment is bad.

4. “Stock market crashes are caused by a slow build-up of long-range correlations leading to a global cooperative behaviour of the market and eventually ending in a collapse in a short, critical time interval”.  Key aspects include: individual behaviour percolates through-out the system, the less successful players imitate the more successful players, imitative behaviour intensifies as connectedness of markets increase, and finally a crash.

5.  “any social system in which individuals have some inclination to conform with their peers, and in which the population is not very heterogeneous, may undergo a phase transition.”

6. The greater the degree of heterogeneity in an interactive system, the more resistant it is to collapse.  Connectivity + conformity = instability.  Diversity + partial connectivity is good.

7.  Collapse, which is a defined by Tainter as a rapid reduction in the level of socio-political complexity happens because initially, the low hanging fruits of a civilization (resources) are plucked, and the level of complexity required to manage those resources yields considerable positive benefits.  But, as complexity increases, solutions require more and more investment, organization, and especially energy.   Eventually, the investments in complexity begin to yield a negative return.  But the entrenched complexity leads to organizational “lock-in”, reduced adaptability, and lowered capital reserves – making the system much more vulnerable to shocks.

8.  Complexity comes at a costs, it’s hard to turn back once you’ve got it, and it’s value decreases the more of it you have.  Expensive rigidity makes you more vulnerable to collapse.

9. Complex systems to regenerate themselves.  Gunderson & Holling’s work on the adaptive cycle of change is a model that explains this systemic evolutionary cycle.  “Resilience is a function of a socio-economic system to withstand pertubration without flipping to alternative states.”  Key aspects: the science of tipping points, nature is not stochastic, but bounded, humans exist as a part of a complex open system, the behaviour of the system is determined by the way it interacts with toehr systems and other scales of change.

10.  Multistable states are common in many systems.  It is impossible to predict where the tipping points are until too late (interactive complexity).  Functional diversity builds resistance.  Management must cope with surprise and uncertainty.

11.  John Boyd (maverick jet fighter turned military strategist) presents a strategic model for comprehending, coping & adapting with a bewilderingly complex and constantly changing world.  Namely, the “O-O-D-A Loop” – an iterative process of observation, orientation, decision & action.

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Additional Resources:

Follow-on Interview b/w Noah Raford & Jason Bradford.″

Q&A Session @ Raford’s LSE Lecture – (link)

Noah Raford’s Website (link)

Noah Raford’s Twitter Feed (link)

  1. […] – Collapse Dynamics – Phase Transitions in Complex Social Systems (link) […]

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