Physical foundations of biological complexity

Complexity Digest

Living organisms are characterized by a degree of hierarchical complexity that appears to be inaccessible to even the most complex inanimate objects. Routes and patterns of the evolution of complexity are poorly understood. We propose a general conceptual framework for emergence of complexity through competing interactions and frustrated states similar to those that yield patterns in striped glasses and cause self-organized criticality. We show that biological evolution is replete with competing interactions and frustration that, in particular, drive major transitions in evolution. The key distinction between biological and nonbiological systems seems to be the existence of long-term digital memory and phenotype-to-genotype feedback in living matter.


Yuri I. Wolf, Mikhail I. Katsnelson, and Eugene V. Koonin
PNAS September 11, 2018 115 (37) E8678-E8687; published ahead of print August 27, 2018


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Complexity Theory and Corporate Strategy Kathleen M. Eisenhardt and Henning Piezunka (pdf)

Complexity Theory and Corporate Strategy
Kathleen M. Eisenhardt and Henning Piezunka

source (pdf):

Emergent rules of computation in the Universe lead to life and consciousness: a computational framework for consciousness

Via Complexity Digest

Complexity Digest

We introduce a computational framework for consciousness. We hypothesize that emergent rules of computation in the Universe lead to life and consciousness. We live in a Universe that has a substrate capable of computing or information processing. We suggest that in principle, any Universe that is capable of supporting information processing and has energy can evolve life and consciousness. We hypothesize that the Universe encodes rules in the form of physical laws that allow for the emergence of both life and conscious organisms. A key insight is that there are different levels of consciousness starting from atoms to organisms to galaxies. We propose a metric of complexity that can quantify the amount of consciousness in a system by measuring both the amount of information and the capability to process that information. We hope that this framework will allow us to better understand consciousness and design machines that are conscious and…

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Mastering System Change

[Also via the Systems Studio]

Mastering System Change

Organizations are increasingly turning to system change to tackle big social problems. But systems are complex, and mastering the process requires observation, patience, and reflection. To begin, here are two approaches to pursuing system change.

(Illustration by Kevin Mercer)

Gone’s for once the old magician with his countenance forbidding;
I’m now master, I’m tactician, all his ghosts must do my bidding.
Know his incantation, spell and gestures too;
By my mind’s creation wonders shall I do.

from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” by J. W. von Goethe1

In J. W. von Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” an old sorcerer leaves his young apprentice behind to clean the house. The boy soon tires of his chore and uses a magic spell to enlist the help of a broom. The broom, however, starts pouring pails and pails of water on the floor. The boy is unable to control the broom, and the house is flooded. When the sorcerer returns, he quickly breaks the spell, cleans up the water, and warns the boy not to use forces he doesn’t understand and can’t control.

The poor young fellow had what we might call today an unfortunate encounter with complex causality. Instead of creating “wonders” by commanding a bewitched broom whose powers he neither understood nor could control, the apprentice’s actions caused chaos and damage.

We were reminded of the apprentice’s story when reflecting on the growing interest and sometimes outright infatuation with system change. Like the sorcerer’s broom, any system that prides itself on some minimal complexity is difficult to understand or to control. Do we—like the sorcerer’s apprentice—ask for trouble when we intend to change systems? Yes, we do!

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to change complex systems for the better. What it does mean is that we must be respectful of the difficulty and dangers of trying to do so. In this article, we want to arm you with effective “spells and gestures” to ward off some of the troubles you may encounter when undertaking system change. We will also offer two different approaches, or archetypes, for pursuing system change that we have identified during the course of our research, and by doing so provide examples of how organizations can master the cause-effect architecture of systems and enact effective change.

The Apprentice’s Dilemma

Continues in source: Mastering System Change

What It Takes to Think Deeply About Complex Problems

[via the superb Systems Studio newsletter]

What It Takes to Think Deeply About Complex Problems

Harvard Business Review MAY 09, 2018
The problems we’re facing often seem as complex as they do intractable. And as Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” So what does it take to increase the complexity of our thinking?

Too many leaders default to looking at decisions as either-or: The answer is right or wrong, good or bad, win or lose. This binary thinking has a built-in limitation: Overrelying on any given solution eventually generates the opposite problem.

Consider the familiar story of the esteemed consultant brought in to address the CEO’s concern that decision making in her organization has become too centralized. The consultant’s solution? A detailed plan to decentralize. Three years later the CEO calls the consultant back in, worried that decision making has become too decentralized. The solution? A detailed plan to centralize.

Simple answers make us feel safer, especially in disruptive and tumultuous times. But rather than certainty, modern leaders need to consciously cultivate the capacity to see more ­— to deepen, widen, and lengthen their perspectives. Deepening depends on our willingness to challenge our blind spots, deeply held assumptions, and fixed beliefs. Widening means taking into account more perspectives ­— and stakeholders — in order to address any given problem from multiple vantage points. Lengthening requires focusing on not just the immediate consequences of a decision but also its likely impact over time.

To cultivate this more embracing perspective, my team and I encourage leaders to adopt three core practices:

Forever challenge your convictions. This practice begins with asking two key questions in the face of any difficult decision: “What am I not seeing here?” and “What else might be true?”

Most of us tend to default to what we already know. Confirmation bias is one of the most pernicious and predictable influences on our capacity to see more. Early in childhood, we begin to develop an internal narrative about how the world works and what we think is true. Over time, without realizing it, we come to believe our story is factual, and most of us spend the rest of our lives sticking to it. As Paul Simon puts it in “The Boxer”: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Confirmation bias makes us feel safer, but it also prevents us from seeing a more nuanced picture of the possible.

The reality is that any strength can be overused to the point that it becomes a liability. Think for a moment about one of your primary strengths. Then ask yourself: “What does it look like when I overuse it? What is the cost to my effectiveness, and what is the balancing quality I must cultivate?” For example, too much confidence eventually turns into arrogance. So long as we hold onto the mindset that the only alternative to confidence is insecurity, we’re far less likely to develop the balancing quality of humility, which is critical to considering multiple perspectives.

Do the most challenging task first every day. Most leaders we encounter have every minute of their calendars filled, typically with meetings and emails they write in between, often on the run. But relentless demands and the pressure to respond rapidly undermine more complex thinking. Critical as decisiveness can be, nuanced solutions emerge from wrestling with the most difficult issues, rather than prematurely closing in on a decision.

One of the most powerful rituals I’ve built in my life, one I’ve shared with many leaders, is to take on my most difficult challenge as the first work priority of the day, for at least 60 minutes without interruption. Scheduling this practice is a way of ensuring that I give complex issues time and attention that might otherwise be consumed by more urgent but less intellectually demanding and value-adding priorities.

Pay close attention to how you’re feeling. Embracing complexity is not just a cognitive challenge, but also an emotional one. In part, it’s about learning to manage negative emotions ­— anger and fear above all. When we move into a fight-or-flight state, our vision literally narrows, our prefrontal cortex begins to shut down, and we become more reactive and less capable of reflection. In these moments our attention automatically shifts from focusing on the task at hand to defending our sense of value. This awareness by itself helps to modulate the inclination to attack, blame, or scapegoat, and instead to turn inward to restore a state of equilibrium.

When we’re triggered, as little as 60 seconds of breathing deeply can be a powerful way to maintain physiological and emotional equilibrium. You can also do something as simple as getting up from your desk and taking a five- or 10-minute walk. Reacting from emotion tends to make us one-dimensional.

Above all, managing complexity requires courage ­— the willingness to sit in the discomfort of uncertainty and let its rivers run through us. The best practice is to not overrely on best practices, which typically emerge from our current assumptions and worldview. “In complex systems,” says leadership consultant Zafar Achi, “there is no recipe, only art.”

Tony Schwartz is the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. Become a fan of The Energy Project on Facebook and connect with Tony at and

Source: What It Takes to Think Deeply About Complex Problems

A basic conceptual framework for systems learning

from the always excellent Sjon van ‘t Hof


Inter-relationships, boundaries, and perspectives revisited

Last week I was struggling with three systems concepts: inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries (IPB). All I was trying to do was to fill out a so-called IPB table to summarize my understanding of the stages in a systemic process as described in Wicked Solutions. A free example of such a table in Spanish can be seen here (English versions are available here, here and here). In my case boundary ideas cluttered my perspectives column, while processes intruded in my boundary column. Somehow I failed to distinguish clearly between one concept and the other. So I went back to the drawing board (in my case concept mapping) to see if I could clarify my understanding. In the process I came up with a novel basic conceptual framework for systems learning generally and the systems approach, specifically. The main source of inspiration has been Wicked…

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Cybernetic Socialism: Project Cybersyn in the 21st century // The World Transformed Mon 24 Sep, Liverpool, UK, part of a fringe event around the UK Labour Party conference

A session at 13:00-14:30 on Monday in Black-E Studio organised by Autonomy [This part of a fringe event around the UK Labour Party conference, 22-25 September 2018, Liverpool]


Black-E Studio

Cybernetic Socialism: Project Cybersyn in the 21st century

Project Cybersyn is one of the most remarkable initiatives in 20th century history. Before it was destroyed by a US-backed coup in 1973, Allende’s socialist government in Chile began to utilise cybernetics to coordinate a planned economy, with the aim of giving workers control over production. What does Cybersyn mean for us in today’s political and technological climate? What can social movements and radical governments learn from this historical episode? Join Raul Espejo, the Operations Director of the original project, to discuss.


Raul Espejo


Raul was Operations Director of the CYBERSYN project – the Chilean Government’s cybernetic project for the management of the national economy, under the scientific direction of Stafford Beer. He has since taught at numerous universities across the globe, published extensively and is a leading expert on organisational cybernetics.

Miranda Hall 

Writer // New Economics Foundation

Miranda is a writer and activist interested in the intersections of work, gender and technology. She is excited about the development of new digital infrastructures built for people not profit while being cautious of tech solutions to social and political problems. She currently works at the New Economics Foundation in London.

Will Stronge 

Think Tank Director // Autonomy

Will is co-director of Autonomy, a think-tank concerned with the future of work. With Helen Hester, he is the co-author of the forthcoming primer Post-Work: what it is, why it matters and how we get there (Bloomsbury, 2019).

Francesca Bria 

Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer for the City of Barcelona. Founder of the Decode Project.

Source: Cybernetic Socialism: Project Cybersyn in the 21st century // The World Transformed

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