Complex systems science allows us to see new paths forward | Aeon Essays – Flack and Mitchell (2020)

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Complex systems science allows us to see new paths forward | Aeon Essays

Uncertain times

The pandemic is an unprecedented opportunity – seeing human society as a complex system opens a better future for us all

21 August 2020

Jessica Flack is a professor at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico and director of the Collective Computation Group at SFI.

Melanie Mitchell is the Davis Professor of Complexity at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico and professor of computer science at Portland State University. She is the author of Complexity: A Guided Tour (2009) and Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans (2019).

Published in association with Santa Fe Institute an Aeon Strategic Partner

Brought to you by Curio, an Aeon partner

4,400 words

Edited by Sally Davies

We’re at a unique moment in the 200,000 years or so that Homo sapiens have walked the Earth. For the first time in that long history, humans are capable of coordinating on a global scale, using fine-grained data on individual behaviour, to design robust and adaptable social systems. The pandemic of 2019-20 has brought home this potential. Never before has there been a collective, empirically informed response of the magnitude that COVID-19 has demanded. Yes, the response has been ambivalent, uneven and chaotic – we are fumbling in low light, but it’s the low light of dawn.

At this historical juncture, we should acknowledge and exploit the fact we live in a complex system – a system with many interacting agents, whose collective behaviour is usually hard to predict. Understanding the key properties of complex systems can help us clarify and deal with many new and existing global challenges, from pandemics to poverty and ecological collapse.

In complex systems, the last thing that happened is almost never informative about what’s coming next. The world is always changing – partly due to factors outside our control and partly due to our own interventions…

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Complex systems science allows us to see new paths forward | Aeon Essays