The Complexity of Human Systems

The Complexity of Human Systems

Professor Peter Allen, (Emeritus, Cranfield University)

The importance of the ideas of Ilya Prigogine for our understanding of human systems cannot be underestimated. Prigogine himself was dedicated to understanding the deepest possible issues connected with irreversibility and the meaning of time, particularly in physics. He did however understand the importance for social science of the new understanding of disequilibrium, of stability and instability and of the interaction between the microscopic and macroscopic. The ideas coming from ‘dissipative structures’ have been applied to numerous problems and issues in the social sciences. For example, applications to urban development and transport planning led to the first spatial, dynamic modelling of such problems and then to Agent Based Modelling. Other applications were made, such as natural resource management, market dynamics, organizational change and to the evolution of design and innovation.

Such models could explore both quantitative and qualitative evolution in which systems could undergo morphological changes with emergent functionalities, and characteristics. These ideas throw new light on the social and economic history of the world. The first is a rejection the idea that ‘economic equilibrium’ occurs rapidly and leads, supposedly, to optimal utility and profit for both consumers and producers. The second tells us that the Hedonic Calculus thought of by Utilitarians such as Bentham ad Mill was ingenious but, in fact, an impossible calculation. This is because the multiple non-linear interactions underlying an economic system make it a Complex System and not a mechanical one. Thus, it evolves by innovations and change at the multiple levels of its structure and organization, and is therefore inherently unpredictable.

Communist regimes certainly discovered the impossibility of making a satisfactory production schedules for a nation, and eventually were outrun by freer economies that allowed people and firms to explore and discover what could invade the system. The optimal outcome of Free markets may not be provable for complex systems, but nevertheless the freedom allowed appears to lead to a richer, more innovative economic systems which outran the restrictive, pre-programmed approach of centralised economies.

So, we begin to see that the ideas of Ilya Prigogine were and are of absolute importance for social and economic science and for our understanding of World history. This is still not understood clearly by many in social and economic science, but will be recognized gradually in the future.