A ‘Complex Systems’ view of the last few years

I started writing this post in the aftermath of Trump’s election victory (oh, the good times!) so it begins there, but the divisiveness that has followed, culminating in the latest UK general election result is disheartening.  We have evidently not learned the lessons from 2016 – yet.

My 2016 thoughts: ‘Education v. Ignorance?’

I never thought this would actually be a contest – that education and factual information would have to compete against ignorance and the blind following of unsubstantiated claims.

But alas, in the last year, we have had two major political earthquakes – Brexit and then the US general election – that have brought to the forefront the means by which a scary number of people want to live their lives.  And that is a resounding win for ignorance.  It fuelled worrying articles for the direction that education may take.

I bemoaned the US result in a short message to my friends online.  “In English please” was the response from a friend to my short, snappy, reflection on the Trump victory.  I thought it aptly summed up the difference in views between people – my simple message in plain English that I assumed would be heard was ignored.  At first I wanted to ignore the response but then I realised this is precisely the kind of sentiment that had fuelled the political shift this year. It is because the educated/informed has ignored the uninitiated for too long. Their cries haven’t been heard. There’s been no engagement between the two.  And the result is the biggest backlash of them all – Brexit and then Trump.

My previous post ended with a call to make every moment count. Make these moments positive. Slowly but surely… make your complex system positive (see ‘interaction’ below).  Not long after, the EU referendum was held.  In the run-up, we were resting on our laurels, hoping and believing that the ‘right way’ eventually comes to pass.  The Brexit result was a stark reminder that, in this complex system of life, every little does count.  In that case, the little niggles (the ‘problem’ of immigration, for example) that the Leave campaign were playing on – although seemingly insignificant at the local level – turned out to have the obviously huge impact of Brexit (see ’emergence’ below).  It is a powerful example of a complex system in action.

So how do we deal with this?  Well, if I may cite my religious background for a moment, the Islamic response to almost all news is to say, “Alhamdulillah”, or “Inna lillah wa inna ilayhi raji-oon”.  Ultimately, there is faith that all is in God’s hands and that he still has a plan here.  So, despite what we deem as a setback, God is still worthy of praise because he sees the whole picture whilst we see one dot on the infinitely long timeline of our lives.  So if God still has a plan – and his plan is good – then this must be a wake-up call for us to view the instant opportunities that arise.

A system is said to be complex if it satisfies the following properties:

  1. Interaction: The system contains a collection of many interacting objects.
  2. Feedback: The behaviour of these objects is affected by the same objects.
  3. Emergence: The behaviour of the system is generally surprising, even though the behaviour of the objects is predictable.
  4. Decentralised: This emergent behaviour typically arises in the absence of a central controller – an ‘invisible hand’.
  5. Mixture: The system shows a complicated mix of ordered and disordered behaviour.

I see the first opportunity here to be the opportunity to self-reflect – to revise and strengthen our little moments and actions.  Where have we erred? Have the little decisions that we make on a daily basis been positive?  In practice, we should start resolving to find ways to better understand people – starting at home, within our families and close circle of friends, moving importantly towards the disenfranchised, and the way the world works – current affairs.  (I am reminded of the TED talk by Alexander Betts, which touched on the same themes.)  So I say let us be proactive in reaching out and connecting – talk to people who don’t know what you do, take an interest in jobs that are diametrically opposed to yours, ask more questions and listen more.  Let us not give our ‘opponents’ an excuse to say we’re out of touch.  This is another part of our education. And education doesn’t always have to come nicely packaged – we have been taught many lessons here, so we should pay heed and be thankful for them.

The second opportunity for us is perhaps a little more philosophical.  (I am unable to locate the exact source but) I agree with the ideas of a BBC Radio 4 expert, whose message was that disruptions create opportunity; that life has its various ways to shake us up, ways that don’t follow set rules, and Brexit is one of those ways. So, let’s look at Brexit as a chance to actually embrace the supposed disruption this will create. That is, just because something doesn’t go to plan, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily negative – yes, it might be a stalling of the plan. But by its very nature, we’re not meant to know the impact of such disruptions – there is no plan for Brexit because it is a disruption! Nevertheless, complex systems theory tells us this is part and parcel of a nonlinear life – the trend may show improvement but we may take backwards steps in the process (‘mixture’).  The theory also tells us we can’t predict what will happen (’emergence’).  So we must patiently wait, and let life and time do its thing, all the while doing our best to do good.  We may get disappointments, but I bet we also get amazing highs that more than compensate – we just don’t know when and how.  But we must trust the complex system.


Ah, what a difference 3 years makes?  Sadly, it seems none.  I could write exactly the same thoughts as above, the only changes being to substitute mentions of Brexit and Trump’s election win to the UK general election result.

The opportunities are still there – calamities wake us up towards reflection and hopefully spur us into positive action.  A big lesson that I have learned am learning is to heed my own advice and to listen better.  It seems the Labour party did not understand that the people of their own constituencies were concerned mainly about Brexit in this election rather than the somewhat utopian vision that Jeremy Corbyn had in mind.  I admire the man, his integrity, and downright good nature and love for the people, but I have to concede that Corbyn failed to listen to his own people, to drastic effect.

Of course, with life being a complex system, the election result can’t be pinned solely on the concerns of Brexit.  The truth is, it is an interwoven mesh of thoughts and policies that contributes to such emergence.  I am hopeful that the same Labour manifesto, minus/plus one or two minor alterations would give rise to a wholly different result (see ‘the butterfly effect’).  But even in arenas outside of the political (which is still profoundly linked to our lives in many ways), we can do more to reach out and close gaps between the ‘experts’ and non-experts; there is hope in initiatives like these.

With the same opportunities comes the same message – above all, let us stay positive, proactive, and patient.  In the grand scheme of things, this last decade may well be a minor blip, barely touched upon in future history lessons.

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1 Response to A ‘Complex Systems’ view of the last few years

  1. Karl Dewar says:

    Interesting stuff Ebrahim!

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