How Complex Systems Grow and Age


All is Growing and Aging Around Us

Like people, all complex systems grow and age. After all, we are complex systems ourselves; it should be no surprise when there are some similarities in the way all complex systems grow and age.

As we advocate for ourselves and our community, we tend to focus on the immediate issue that is blocking our efforts to build choice and autonomy. All these blocking issues are important targets for resistance, but the sheer number of these issues tends to distract us from the larger and slower changes that are taking place in our society.

Not paying attention to the way our society as a whole is evolving and aging means that we face more and more complex, difficult, and unexpected issues that block our rights agenda over time. Even as we win over these barriers, if we do nothing to change our relationship with the larger context, we find our victories undermined, or later reversed, and novel threats that never occurred before raise their heads, creating targets needing resistance we hadn’t imagined as possibilities.

So, even with all the demands on our time and energy, we need to use some of our time and energy for understanding the larger and slower changes that will affect our ability to advocate well.

There is a pattern to how complex systems begin, grow, peak, and break down. I will use a forest as a model for how this happens because we all have experience with the changes that take place over time in forests.

Let’s assume there has been a forest fire, and that the land where the forest used to be is now ashes and burnt trunks. All the large animals that survived have left the immediate area and the future for this forest is fairly open.

  1. Since the land is more or less empty of competition, pioneers will begin to use what’s left, including weeds, insects, and some animals that maybe haven’t been seen in this forest for a very long time. Pioneers can more readily use the nutrients that are left after the fire and they tend to grow, reproduce, and die faster than most plants, insects, and animals. For example, maybe they can make better use of sunlight, which was hidden by the large trees before the fire.
  2. One of the things that pioneers do is gradually alter the existing nutrients so that plants, insects, and animals that can’t live in the empty landscape right after the fire can now use the “waste” products of the pioneers’ activities. Over time, new living things gradually take over the land, slowly making it harder for the pioneers to compete well. This process of replacing the pioneers goes on for a long time and has many layers. As each successful set of plants, insects, and animals comes to live in the area, they out-compete to some extent what was successful before.  This process allows the new species to tap into the growing complexity of the forest resources, making the forest more complex and creating more places for living things to grow and thrive. A well-developed example of this phase would be a tropical jungle where there are a huge number of species and places for species to live.
  3. At some point, the ability of the complex system to keep growing and conserving more resources and becoming more complex passes a peak. When this happens the complex system begins to undermine its own ability to continue growing by the very same activities that up to this point have helped it grow. Instead of becoming more flexibly complex, the system becomes more brittle. Like all of us as we grow older, the forest becomes less able to rebound from disturbance or disease. This brittleness means that the forest can be broken down more easily and since the brittleness slowly increases, it is only a matter of time before some disturbances cause a significant breakdown.
  4. This breakdown is called a release (that is, a release of resources from where they were stored). The release in a complex system can involve many different processes. The more brittle the system, the more kinds of disturbances can trigger such a breakdown. I used a forest fire as the disturbance that caused the release in this example, but there are lots of changes that can produce it. The release eventually results in the beginning of a new cycle, a new forest, that will be similar to, but also different from the one that existed before the fire.

The four phases can be thought of as a cycle:

  • Pioneering
  • Growth and Conservation
  • Old Age
  • Release

This cycle (called an Adaptive Cycle) applies to more than forests. For our work in making our disability community advocacy more effective, it applies to the larger social context in which we advocate.

And right now, the larger society (the context) that we seek to change is past the peak in its adaptive cycle. The most important implication of this reality is that the context for our advocacy will become less supportive of our traditional advocacy efforts over time. This will happen, not because of any particular trend or political ideology that we can somehow correct, but because our society is aging. Things that were once easy will slowly become more difficult. And, what we think of as the causes of this more difficult struggle for choice and autonomy are actually effects of this larger slow process of change. I will try to give more detail about how this occurs in a later post.

The impact of this reality is that our ordinary way of choosing and pursuing advocacy goals is gradually becoming less and less effective and requiring more of our declining resources for these smaller successes.

The Resilience Alliance


Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, advocate50+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, Tom and Pepper the wundermutts