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Collapse Dynamics: Phase transitions in complex social systems
(video and slides)
Noah Raford, London School of Economics via “Bucky-Gandhi Design Institute”

Phase transition occurs when an interactive system crosses a critical threshold and flips into an alternate state of organisation. (Slide 10)

Are there any similarities between these kinds of phase transitions, what do we know about them, particularly negative ones (collapse), and what can this teach us about how to deal with them? (Slide 22)

Perrow – Normal accident theory
Sornette – Stock market crashes and social phase transitions
Tainter – Sunk costs, diminishing returns, and the collapse of complex civilisations
Gunderson / Holling – Theory of adaptive change
(Slide 23)

Perrow – Normal Accidents
As technical systems grow in complexity and connectedness, the probability of cascading faioures increase.
A function of
1. Many interactive parts
2. Tightly coupled function
3. Beyond human comprehension
4. Stochastic escalation
(Slide 24)

The more complicated a system, especially one involving automation, optimisation and human oversight, the more likely it is to fail. Tight optimisation in a dynamic environment is bad. (Slide 27)

The greater the degree of heterogeneity in an interactive system, the more resistant it is to collapse. Connectivity + conformity = instability. Diversity and partial connectivity is good. (Slide 38)
(26 May 2009)
“Highly recommended” says Post Carbon fellow Jason Bradford.

How Will Knowledge of Collapse Impact Collapse?

Nate Hagens, The Oil Drum: Campfire
I just watched an excellent and thought provoking lecture by Noah Raford at London School of Economics (hat tip Jason Bradford):

Collapse Dynamics

The lecture was about various examples in nature, financial markets and civilizations where previously correlated patterns were eventually sharply disrupted by small critical changes leading to phase transitions. We’ve had essays on the failure of networked systems, the history and future of collapse, and similar topics on TOD before, but while watching the 2 video lectures, I started to wonder: what impact does detailed knowledge of collapse dynamics have on collapse dynamics? This is the topic of tonight’s Campfire.

Some summarizing points from the lecture itself (little new to readers here but if pressed for time, I’d rather you watch the video than read this post):

==>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).

==>(From Didier Sornettes “Why Stock Markets Crash”):

“…stock market crashes are caused by a slow build-up of long range correlations leading to global cooperative behaviour of the market eventually ending in a collapse in a short time interval.

1. Individual behavior percolates throughout the system
2. Successful traders set examples for non-successful ones, who then imitate their actions and behaviour
3. Imitative behaviour then intenstifies as markets become more connected.
4. Leading to a crash”

(I think the above is interesting if we substitute ‘society’ for ‘market’ and ‘citizens’ for ‘traders’.)

==>Complexity comes at a cost, it’s hard to turn back once you’ve got it, and it’s value decreases the more of it you have (Tainter).

==> (Based on Panarchy – Gunderson/Holling)
*Multiple states are common in many systems
*It is impossible to predict where tipping points are until it’s too late (interactive complexity)
*Functional diversity builds resistance
*Management must cope with surprise and uncertainty

==>Take Home Message:
* Stay light
* Stay smart
* Experiment
* Learn quickly
* Keep multiple options open

Though all these are topics worthy of discussion themselves, I’d like to throw the following line of questions to tonights Campfire:
(20 June 2009)

Again social evils haunt Britain. Do we still have the spirit to thwart them?

Madeleine Bunting, Guardian
Opinion is divided on the reasons for this unease. But the scale of the plight could yet spark a revival of community defiance

… There seems a remarkable degree of consensus on a definition of today’s social evils. Individualism is top, closely linked to greed and the decline in community; also part of the definition is a sense of decline in values and a deterioration of virtues such as honesty, ­empathy, respect and reciprocity. ­Family breakdown and poor parenting feature, as do misuse of drugs and alcohol, ­inequality and democratic deficit.

… In particular, what has gone unaccounted is the crucial role women used to play in sustaining neighbourliness – they were around, at home, often with children – and connecting people within communities. Julia Unwin, the JRF’s chief executive says: “Every community regeneration project I’ve ever seen has been driven ultimately by women residents from the bottom.” It’s the same insight that Barack Obama arrived at in his work as a community organiser in the depressed neighbourhoods of Chicago. This is a difficult issue: most people recognise and appreciate the benefits of women having economic independence and the freedom that gives them to leave abusive, unhappy marriages and to shape their own lives, but there is a deep ambivalence at the cost.
(14 June 2009)

Machiavelli’s Insight

Ray Grigg, Courier-Islander (Canada)
“The human tragedy,” wrote Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), “is that circumstances change, but man does not.”

Machiavelli, of course, is known for writing The Prince, a 16th century treatise on political strategy. It continues to engender uneasiness because its methodical description of how to gain and keep power still feels both disturbing and true. His ideas somehow managed to blend pessimism and realism into a message that warns and illuminates even today. Honesty, it seems, must journey through discomfort to reach insight.

… Time and circumstances do not seem to have altered our human character despite the unprecedented changes that are happening around us these days. Indeed, if Machiavelli could sense this steadfast attribute of humanity five hundred years ago, then he would be awestruck by juxtaposing our collective character with the incredible changes presently underway. Even though he was alive in a time of considerable energy and excitement, that change is dwarfed by the speed and scope of the change enveloping us now. By almost every conceivable measure, we live in a world of cataclysmic upheavals. And yet our human character still seems fixed on being itself, plodding steadily into the rapidly emerging future with a dull innocence that is strangely incongruous and alarming.

Many modern thinkers are now beginning to consider this incongruity.

And it alarms them when they weigh our stolid propensity to be our stubborn selves against the formidable tasks that the changing world is demanding of us. Thomas Homer Dixon, author of The Ingenuity Gap and innumerable other thoughtful writings, almost beseeches us to awaken to the multiple challenges we must confront.

… And this is just a meagre sampling of the many thinkers who are urging radical and immediate corrections to the course of our collective behaviour if we are to avert a global environmental catastrophe within the next few decades. The desperation in the tone of their warnings has increased tenfold over the last couple of years. Impatience, exasperation, panic and incredulity are now their discernible responses to a public that is largely indifferent to the mounting dangers. Perhaps their position is nicely summarized by Guy Dauncey, a BC [British Columbia] environmentalist, author and lecturer who, despite being extremely well-informed on these issues, persists in being an optimist about our prospects. In his EcoNews publication (June 2009), his optimism falters and his English propriety lapses when he writes, “Among those who are close to the climate science, the depth of the trouble we are in is enough to make you want to shit your pants. The general public has no idea how severe the looming emergency is, and — judging by the BC election — nor do most politicians.”
(19 June 2009)