Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

The inevitable instability of systems

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on July 2, 2013

Sometimes we tend to believe in the stability of systems. Systems are sometimes designed, think about road- or rail systems, or sometimes they are discovered, like stellar systems or the behavior of ant colonies. We design for the best, making it as robust as possible. Or when we discover them, we are amazed about the complexity of it. In most cases, we just don’t understand them with the universe as we know it as the best example.

Why is it that we tend to think that systems need to be stable? Cant’t we just accept that everything where energy (or another flow) is involved is by definition unstable? Sometimes a system appears to be stable, but in time it will become unstable and ultimately it will collapse. Road systems will collapse because too many cars drive on them, because there is not enough construction, or because they become superfluous. Stellar systems are unstable because they will collapse with others or they faint away (no more energy), and ant colonies will disappear.

My understanding is that every system that is created at some point will disappear at another point, and that energy is the fuel that is needed to create and maintain it, but that energy will also destroy it. Without energy a system is dead (maybe stable?), therefore it is inevitable that a system is unstable by definition. So the only stable system might be a dead system. Characteristics of a system are structure, behavior and interconnectivity, all three influence each other resulting in change in those characteristics. While a system exists, those three characteristics influence and change each other. At one point a minor change can start the disruption of the system.

Stable vs. unstable

By accepting that systems are per definition unstable, can we design better systems? Let go of control, and accept that the end of one system can mean the beginning of another. Or by letting two systems collapse in a controlled manner, this can mean the start of a new (and perhaps better) one. If we bring this philosophy into organizations (or economies), what can we learn from this? Can we develop new design principles that respect the temporal nature of systems? What is we always include a scenario of the end of the system while we design it? I think this would be a lot better. Think about the current banking issues. Banks collapse, and we try to ‘save’ them. It is basically a quick fix without thinking things through. We think this system is needed, but we haven’t thought through alternatives, and certainly did not think about what to do when this system might fail at some point, certainly not when this system was introduced.

The banking system is not needed for humanity. At some point it seemed a good system for us, and it still might be for some time despite the huge financial injections. But this system is not there forever, and we have seen it’s weaknesses. One of the best example of a temporary system is the democratic system. By definition we accept that they are unstable, and we’ve built in rules to make sure it will collapse quickly. It is not the most efficient system, but it is a system that renews itself on a regular basis. While the democratic system itself can collapse as well, we do not try to make it efficient and stable. That would bring us to dictatorship, which is efficient but has it’s disadvantages.

So, maybe more questions than answers or solutions, and maybe questions that were asked many times before, but some questions need to be asked again and again. Last but not least: systems are interconnected not only with itself, but also with other systems. Let’s not forget that one while designing systems. Instability of one system might be needed (or even crucial, think about day and night, rain and drought) for the stability of another.

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2 Responses

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  1. Jim Stone said, on July 2, 2013 at 14:04

    I’m sure that systems thinkers have addressed the question of instability of systems before, but I like the way you have presented here in a practical way. It’s hard to know how a system might become unstable at the time it is designed, but it certainly makes sense to continuously consider whether it is becoming unstable. What we need is a willingness to accept change and take actions to modify or abandon systems that are too unstable to be useful. Unfortunately, human organizations including economic and political systems are made up of people who are stakeholders in those systems and face disruption of their lives and fortunes if they are changed. That is what makes them “stable,” as well as inefficient or even oppressive.

  2. Chris Jones said, on July 3, 2013 at 03:50

    Wow, Bas, I’ve enjoyed so many of your posts, but I agree with Jim, you’ve introduced system instability in a very clear and accessible way here. Especially love the graphic. No problem asking the important questions over and over. Until we develop some answers .. or at least, coping mechanisms and guidelines 🙂 .. I say .. ask away !!

    At the root of our obsession with what I’ll call “perceived stability” and “perceived control” is, I think,our (genetic?) obsession to survive. We really, really want to the sun to come up tomorrow. If it doesn’t? Game over. Same with the next beat of the heart .. the avoided pink slip .. the near miss on the freeway. So many ways we are reminded that our own human (financial, political) systems are in a way fleeting, in spite of our best efforts .. and that living systems have a start and an end. Stable is, as you say, a temporary condition, measured in some life cycles in eons, decades, others in years .. but for some, far less than that ..

    I love your democracy example. Centuries of work, dating to Locke and Rousseau up through Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and many more .. worked very very hard to craft a model that was more adaptive than the tyrannical monarchies of old. Imperfect yes. Every system is. But democracy was designed to adapt.

    Very important call out, I think.

    My favorite kind of system, and the one that illustrates your point about connectedness .. is the “ecosystem” .. and I probably overdo the ecosystem refererence. But it speaks to the interdependence and transience of it all. To me, when we invoke “ecosystem” to talk about economies, democracies, even healthcare or public education .. we introduce the notion of interdependence and fluidity. The thoughts can be fleeting though. So often even our visionary thinking reverts to the cause and effect of the factory. Patients and students in one door, money flows in, and yet the outcomes are suboptimized and not what we want.

    Don’t stop asking questions, Bas ..
    I think it’s the deep questions that will lead to new thinking ..

    We can never get enough of that ..


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