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Ratner, E (2010) The Emerging Security Threats Reshaping China’s Rise, The Washington Quarterly, 34:1, pp29-44.

Underlying this piece is a useful argument about the dangers incurred in adopting a comfortable and familiar cognitive framework for assessing threats, in this case, that posed by China. That China’s behaviour is an emergent outcome of the interplay of many heterogenous actors reflects the complex adaptive nature of China’s decision-making systems. The implications of such system structure is that of itself it makes likely outcomes more unpredictable, but also, potentially, overall behaviour more stable, in that a high degree of interconnectedness is more likely to modify rash behaviour. (That’s not a judgement about whether such stable or such rash–or innovative–behaviour is good or bad.) Breaking down the problem from a single search for a monolithic grand strategic intent into a series of individual problem sets, as the article implies–and only then looking not for a single intent, but an emergent outcome–may provide better insight into China’s behaviour.

Another piece that should be posted in every Federal department office and Parliament House.  Tyler Cowan argues that politicisation, not the markets per se, is the root cause of the current financial troubles.  Bad policies, bad regulation and political interference in the market mechanism led banks and organisations such as GM being ‘too big to fail’: they were propped up and protected from market realities.  Further interference is not the solution.

Today we have a financial-regulatory complex, and it has meant a consolidation of power and privilege. We’ve created a class of politically protected “too big to fail” institutions, and the current proposals for regulatory reform further cement this notion. Even more worrying, with so many explicit and implicit financial guarantees, we are courting a bigger financial crisis the next time something major goes wrong.

We should stop using political favors as a means of managing an economic sector.

Financial markets are subject to criticality—and so catastrophe and collapse—just as a natural system.  Preventing small failures—including through political favours and protecting interest groups—inevitably leads to more pent up energy and catastrophes.  Good system design allows constant small failures, as in an efficient market.  And even those ‘too big to fail’ must be allowed to fail, naturally—or some means found to bleed off the criticality, and reduce their size—else risk complete catastrophe.

Asked what they do, most public servants will talk in terms of positions in the hierarchy, or perhaps reflecting, broadly, the words in their position description.

But work (perhaps I should capitalise it: Work) is a much misunderstood concept, particularly—but not exclusively—in the Australian Public Service. Much work is hidden from formal view, and sometimes from the ‘public face’ of the organisation or sub-organisational group.

We can think of work in in two dimensions, transparency and formality, as set out below. Formal, open work is that described in position statements. Formal, behind-the-scenes work—such as team-building and collaboration—may be acknowledged in position statements.Work and reform

Informal work includes the ‘articulation work’ needed to adjust in the face of shifting, often unexpected circumstances, to work around problems and roadblocks, to deal with the consequences of distributed teams and changing understandings, and to get back on track (Star and Strauss 1999). Articulation work is likely to be non-discretionary—it’s needed to get the job done—but unrecognised.

When there is a misfit between the formal, overt expression of work and the actual work needed, articulation work increases. And as technology changes and cultural norms within the workplace evolve, articulation work increases.

The difficulty for anyone experiencing a reform program is that such reform teams often only acknowledge the formal, overt expression of work—position descriptions, in public service terms. They may acknowledge, even encourage collaboration, but show no awareness of the articulation work needed to support successful change, collaboration, and the constant adjustment of the workplace.

A focus on position descriptions increases the likelihood of misfit, hence greater informal work, especially articulation work.

Granularising work into individual positions perpetuates the production line mentality that tends to prevail in the public service, particularly in the rigid hierarchies of Defence.

It encourages reform efforts to see work as a linear, stepwise production line in which individual components can made more efficient and streamlined—the fallacy of likening work to tyre changes in a pitstop. It focusses on outputs, not outcomes.

Such views of reform completely miss the point. Defence will remain broken until it sheds such rigid, brittle, antiquated strait jackets of thought. That includes the notion prevalent particularly in the military that so long as the process is right, good things automatically follow.

Work is an intensely social activity. It bears all the attributes of any social activity: it is intensely non-linear, involving trial and error, the testing of ideas, artefacts and relations against the expectations of superiors, colleagues, peers and norms, a mix of exploration, confluence and opportunism.

And work is highly contextual: the work—and its convergence of purpose, intensity, support, technologies, skills, experience, personalities, rewards—needed to change a tyre in a pitstop are just that, suited to change a tyre in a pitstop. They don’t easily transfer out of that context.

In contrast to that 60 or six seconds in a pitstop, policy advising and intelligence analysis are—or should be—rigorous, rounded, inquisitive, judgmental and creative. Aside from sitting uncomfortably within bureaucracies, these are attributes are not suited to a production-line, efficiency-oriented, output-focussed mentality.

How should such reform efforts proceed, then? First, the heads of reform programs would be well advised to seek a better understanding of work, of the different types of work and their contexts at a individual, a group and an organisational level. Second, they should avoid the rigidity of position descriptions, and encourage more freedom for teams to devise their own work behaviours. Third, recognition of the existence of articulation work—but not formalising it, as that detracts from adaptability—would help reform program and managers ensure teams and teams members at all levels are better supported.


Star, Susan Leigh and Strauss, Anselm (1999), ‘Layers of Silence, Arenas of Voice: The Ecology of Visible and Invisible Work’, Computer Supported Co-operative Work, 8, 9-30.

One of the inherent problems with the Government’s national security agenda is its shopping list approach to national security.  Phenomena, both social and natural, are lumped in together.

Yet many of the problems now described as national security concerns are, at their heart, governance issues.  True, at one end of the spectrum—failed and failing states—governance and security are inseparable.  And policy-makers should always be aware that bad decisions have consequences for the safety and security of their citizens and the strength of their society.  But that’s what good governance is.

Securitising governance issues, rather than strengthening the government’s ability to respond and deal with them, can actually detract from national strength and security.  Securitising issues implies new rules and behaviours and measures of successful outcomes must be applied.

It redirects efforts to a more nationalistic approach, risking a bunkering mentality.

It implies supra-national problems can be solved by securing borders, favouring a garrison mentality.

It can become a self-referential practice—disease, for example, becomes a security issue not because a threat exists but because disease itself is presented as a security threat.

It is a reflexive response to the complexity of globalisation, rewarding inward-looking behaviours and controls as substitutes for government’s inability to tackle multi-dimensional trans-national phenomena.

And it rewards urgency—if it’s considered a security issue, it must be dealt with quickly, regardless of the cost—over the slower, much less sexy, evolution of institutions, people and societies.

These behaviours and understandings all distort measures of good governance.    Often the easiest and quickest response needed to ‘secure’ Australia is the one prioritised…and then the government’s attention moves on to the next urgent ‘national security problem’ competing for attention and resources.

Rather than securitising disease, for example, through prioritising border controls—an immediate and tangible response—more effort should be made to invest in the (long, slow) research needed for the new generation of antibiotics (for example), the (long, often slow) improvement of conditions, public health and alert systems in countries where pandemics are most likely to emerge, and the (long, often arduous) strengthening of international co-operation.

And surely climate change—predictions of imminent disaster, as per The Day After Tomorrow, aside; they rarely if ever match reality—can be handled through civilian planning and good governance rather than a fall-back to a short-term military ‘operational planning’ approach, as implied through use of a national security lens.

Similarly, responses to natural disasters—bushfires, for example, are frequent events in Australia—should be undertaken good, tested systems informed by research and reviews of best practice and past experience.  Where disasters exceed the bounds of those systems, then the military may have a role as part of disaster relief.  Again, a matter of good governance, not escalation to national security significance.

And so on.  Rather than indulging in hyperactive redirection every time a crisis hit, rebadged as a National Security Issue, it seems we’d all do better with a Bex and good lie down.

There is some good work being done coordinating national, state and territory systems, especially under the COAG process.  But few—there are some—good solutions are top-down, especially when they focus on control and are distant from the point of application or the communities concerned.  Much better to smooth the way, open debate and loosen controls, allowing new solutions to emerge bottom-up.  That will improve the chances for adaptation, rather than bearing the costs of imposition.

Bringing back the notion of public service as a virtue is hard in a short-term, media-driven, 24/7 world.  Still, resurrecting good education in the basics of a complex, modern Western society, including the trades, governance, systems administration, and IT and infrastructure development and management certainly couldn’t hurt and—who knows—may even help prevent some of those crisis, or possible crisis, flagged by the government.

And we need to think more rigorously about national security, and develop a much less flabby concept that lends itself better to understanding the relationship between issues, prioritising resources and developing sound governance.

MIT’s Technology Review reports a prediction by Didier Sornette and colleagues (Bastiaensen, Cauwels et al. 2009) that a Chinese stock market collapse is imminent–due before 27 July, in fact.

Crashes in stock markets represent cases of self-organised criticality (see, for example, Turcotte 1999): like avalanches, pressure builds in the system to the point where overloading triggers a collapse.  We cannot predict exactly when a collapse will occur, where, or how large the collapse will be, but collapses are inevitable–and sometimes small collapses trigger much larger cascades.  The behaviour of such systems over time follows a scale law: large collapses are few; small collapses are many.

Examples of self-organised criticality can be found in a wide range of natural and social systems, including finance and war (Turcotte and Rundle 2002).  Can we apply the same ideas to nuclear proliferation?

For example, we can substitute the idea of nuclear latency–the level of capability that would allow a swift transition to nuclear status, including through indigenous civilian programs–for load.  (The analogous component in other systems would be combustible material for forest fires, tectonic stress for earthquakes, and over-investment in financial systems.)    The load builds to a point where breakout is inevitable.   But the characteristics of criticality apply: we don’t know when, or where, such a breakout will occur, or how large the ‘avalanche’ will be–one or two nations, for example, or a cascade of proliferation.

What triggers collapse in such a system?  It cannot be capability alone.  But proliferation comprises a combination of material, expertise, infrastructure and intent.  As underlying capability–material, infrastructure and expertise–grows, then intent becomes increasingly important in assessing proliferation risks and behaviour.

And intent necessarily becomes a function of expectation: what are the expected consequences; and what are actors’ expectations of each other?   As in the market, we lack perfect information.  The differences between intent, expectation and surety generate instabilities, which as the load increases and system stress increases, increase the likelihood of collapse.

Moreover, the longer stresses in the system build, the more likely the collapse will be large, cascading as nations with high latency succumb to pressure generated by uncertainties of over others’ intent.

Can we adopt Sornette’s ideas for predicting collapse?  Sornette looks for bubbles in market data; no similar information is available–as far as I’m aware–on nuclear material, industry, or skills.  It’s not exactly the most open of industries–and even more so where there is a covert intent to proliferate.  And even in market data, finding bubble-like behaviour does not necessarily translate into collapses.

But then, Sornette et al do not rely on data alone, but seek to find drivers of such behaviour.  From the Technology Review piece again:

The telltale sign of a bubble, he says, is a faster than exponential growth rate caused by a positive feedback mechanism that generates this nonlinear growth.

Within nuclear proliferation, such drivers include

  • protective hedging against Western conventional dominance, and increasingly, against regional competitors; and
  • increased means of gaining the material, expertise and equipment needed for proliferation, including through sub-national means such as the AQ Khan network.

From a systems perspective there exist drivers trending towards proliferation. Taking the pressure out of the system requires adjusting or defusing the drivers, such as increased transparency of programs; redirecting intent, such as through cooperative security and international regimes; or some sort of as yet unknown technological solution.  The international community has tried a number of these, but given the increasing latency, new and different means may be needed: the barriers suitable for small avalanches, for example, are unlikely to be able to hold back large avalanches.  And therein lies a further problem for the international community: the more the system is held back, and pressure/latency allowed to build rather than being diffused or bled out, the greater the likelihood of a large, cascading breakout.


Bastiaensen, K., P. Cauwels, et al. (2009). “The Chinese Equity Bubble: Ready to Burst.” arXiv: 0907.1827.

Turcotte, D. L. (1999). “Self-organized criticality.” Reports on Progress in Physics 62(10): 1377-1429.

Turcotte, D. L. and J. B. Rundle (2002). “Self-organized complexity in the physical, biological, and social sciences.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99: 2463-2465.

Or why we need to pay more, not less, attention to non-states actors.

This post started a while ago as some thoughts about Kilcullen’s book, The Accidental Guerilla, and Australian strategic policy.  But I found I kept returning to some key themes bigger than either.

Let’s start with WP2009.  Its authors remain confident in the continuing ability of nation-states to shape international order:

We have a strategic interest in preserving an international order that restrains aggression by states against each other, and can effectively manage other risks and threats, such as the proliferation of WMD, terrorism, state fragility and failure, intra-state conflict, and the security impacts of climate change and resource scarcity. (Executive Summary, p12) 

Moreover, they believe that non-state actors—Islamic terrorists—will have strategic effect only when they gain WMD, weapons currently the preserve of nation-states:

Despite its potential to cause mass casualties and catastrophic attacks on infrastructure, Islamist terrorism will continue to have inherent limitations as a strategic threat. Terrorists will keep aspiring to develop or acquire chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear weapons. A WMD attack by a non-state actor in the coming decades cannot be ruled out. (4.49, p38)

However, there are three distinct trends that counter WP2009’s confident view of the continuing dominance of nation-states and their ability to solve the problems of international security.

First, there’s the fraying of the Westphalian-dominated international system, as many accepted norms and even institutions are losing both currency and their constituency.  The United Nations is struggling, as is NATO, for example.  And the cases of both North Korea and Iran show how difficult it is to achieve a consensus on strong action when states, let alone non-state actors operating within a number of states, actively seek WMD.  It’s far from clear that there is any consensus on appropriate new security institutions for the future—though the Proliferation Security Initiative may be such a one

Second, there is the reduced leverage of nation-states over international order, as argued by Kilcullen and a range of other analysis including Cooper and Bobbitt, as mentioned.  A key lesson of the post-2001 world is that nation-states are ill-equipped to deal with non-state threats—whether accidental guerrillas, loosely condoned hacker groups, proliferation networks or Islamic terrorists—yet deal with them they must to retain to retain their integrity and security as nation-states.  There is, however, the problem that the apparatus of nation-states tend to focus on the apparatus of other nation-states; they are ill-equipped to recognise or understand behaviours and effects outside that realm.

Third is the rise of statelessness, best expressed in Grygiel’s recent paper.  Possession of states is no longer the necessary goal for non-state groups. Globalisation and the spread of civilian and military technologies now enables non-state groups to pursue their goals unimpeded by the security, politics and governance that come with state responsibilities.  Stateless groups don’t want to take over and control territory—a Westphalian definition of strategic threat—but they are more than happy to deny states the ability to control territory and to pursue their interests, and to limit states’ behaviours through a range of other means, not necessarily reliant on possession of WMD.

The changes in the international environment over the past few decades, often ‘black-boxed’ as ‘globalisation’ has generated a substrate of communications, financial flows, ideas, peoples, technology and material that have allowed non-state actors an effect disproportionate to their apparent size.  Concurrently, these changes have rendered nation-states less an integral entity, defined primarily by geographically and a largely homogenous population, and more a diffuse if still roughly bounded aggregation of rules, populations, organizations, financial trades, cultures, interactions and, yes, physical presence.

It is true that nation-state warfare remains a possibility.  But it is equally true it should not be the only–not even the primary–focus of strategy or determinant of force structure.  Bobbitt again

“We’re not thinking [at all]. We’re going off unreflectively with the habits of mind that were quite successful for us in the struggles of the 20th century. Understandably, we are reluctant to abandon those habits. My fear is that it will take some catastrophe to shake us out of our complacency.” 


Bobbitt, P. (2002). The Shield of Achilles, Knopf.

Cooper, R. (2004). The Breaking of Nations. London, Atlantic Books.

Defence (2009). Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030. Canberra.

Etzioni, A. (2009). “Tomorrow’s Institution Today.” Foreign Affairs 88(3).

Grygiel, J. (2009). “The Power of Statelessness.” Policy Review April-May 2009(154): (accessed 6 May 2009).

Kilcullen, D. J. (2009). The Accidental Guerilla, Oxford University Press.

The internet is a wonderful thing: there are so many people smarter than you, and you can build on their ideas.

Kevin Kelly—unbeknownst to him—has started filling in some of the gaps on the social side of the transition.  In the latest Wired, Kelly argues that technology is driving digital culture towards what he calls the ‘new socialism’.  This new socialism, possibly ‘the newest American invention’, is the outcome of the evolution from sharing to cooperation to collaboration to collectivism, at least of a sort that seems to work and work well. 

The following, from Kelly’s article, shows the elements of change:

The Old Socialism 

The New Socialism

Authority centralized among elite officials

Power distributed among ad hoc participants

Limited resources dispensed by the state

Unlimited, free cloud computing

Forced labor in government factories

Volunteer group work a la Wikipedia

Property owned in common

Sharing protected by Creative Commons

Government- controlled information

Real-time Twitter and RSS feeds

Harsh penalties for criticizing leaders

Passionate opinions on the Huffington Post

Source: (Kelly 2009)

Personally I prefer Virginia Postrel’s formulation of statists and dynamists.  Certainly, there is a strong libertarian flavour to Kelly’s new socialists. 

And I think a number of these elements or trends will evolve further.  For example, what lies beyond Creative Commons? Cory Doctorow’s DIY digital licensing? 

What does the new socialism means for security?  Here’s a few suggestions:

  • The further fraying of the traditional state, as individuals work, collaborate and play without reference to states and state institutions
  • Online vigilantes and counter vigilantes—the rebirth of the citizen army, but one founded on community of ideas, even (worryingly) romantic ideas of the state, place, tribe or belonging, with all the possibilities allowed by cyber-mobilisation (Kurth Cronin 2006) through to Armies of Davids (Reynolds 2006)
  • Increased transparency, as information is uploaded, mashed and blogged yielding deeper analysis and insight
  • An increasing amount of misinformation, as information is uploaded, mashed and blogged with specific, often hidden, intent
  • Trust and reputation become increasingly important for strategic analysis, with policy-makers, advisers and commentators looking to ‘brands’ for synthesis and insight
  • Emerging bipolarity in strategic analysis and policy: a deep conservatism—stick with what you know—risking sclerotic paralysis; and a nervous tick, reacting to every item in the 24 hour new cycle and risking incoherence
  • Community emergency response, as per Ushahidi, competing with dedicated, formal command and control hierarchies 
  • A nation-state counter-reformation, as nation-states seek to re-exert control over activity, work, information and taxable assets and incomes

And possibilities?  How about online red-teaming of the next Defence White Paper, UK Strategic Defence Review or US Quadrennial Defense Review?


Kelly, K. (2009). The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online. Wired

Kurth Cronin, A. (2006). “Cyber-mobilization: the New Levée en Masse.” Parameters: 76-87.

Postrel, V. (1998). The Future and Its Enemies. New York, Touchstone.

Reynolds, G. H. (2006). An Army of Davids, Nelson Current.

In slow time (ie somewhere between 1 and 2am) I’m putting some thoughts together on key changes ‘through the transition’ that I believe we are currently experiencing.  Some have been apparent for some time; others are only becoming apparent now.

The following (from an earlier piece of work) shows changing perspectives of international security, but stands only as a starting point.

‘Conventional’ view

‘Emergent’ view

Nye’s secrets & mysteries

Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns

Stasis and stability

Dynamism and co-evolution

Single-source threats (states)

Terrorists, tyrants and shadows

Serial tempo, paced

Parallel tempos: fast (terror events) & slow (globalisation, climate change)

Actors constrainable by force, law, economic means

Unconstrained, unconstrainable, unconventional actors

Nations & battlefields

Civilisations & societies  


Nye, J. (1994). “Peering into the Future.” Foreign Affairs 73(4): 82(12).

Rumsfeld, D. (2002). DoD News Briefing — Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, 17 October 2002.   (Retrieved 26 May 2003.)

Sean Gourley and colleagues developed and analysed a large data set of attacks and casualties across a number of conflicts looking for commonalities.  Gourley provided a brief overview of his work at TED recently:

Analysis of the data revealed a power-law, whereby the probability of an attack of resulting in x number of casualties equals a constant multiplied by x raised to the power of -α.  This points to an underlying structure to armed conflict, where moderated by the coefficient α.  Gourley et al argue that α reflects the organisational structure of the insurgency.  Values above 2.5 indicate a fragmented structure; values below 2.5 reflect a more consolidated structure.

Finding power laws in such data is not unexpected: there are many attacks with few casualties and few attacks with high number of casualties.  I looked at not dissimilar data, from different sources, a few years ago.

The ‘so what’ questions remains, as Gourley acknowledges.

Gourley et al considered the effects of the Iraqi surge.  They believed that consolidation at least offered the opportunity to negotiate with a group, and expected the surge to assist with consolidation.  In the event, under the surge groups initially did seem to coalesce, but then fragmented again.

A few points:

  • these results are robust across different conflicts, but each still has its own peculiarities, and while at a system-level, and over time, outcomes are consistent, it may be easily perturbed at a micro-level;
  • we don’t know what influences, or how to influence, insurgent (or non-state actors or mob) organisational dynamics to an outcome we want;
  • conflict is not a closed system, but open to a range of outside and transitional influences;
  • insurgent groups will interact and co-evolve with each other.  Perhaps there is some sub-system grouping that needs to be taken into account; and
  • technology will act as a mediator on the conflict, the nature and rate of fatalities, and insurgent group behaviour as well.

Last, the benefits or otherwise of coalesence versus fragmentation is contextual.  It is true that ending a civil war via negotiation depends on having someone, representative of the insurgency, with whom to negotiate, and that can be hard to achieve.  The emergence of such a party probably depends as much on dynamics internal to the insurgency as on external pressure.  Once achieved, such a position of strength may not translate easily into a willingness to negotiate.  But civil wars also often simply peter out, as the parties lose will, energy and resources.  When that happens, fragmentation may indicate such a transition.

So the results are of interest, but there is a way to go to generate some further insights and understandings.  I do note that Gourley’s group has been applying their ideas and findings to other areas; there may be some transfer back into the realm of conflict.


Collier, P. and N. Sambanis (2002). “Understanding Civil War: A New Agenda.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 46(1): 3-12.

August 2020