Simple AND complex

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Looking at the project focus and listening to the talk at yesterday’s complex science meeting, the focus of the EPSRC project is on the large scale: “Such systems and the organisations in which they are situated are becoming ever larger and more complex and need to interoperate. Large complex systems have also exhibited emergent and unexpected behaviour.”

My response to this ‘large’ emphasis was to be reminded of the value of seeing the role of the simple and the small scale in complex systems and the like. (folk sayings such as ‘for want of a nail’, recognise this fact). But it’s my experience this is easily missed in the culture technology design, though of course usability attempts to overcome this.

Or to put it another way the importance of the simple in design needs to be taken a little more seriously. Let’s here I would like to quote the words of Murray Gell-Mann who specially coined the phrase ‘plectics’ to recognise this importance: “It is important, in my opinion, for the name to connect with both simplicity and complexity. What is most exciting about our work is that it illuminates the chain of connections between, on the one hand, the simple underlying laws that govern the behavior of all matter in the universe and, on the other hand, the complex fabric that we see around us, exhibiting diversity, individuality, and evolution. The interplay between simplicity and complexity is the heart of our subject..”

Wow, big stuff. OK, so what’s the practical value of this? Well consider the direction of the Government’s IT strategy published in early November as scrutinised in the Guardian:

“The drafts contain the phrase: ‘Many of the government’s suppliers have a patchy track record on delivery.’ In the published document, this is watered down to: ‘The public perception remains that many of government’s suppliers have a ‘patchy’ track record.’ Another draft clause, which seems to have been cut, reads: ‘Small, innovative suppliers continue to press for easier participation in government business.’

“Together, these two phrases hint at a different way of doing things. That, rather than handing over IT projects in their entirety in billion-pound deals, the government parcels out work in small chunks, none mission-critical, on a scale that small firms can bid for. Although there will still be cowboys – more, probably – they are less likely to wreck a project. Significantly, this is standard practice in Canada, acknowledged as the world’s leading e-government.”

The moral of this story is that understanding the value of the small and simple also connects with the value of involving small innovative players in delivering public sector IT projects. It’s based on both good science, and good business. For example why not divert some of the UK’s health service IT spend in this direction? As the third largest organisation in the world after the Indian State Railways and the Chinese Red Army the NHS could do with a bit more counter-intuitive thinking?

One thought on “Simple AND complex

  1. Pingback: Want a practical complexity heuristic? | @stuartgh (Plectic Ltd)

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