Why we get complexity wrong and why it matters
18 February 2020
There is much talk in the social investment sector around systems change and behaviours. Our Director of Learning and Influence Genevieve Maitland Hudson questions how the sector uses these analyses currently, and outlines the different approach that we’re taking at SIB.
I’m going to have a go in a few hundred words at linking up some abstract questions about what constitutes an entity with some very practical questions about how to deploy capital to achieve social ends. My intention in doing that is to contribute – I hope helpfully – to the sector’s discussions of systems change, and to say a little more about how SIB is thinking about new forms of social investment.
- 1. Why do we need to talk about entities at all?
I find much of the talk about systems change confusing when it comes to understanding organising and organisations. I’m picking on Lankelly Chase (again) because they are so open with their approach to systems change and they hosted a seminar last Wednesday that spurred me to write this blog, but they aren’t alone: their wording seems fairly representative of other organisations in the sector too. This quote comes from their work on systems behaviours:
Systems are complex and often messy webs that are constantly shifting. They consist of tangible things like people and organisations, connected by intangible things like history, worldviews, context and culture.
I think this begs questions, and the one I want to talk about first is the implied status of systems themselves. This quote defines one set of entities as tangible, and another as intangible, and leaves the status of a system itself indeterminate. How tangible are systems? Is, say, the system that determines the fate of refugees a tangible thing, or an intangible one? It is instantiated in passports, migration law and detention centres and must feel very tangible to a woman in Yarl’s Wood.
Is it less tangible than an organisation?
Take the example of Open Ownership. Open Ownership brings together more than 70 countries who share data on the beneficial ownership of companies worldwide. It is a distributed organisation, with a small office, and staff working in different time zones. It is instantiated in passports, company law, and open government conferences from London to Abuja.
How tangible is Open Ownership?
One of the most important things that Open Ownership does is to help uncover corruption by identifying companies and the owners behind them. Some major corruption involves the use of shell companies. Shell companies have no offices and no staff, they can be little more than a correspondence address in a nondescript building in a tax haven.
Are shell companies tangible?
Ironically an analytical system that leaves these things very imprecise can make it more difficult to design and deliver work that…changes systems.
- 2. Assemblages against totalities
The section heading above is taken from Manuel DeLanda’s ‘New Philosophy of Society’. DeLanda’s new philosophy is an exploration of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattarri’s work on systems, with some amendments and additions. Its subtitle is ‘assemblage theory and social complexity’, so it takes us into that other set of ideas that often goes hand in hand with systems change: complexity theory.
DeLanda has helpful things to say about what constitutes an entity, or what he prefers to call an assemblage, and what he says takes us away from the binary opposition between tangible and intangible things as distinct kinds. He introduces two dimensions. I’ll save the first one for another blog, but the second helps us to see how a shell company might relate to the status of refugees.
This second dimension involves the components of an assemblage in processes that either make it more homogenous and recognisable, or conversely make it more varied and indistinct. That already sounds a little abstruse, but the processes themselves should be familiar. The kinds of process that stabilise an assemblage might include having a spatial boundary, like an office, introducing sorting that selects particular people, like recruitment, and identifiable clothing, like a uniform. Conversely there are processes that destabilise an assemblage. DeLanda highlights the destabilising effects of technologies that allow people to communicate from a distance, avoiding face-to-face interaction.
Being able to pick out and understand these processes shows the ways in which assemblages function, the mechanisms that firm up an entity so that it has a clear and distinct identity, and the mechanisms that undermine that identity and make it more indistinct. Any single assemblage may contain components that are doing the work of firming up and the work of breaking down at one and the same time; you would expect these processes to coexist in any social assemblage. An organisation can have a head office in one city and a distributed workforce in other places, like Open Ownership, and indeed like SIB.
More generally some assemblages are small, fixed, highly stable and easily defined, and some are large, dispersed, unstable and their boundaries more porous (and vice versa), but in all cases you have sets of components working together productively in the same ways. Looked at in this way, ‘systems’ are not a special sort of something made up of tangible and intangible things in a way that is fundamentally different to an organisation, the two are only different in scale.
- Markets, towns and market towns
“One advantage of the present approach is that it allows the replacement of vaguely defined general entities (like ‘the market’ or ‘the state’) with concrete assemblages,” says DeLanda. Focusing on the dimensions of assembly, and the mechanisms by which they form, recur and create populations, gives a frame for connecting individual people to entities as large as nation states. It also helps to explain the mechanisms that create stability, something that often seems to be missing from systems change manuals and toolkits.
DeLanda gives an example taken from the work of the French historian Fernand Braudel. Braudel was interested in the history of everyday people and merged geography, economics and sociology in his research and writing. Like Michel Foucault, he liked detail and wrote fine grained accounts of the past between the 15th and 18th centuries. You could certainly argue that he was a systems thinker, as much interested in the material as the expressive manifestations of human activity, and the ways in which those activities act together to create clusters, that recur in stable and predictable ways. Braudel and DeLanda identify the smallest economic assemblage as:
…a complex consisting of a small market town, perhaps the site of a fair, with a cluster of dependent villages around it. Each village had to be close enough to the town for it to be possible to go to the market and back in a day. But the actual dimensions of the unit would equally depend on the available means of transport, the density of settlement and the fertility of the area in question.
Braudel finds that the size of each one of these market town complexes is very stable. Before the arrival of the steam train it varies on average between 160 and 170 square kilometres. That is a small variation, and one that is unerringly predictable for several hundred years. As industrialisation grows, market towns interlink and form regional markets, with a dominant city, and a recognisable cultural identity, and up again to provincial markets, bigger, less distinct, more varied, until finally you have a national market stitching together the provinces, regions and market towns with even greater anonymity and heterogeneity.
You could use complexity type language to describe that small market town. You could say it was an emergent property of a system of interdependent components: the villages, transport, population density and land fertility (amongst other things). That would not be wrong and might be interesting if you are in the business of doing analytics. It’s not so useful if you want to think about expanding its economy, altering its employment structure or opening it up to migrant populations. Or if you wanted it to ‘level up’.
If you want not only to represent, but to intervene, you need to understand the mechanisms that give each market town its identity, and the stable features of the population of market towns. You need to know how market towns are productively linked together into regions, how Preston relates to the North West, not only how Preston emerges.
The default tendency of much systems change thinking seems to be, instead, to underline variety and unpredictability, as in the Lankelly quote above, but complex systems are as remarkable for their stable features as they are for their capacity to adapt. Stability is, in fact, more remarkable than change, given the enormous number of interactions of molecules, proteins, enzymes, pistons, turbines, compressors, schools, factories, shops, hypertext, protocols, applications, governments and social sector unconferences that go into them. It’s their recurrent features that stabilise them and give them an identity.
It is also often the breakdown of recurrence that creates the most far-reaching kind of disruption.
- 4. What does this mean for social investment?
The Braudel market town may be a distant model of stability, but it was not so very different to the commercial unit that long defined post war towns: the high street. High streets were built of the same kinds of components, density of settlement, modes of transport and means of exchange. They were small, fixed, highly stable and easily defined. They had spatial boundaries and relied on face-to-face interaction. Now those boundaries and that interaction are being broken down by communications technologies that encourage different kinds of economic assemblage to emerge. It is no stretch at all to think that DeLanda’s analytics can help us to better understand what is under threat in the decline of the UK’s high streets, and how we might respond to that breakdown. Emergence in itself does not help us much. High streets as functional entities are just as emergent as their decline. More useful is to think about the components of the system and the mechanisms that operate within it to bring about different states: thriving high streets or empty shops.
That is why we are interested at SIB in understanding, and defining the component parts of, the economic assemblage that makes up a thriving high street. What flows, where to, and in what amounts to contribute to firming up its borders and maintaining spatial boundaries and face-to-face interaction against competing methods of consumption that don’t require either? These kinds of questions are influencing our uses of data analysis as part of our investment strategy (how many people, coming from how far, shopping where, for what, and staying how long?) and our interest in data that looks across the high street, rather than at individual organisations on it.
We can better support our investees with this kind of contextual information to hand. We can also encourage profit-making businesses to contribute to community-led ventures if we can demonstrate their economic interdependence (more footfall for the high street from community events leads to more purchases in the shops).
It is also why we are interested in investment models that support networks of organisations in high streets and towns. We have in the past individually funded and invested in social businesses in the same place – 10 plus organisations in 10 of the towns in the government’s New Deal for Towns – but we have not done so in an intentional way that takes account of the economic and demographic linkages between them and around them. Doing so through data use, comparative models and informed design could help to provide stability to those organisations who usually have too little of it. It could help the whole town to level up.
Finally, we are interested in the forms of investment structure that could play a more transformative role by virtue of their size and scope, and their blend of private capital with social investment. Here too we want to use the insights provided by robust theoretical underpinnings and live data flows to support the structure of stable local economies through patient capital that does not seek to extract a capital gain.
In looking at systems change analyses in this way we are breaking with approaches that have become – somewhat – established within our sector. We are more interested in stability and recurrence than messy webs, and as interested in economic units of analysis as we are in services. We are also interested in the objective features of assemblages, not only the subjective views of people caught up in them. We would argue, after Braudel, that some boundaries are clear cut, measurable and important not only analytically, but practically and in very ordinary ways. Transport networks determine important limits for job-seeking, for instance, and flood plains matter to social housing. That last is not a throwaway point in the light of the last fortnight’s storms. DeLanda helps us to gain an analytical purchase on our work and to focus on tangible change for which we can hold ourselves accountable, despite complexity.
Director of Learning and Influence
Gen has spent the last ten years working with social programmes that are committed to the informed use of information and data to improve their work. She began her career in academia with a doctorate in politics and philosophy. She has lectured at Oxford University, Roehampton University, the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, Birkbeck College London and Cambridge University.