Designing Complex Systems

One of the things I do in my work in the Department of Justice is look at the various systems that we oversight (for example, criminal justice system, emergency management system, etc) from a strategic perspective to see how they can work better.  Each of these systems is complex; they involve multiple stakeholders with different interests, human agents (they are always messy), and various intersecting system dynamics. 

I found this quote sometime back and rediscovered it recently.  It neatly describes the strategic policy world that I live in and the need to consider emergence in system design rather than attempt to strictly control the re-design of the overall system.  The quote comes from John Gall from his book “Systemantics: How Systems Really Work and How They Fail.”

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked … A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.

One of the delightful phrases from strategic foresight is to “trust emergence”.  It still allows tweaking as the system takes shape to accentuate the positive and disrupt the negative. 

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