Peer Learning Network

A Letter about Complexity

Dear Dibyendu,

Thank you for sharing the challenges of Complexity you’ve encountered in your work. I greatly appreciate your observations. To further my independent studies in Systems Thinking I’ve picked up a tool called Pattern Dynamics. The pattern language contains an eloquent set of symbols which are multifaceted, and overlapping in ways that reveal the interconnected dynamics of systems. It also places a strong emphasis on sustainability.

What you said about our need for a balanced view of complexity that includes both humanities and science made me think of Pattern Dynamics. Tim Winton, the founder of PD, suggests it’s important we notice how culture shapes our understandings, beliefs, and values because they’re ultimately what create meaning in our social systems. So when you speak of humanities and science both playing an equal role in Complexity, I believe you are correct.  Especially because both will be needed if we are to adapt to environmental shifts.

I thought it would be prudent to begin applying Pattern Dynamics to a post you shared on Complexity. You made it clear that Complexity is not a single body of knowledge like Physics or Economics or Philosophy, yet it often slants to the ‘scientific’ approach through the stringent application of Mathematics. As you’ve pointed out, these rigorous scientific experiments tend to select variables, or parameters which only behave as expected under specified conditions.

In PD, the Complexity Pattern is considered an aspect of Structure.  It’s described as “the number of unique elements and the number of connections between them.” It’s about the “structuring of relationships” and the capacity to make the connections between elements manageable.

In Nemetics, we’ve come to visualize such relationships as strings. Certain organizations may have a ridged structure that fails to bend in the direction these strings would naturally flow and so they’re prone to all kinds of disturbances. I’m agreeing that we’re often missing the the key role creativity plays in managing complexity.  Creativity nurtures the fluidity of strings while also strengthening their relations.  The complexity of organizational structures should our need for healthy adaptations.  What Nemetics and Pattern Dynamics can lend to Complexity is a kind of creative engagement with the systems that would adapt.

Backing up, you described a flaw in how engineers tend to observe the movement of individual trajectories alone, when they should first look toward the entire ensemble of objects, parameters and variables. The trajectory of the ensemble, as you’ve eloquently put it, “plays in unison and harmony under its own operating conditions – “not conditions specified by us.” The opportunity for us is to perceive the interconnecting patterns in a new light. I’m inspired by your description of this:

“It is something like watching a wave rise up at the beach as if to greet us. At that time we are not even trying to see individual strands of water. Well that is impossible. We are seeing the movement of the whole wave as such where the trajectories of individual strands or strings of water combine to produce the entire wave form. In other words we are no longer interested in how a few variables/parameters will behave in different conditions. The conditions are given or as we might say self-created by the system itself – not by us.”

I recall something Tim said, “Patterns in Nature have a way of speaking to us.” So I’m wondering, what do the waves say? And if there are no straightforward tools, simple rules, laws, or theories that can isolate the potential trajectory of any one string in the wave,  how can we explore the greater dynamics at play?  I think your principles and  Pattern Dynamics can help.

Dibyendu, you’ve noted that the old approach of “Predict first, Explain later” isn’t working anymore.  Is that because those who make the predictions detach and isolate their observations from the greater whole?  Now if we “Explain first, Predict later,” as you say,  might we begin surfing upon those waves that we notice, rather than simply analyzing how each string determines their encompassing behavior?

Forgive me, I’m new to all of this, yet I thought it would smart to look closely at the blast furnace you’ve been examining.  I have no first hand knowledge of blast furnaces, but you’re description applied to Complexity in such a way I could give Pattern Dynamics a test.  The fact that the blast furnace is “totally unpredictable” makes it that much more interesting to contemplate what exactly is going on inside. You wrote:

“Let me explain the ‘transforming process’ that happens in a Blast Furnace. Imagine something like a big vertical stove of around 30 to 50 meters high. Hot air is admitted through the bottom of the stove. This hot air moves up the stove due to the pressure difference existing between the bottom and top of the stove (the bottom is at higher pressure than the top). This provides the energy to the system. From the top iron ore and coke are periodically fed into the stove. This mix, called a burden, takes time (around 6 hours for a mini blast furnace) to come down slowly over a distance of say 30 meters. As it descend through the air the iron ore and coke come together to form layers of rings. Meanwhile the coke starts burning as it interacts with the hot blast air. The heat from the coke melts the iron ore which at a particular stage transforms into a liquid. This molten iron is then tapped regularly from the bottom portion of the furnace ready to be transformed into other products.”

I then focused on the six fundamental principles of Complexity you observed in the blast furnace and related them to Patterns from PD.

1) You’ve said “all complex systems are ‘Transforming Processes’, which are non-linear and dynamic.” I understand this is not a “step by step process” and so realized it was akin to what PD is calls the Transformity Pattern. Transformity represents “a qualitative complexification, whereby matter/energy resources are systemically transformed into lesser amounts of matter/energy, with higher qualitative complexity.”  Do you think that makes sense?

2) The next principle involves the Energy required to sustain complex systems. Energy in also explored in PD, as a “measure of the foundational rhythmic vibration exerting a force on entities”. Also, Energy is a “movement”, as you’ve suggested, which when stopped makes complexity disappears entirely. As it’s admitted into a system it “spreads out to force different elements to interact.” Energy is a stimulating force for the various elements/entities which then triggers their interaction.

3.) The third principle, involves Interaction of different elements within a system, creating complexity. You’ve said that interactions can be “non-linear in nature” and in the case of the blast furnace this results in a “vortex effect” arising between the coke and hot air in the blast furnace. In PD terms I considered how interactions are an essential Exchange, or more specifically to Flow, which is seen as a “continuous emanation of a resource” that illustrates a variable but uninterrupted continuity of energy or resource from a generative source.” From the entry in Wikipedia on blast furnaces I read, “The downward flow of the ore and flux in contact with an upflow of hot, carbon monoxide-rich combustion gases is a countercurrent exchange process.” I think I’ve gotten close on this one, but it may be that multiple Patterns best describe this principle of Interaction.

4.) You wrote, “The elements in a complex system act in groups or ensembles.” It seems the particles of coke descend as a complex ensemble that exhibits group behavior, which I find interesting. I wondered we might say that the ensemble of particles constitutes a Holon. The Holon, is thought to demonstrate the role any system plays within another system, as well as within the whole itself. PD suggests that the focus on partness must be balanced with a focus on the wholeness of any system, which I think is the underlying premise of your principles. In any case, the structure of the Ensemble seems best represented by the Holon.

5.) Next we look at the movement in a complex system as initiated by “Authentic Constraints.” In PD, such constraints seem to be the Boundary which is said to demonstrate “the perimeter frame or border that defines a system and determines what may come into and what may go out of a system.” A Boundary is a resistance between Polarities, with various levels of permeability, that according to PD, allow the movement of elements into and out of the system, and must be balanced with the structural integrity which defines the system.

Now does this fit with your example from the blast furnace? You’ve mentioned that there is a pressure difference between the top and the bottom, that forces the hot blast of air to climb up while the the burden climbs down, owing to a potential difference. It’s the meeting point of resistance between the elements that reveal the Authentic Constraints, or define the Boundaries that balance the Flow of integration and dis-integration.

6.) Finally, you’ve pointed out Shapes that are byproducts of the Interaction. The Flow of coke with the hot blast “forms a spiral cone of coke through the vortex effect” which mathematically you’ve described as a ‘torus’. You add that this Shape results from the Principle of ‘sync’: “a uniform collective frequency and amplitude in a complex system”
PD describes Synchronisation as the “creative inter-meshing of elements and processes in time.” Although, this torus also seems to relate to the Field Pattern articulated in PD as “the shaping forces that, according to our current understanding, operate outside of known mechanistic space/time causality.” It is said that the Field illustrates “subtle resonant influences” that affect the nature of structural form. It may be that the Field arises from the patterns of Flow which best Sync with the Authentic Constraints, or Boundaries.

Now, as you’ve said, there can be some serious ‘slip ups’ in the blast furnace that often frustrate engineers. These unpredictable ‘glitches’ cause the burden to accelerate its downward movement and thus come out too quickly. It seems that no matter how much Order is engineered into a system, it is prone to slip out of equilibrium into momentary Chaos.  As the non-linear dance of this Polarity occurs, new “forms of behavior” are thought to emerge.

The Pattern of Emergence is an “appearance of a novel form through the recombination and creative fusion of previous forms.” It is said that the “emergence of novel forms must be balanced with the energy available for recombination and fusion.” The linear and predictable nature of a system operating with boundaries maintains the equilibrium we’d expect, but somehow the emergence “breaks the symmetry of time (where the past is not the same as the present) to create a new behavior or form on its own (technically know as self-organization).”

The complex structuring of time I see relating to the Pattern of Cadance in that it provides the “capacity for structural complexity [that] must be balanced with the need to keep the architecture of systemic rhythms simple and followable.” While it plays a role in providing “complex rhythmic programming” there can be disruptions in the Cadence of linearity. I’m wondering if that may due to the occasional Pulse of unexpected Interactions which then disrupts the ‘differences in fluctuation’ normally constituting the Boundary of equilibrium.

Cadance seems to ensure the Boundary maintains a level of permeability which is conducive with the Flow of Interactions. And when there is a sudden Pulse, the time symmetry breaks down to present a Bifurcation in the way Interactions would normally Flow. It’s as if a Holon suddenly decides the entire Field should readjust because of a small unfamiliar Pulse of Energy.

Let me back up and make sure what I’m saying make sense. First, you’ve said that a Bifurcation is when “the system opens up two possible paths to proceed”. You mention that the path taken cannot be predicted in advance with any degree of accuracy. In PD, Bifurcation is said to “demonstrate the limit at which the order and operation of a previous state of organisation breaks down, allowing new ordered states to emerge.” So I’m wondering if Pulses slip through the Boundary of a Holon, triggering the Flow of burden to fall out of Sync with its normal decent?

So I understand it’s difficult to measure all the variables that might cause the Bifurcation in the blast furnace. I’ve become curious we might practice these other means of listening to what a system wants and how we might then take “creative measures to make it flow in our desired direction or decide to flow with the system (adaptation) or create new directions (creation).” I’m including the simple points you suggest we attended to while listening to a system:

a) Pay close attention to the changes in behavior of the system.

b) Pay close attention to the difference in the fluctuations arising from the numerous interactions that go on in a complex system to note when these die out or when they amplify.

c) Change/Re-design, Maintain, Destroy the Energy content of the system, Constraints of the System or Damping of the system. These are the only ways to play with any creative, intelligent complex systems

By listening in this way I feel assured that I can better manage and predict in the short-term.  As you say, we are engaging “Complex Creative Processes” where often the past,  present and future converge and meld into one.  I often find this a bit overwhelming, but I’m simultaneously reassured by the tools and people I’m discovering who are equally as concerned with the state of the many systems in our world and whose lives are also facing a needed transition.  Oh, I’m also quite fascinated by the possibility of transcending both reductionist AND holistic approaches simply by paying attention to the given moment, as you suggest.

I don’t know if you’ve taken a close look at Pattern Dynamics yet.  I find its promise to help put sustainability into practice on a global scale of great importance. In this complex world of ours, it’s best we help as many understand the collective wave that we are shaping with our interconnected strings.  I too, find it powerful that we can create the future in this way and witness the emerging patterns.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Complexity.




Comments on: "A Letter about Complexity" (3)

  1. Dear Daniel,

    You really write well enough.

    Frankly I think you have committed the classic error of forced ‘associative thinking’ (refer Thinking Fast; Thinking Slow by Daniel Khaneman).

    Anyway, good luck to your learning and ‘bending spoons’. There are many ways to meditate. The way does not matter so long we are able to lose everthing to gain clear insights. All ways are OK.


  2. Hello Dan and Dibyendu,
    Regarding “A Boundary is a resistance between Polarities, with various levels of permeability,” I see another possible interpretation: the cylindrical (or not) walls of the furnace are a resistance between Polarities, with various levels of permeability (in this case, zero or nearly zero), which allows the build-up of pressure sufficient to support a column of coke and iron. The interface between the coke-iron mixture and the rising carbon monoxide gas could be both another Boundary, with clear Polarities, and Shapes that are byproducts of the Interaction between them, the outer Boundary, and the energy inputs (heat-driven pressurized gas below, and chemical reactions at the interface, with Synchronization).
    What do you think?
    Mark Roest

    • I agree, Mark. Makes sense that the cylindrical walls of the furnace are a Boundary. The interface of chemical reactions may not be a Boundary, so much as a matter of Synchronization. Applying the patterns is by no means scientific, and may well be, poetic. Until the day when I get into a more ‘hands-on’ discipline, I’m mealy connecting abstract dots.

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