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Does Complexity Make Us Apathetic?

Updated: Jan 11, 2020

I’m not sure when the paralysis first hit me – in the aftermath of another mass shooting; watching a rail thin polar bear huddled with her cub on a tiny floating ice chip; seeing carnage from a wildfire, a tsunami, an overturned boat, too crowded with desperate people fleeing conflict – but there have been times that I have felt overwhelmed by the quick succession of traumatic news. Unpack the layers of our global challenges and you quickly find there is no easy fix. There are moments that I struggle with an interior paralysis that is akin to apathy.

I do not however believe that this is true apathy. Apathy is a state of indifference – an absence of feeling or concern. I think what we feel is quite the opposite of apathy. I think when we feel too much - confronted as we are with urgent global issues, angry polarization, senseless violence and catastrophic environmental damage - we shut down. If we feel helpless in the face of adversity, if we have no voice and if the problems are abstract, we lose our sense of agency.

Is the numbness that accompanies our complex daily lives unavoidable?

Research shows that we can more effectively resolve problems by clearly defining problem in terms of measurability and responsibility and finding a clear routes to impact. As Einstein said, “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution.” The first secret is to find the right problem to solve. Every problem does not have a single perspective or a direct path for resolution. So the first thing we must do is define our terms.

The other day when I pushed the button on my key fob to unlock my car, the doors clicked open but the small beep that usually accompanies the unlocking was silent. Later, while driving, I pushed my horn to signal my existence to a car that merged too tightly in front of me, but my horn made no sound. Obviously, there was a problem. When I got home, I checked my fuses but everything looked fine. I searched online about the issue but there were no solutions easy enough for me to implement. So, I scheduled an appointment for a mechanic to get to the root of the problem. This is a complicated problem - the kind of problem where there is a ‘known unknown’ with a reliable linear pathway through which an expert can work out a solution. Even if the answer is not simple, like changing a fuse, there are rules and decision trees that will lead someone with enough expertise to a predictable conclusion.

Complicated problems are problems that, while often difficult to solve, are technical in nature, discipline specific and have more predictable, straight-line, solutions.

Complex issues however cannot be resolved with specialists alone because the problems are dynamic, emerging from networks of multiple interacting and interconnected causes. Further, the outputs of a complex system are not necessarily proportional to the inputs. In other words, a small change in one part of the system can cause sudden and unexpected outcomes in other parts of the system.

Once we recognize the difference between simple, complicated and complex problems we can see that each kind of problem requires a different pathway for resolution. While much of the positive change and prosperity our world currently experiences comes from specialized knowledge, complex issues will never be achieved with specialists alone. Complex problems require collaborations with partners across disciplines, sectors and geography. What is required is a fundamental shift to a crosscutting, systems mindset and new ways that allow us to integrate knowledge from different expertise and domains.

It is not complexity that leads to apathy or numbness. It is trying to resolve complex problems using a map for solving complicated problems. We can envision and construct holistic approaches. We can build partnerships empowered to test new ideas with original designs. We can redefine our problems, construct systemic processes, engage with the community for input and debate, and find ways to iteratively measure our progress.

For us to flourish in our complex, hyper-connected world we need to partner in unique combinations to foster the integration of our knowledge and inspire inventive, resilient and generalizable outcomes into collective action.

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