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Tony Smith
Meme Media
Melbourne, Australia

Registered: Oct 2003
Posts: 168

Redefining "complex systems"

I have long worked with a definition of "complex systems" implicit from the contents of the Complex Systems journal which is not inconsistent with the scope of the NKS book. The only problematic had seemed to be just which of several other contending descriptors might work better: "non-linear", "emergent", "(second order) cybernetic", "far from equilibrium", etc..

Over the past couple of years I have become increasingly involved in the efforts of math schools to claim "complex systems" as their own territory—a territory for which they also seem to have expanded the boundaries imperially to "anything requiring industrial-scale application of mathematics". This expansion is clearly seen as good for business, at least for mathematicians. Unfortunately it also leaves us without an unambiguous and easily recognised label for the field in which "Class 4" is meaningful.

So we finish up in a world in which everything interesting is a "complex system" which is fine as we already know most all the simple stuff. But what we seem to be losing is the idea that by studying the dynamics of the archetypical complex systems, as per NKS, we can discover some general principles which help us understand the behaviour of the "real world". Worse still is an undercurrent of denial that there have ever been such general principles emerge from the study of model systems.

For starters a couple of those general principles make the world a lot more sensible to me:

  • novel dynamics can emerge only where there is a sufficient energy gradient ("far from equilibrium" and more useful with various analogies for "energy")
  • increasing the efficiency of subsystems too far (cancer, telephone queuing systems) decreases the efficiency of their supersystem
each of which I believe are just as much products of the traditional (narrower) study of complex systems as is the whole border or order–edge of chaos (Class 4) debate.

Sure I can accept that this redefinition of "complex systems" is an emergent epiphenomenon of an excess of energetic mathematicians, but I don't have to like it.

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