CitationDownload as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 1998, MCB UP Limited
An agenda for industry and society in the twenty-first century
Every major historical period develops its own brand of comprehensive world outlook or worldscape Goethe's Weltanschauung based on its particular perception of the universe, as well as a social superstructure attuned to that vision. Examples include: the Italian Renaissance, Newton's seventeenth century and the industrial revolution.
Our times are no exception. Chaotics, as we see it, is a forerunner of a new cultural revolution that is increasingly engulfing mankind in a whirl of change before our very eyes. Not only is chaotics radically transforming the way we think about the cosmos and our immediate environment, it also challenges many of the assumptions that used to underpin traditional science and conventional business, as well as the very fabric of our society.
But first: what does chaotics stand for and how did it push itself to the forefront? To be sure, the global upheaval associated with chaotics and its lookout is made up of several, initially distinct, layers. However, this initial, rather scholastic interpretation is, as we now realise, too linearly simplistic, and thus misleading. Granted that many of the constituent parts are but loosely connected, while other contributing components seem to be floating freely in mid-air. Yet, unless a layperson can catch an overall vision of the chaotics "galaxy", his understanding of the all-embracing concept and its ubiquitous reality is likely to be incomplete.
In everyday parlance, "chaos" as such has no precise meaning. Is it a passing disturbance? a recurrent turbulence? disorder? is it "catastrophe"? you name it, you have got it. This spotty perception began to change in the 1960s when a score of pioneer researchers, from nuclear physics to weather forecasting and the study of wildlife populations, became intrigued by rapidly mounting evidence of disorderly behaviour of systems that could be traced back to trifling events or fluctuations, or even to minuscule errors of measurement at an early stage.
Their, essentially experimental, work led to a first formulation of so-called chaos theory, which resulted eventually in the enunciation of a set of concepts, axioms and hypotheses concerned with the irregular, unpredictable evolution of non-linear dynamical systems at large.
The tools with which these early observers worked were elemental and few in number. Three stand out: bifurcations, thresholds and attractors. While the first two are self-explanatory, "attractor" is a more erudite term used, by and large, as a synonym for behavioural patterns, which could be either repetitive or disorderly, but never really 100 per cent identical. Eventually, chaos theorists have availed themselves of the number-crunching power of the computer and they carried out revealing computer simulations.
In the meantime, a few friendly mathematicians tried their hand at framing at first simple, then more elaborate, equations, which seemed to validate the premisses of chaos theory. Others concentrated instead on what has become known as fractal geometry. Benoit Mandelbrot, leading the field, and his followers started with the observation of all sorts of odd-looking shapes in nature from broccoli to coastlines to forest foliage, which led them to assert the principle of similarity across scale. Soon, however, they began playing up manmade fractals, those iteratively derived, geometrical idealisations that were to revolutionise computer graphics and data compression technology, opening the way for futuristic high-definition televisions.
Finally, it was the turn of the biologist, in association with computer scientists, to take the lead. Under their influence, a variety of evolutionary systems, whether of the Darwinian or post-Darwinian vintage, were accepted as models of real-life complexity. This cauldron of exciting discoveries and bold analogies was to spill over into other disciplines. At the same time, the new evangelists were busy annexing some older, not fully thought-through theorems, e.g. Einstein's theory of relativity, Henri Poincaré's unfinished work on the, so-called, N-body problem, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which were thus integrated into the emerging corpus of "chaotics".
Clearly, chaotics is more than a juxtaposition of chaos and complexity, although it does encompass both theories. Indeed, the foundations of chaotics touch on all aspects of our world. To zero in on essentials, chaotics systems are networks of myriads of autonomous agents interlocking in a multitude of ways, with no central centre whatsoever. The overall impression is one of confusion; yet on closer inspection, some trends and behavioural patters are discernible. Examples include cells, brains, bees and ants, and they range from markets to industries, from firms to social entities of all kinds.
Each agent is part and parcel of an environment produced by the interactions, multidirectional and multilevel. The agents alternately compete and co-operate, and this unceasing interplay gives rise to self-organised groupings, real or virtual, that are increasingly intricate, yet highly adaptive. To put it in a nutshell, spontaneous self-organisation, without undue outside interference, is the quintessence of chaotics.
By analogy with what we know about the behaviour of cellular automata (thanks mostly to artificial life simulations) we also begin to understand that living systems exist under four states: completely rigid or frozen; semi-frozen with some ephemeral movement; completely chaotic with built-in instability; and finally, sustained and long-sustainable interactive movement that has been called "edge of chaos" and equated with "edge of life".
Needless to say, this overall conception of the universe is antipodal to the deterministic, clocklike world of Isaac Newton and the thousands of his followers who kept the credo alive down to our age. Of course, people have always suspected that neither nature nor life are seldom as harmonious and straightforward as mainstream scientists and philosophers wanted them to believe. However, it was only much later, just about 30 years ago, that the messy pieces of mother nature and likewise the mishaps of social organisation became the focus of serious attention. Why it took so long to start looking into those hiccups is indeed a kind of a puzzle.
Another clarification is in order. Almost without exception, the researchers and writers on the subject have stressed the negative, threatening aspects of chaos theory, pointing out in particular the dangers of greater complexification and lamenting the pitfalls of space-time trade-offs under the umbrella disguise of globalisation. This fatalistic posture, which leads inevitably to defensive business strategies, as well as to social desperation, may have something to do with the present world landscape.
When one considers any corner of the earth, the news is so similar: total economic collapse of Africa north of Johannesburg, ultranationalism in Russia, militarism in China, violence in the Middle East, repeated currency turmoil in the Far East, drug addiction and organised crime in the Western world, shooting wars here and there, violation of human rights in many countries, the spread of AIDS it amounts to a terrible list at the very close of the twentieth century.
The good news is that there is nothing in chaotics to comfort the fatalistic attitudes. For our part, we take complexity, chaos and chaotics in general, as tangible forces for good as well as bad, with a plea to do every effort to understand them, and to learn how to cope and use them creatively.
In this uncertain, unpredictable world where anything can suddenly pop up and where almost everything is up for grabs, the leaders, businessmen, scientists, and managers at all levels, indeed all of us, are in need of a reliable compass, together with some guide-posts. And that is precisely where chaotics, with its cosmologic conception of society and its institutions, comes to our help. It provides us with some pointers on how to run individual firms and manage more efficiently, and on how to deal with seemingly intractable problems in the social and environmental spheres.
Just as life teems with variables, all interlocking, so the production and distribution of goods and services involves a myriad parameters whose interactions create change and new opportunities, and upsets old routines. The persistent malaise in many business communities brings to the fore a need to rethink our basic understanding of the economy. It has grown complex beyond anything known in the past and this complexity is the hallmark of both today's global economy and the individual firm.
More and more companies, especially in high-tech industries where initial fixed costs have grown sky-high, tend towards a new pattern of returns, analogous to positive feedback, a mechanism exploited routinely in physics, engineering, biology and medicine, and familiar to the students of chaotics.
Operating under increasing rather than decreasing returns is the baseline from which to start making hard-core decisions at the top. To produce more, better-quality goods or services, more quickly, while using fewer resources is today a must for all companies, large and small. This requires recasting some production processes, overhauling the organisation and, above all, raising the acumen of management at the macro and micro level.
These, indispensable, developments herald and hearten a new managerial culture, with its built-in intuitive alertness for any pointers to turbulence in key business parameters, and an acute awareness of the need to uncover/identify at an early stage the trigger mechanism that conditions long-term marketing success.
Clearly, there are richly rewarding parallels to be drawn between the corpus of principles and precepts of chaotics, on the one hand, and a streamlined operation of businesses and of the economy under the new conditions and constraints, on the other hand. Rigidities all along the line are to go unconditionally, and that includes, in particular, such sacred cows as the quantifiable "scientific management" routine, and of course command-and-control deterministic strategies, based on extrapolations from the past and on "business as usual".
Also, contemporary future-minded managers are developing a radically new approach to technology assessment. This ought to be entrusted to several teams and run on several tracks simultaneously, rather than be concentrated in the hands of a few mainstream specialists and experts, notable for their penchant for fabricating a consensus. In an environment where anything is possible, although nothing can be taken for granted, the probability of forthcoming major breakthroughs of the techno-industrial kind must be kept under constant review and reassessed at frequent intervals. In addition, it may be useful to watch for precursor events and early symptoms of forthcoming shake-outs.
Everywhere we see new forms of business organisation emerging under the impact of the chaotic trends of reverse scale effects, combined with self-organisation. Future projects of Herculean proportions will be beyond the means even of the biggest corporations. But they will be achievable via "schools of minnows" smaller companies acting in concert. The self-organisation principle points to a gamut of structures, from ad hoc alliances to virtual communities, spreading over oceans and time zones.
In such a context, the advantages of small size in terms of special skills, scaled-down equipment and flexible machines, shorter production runs, leaner operations, extreme adaptability to changing markets and environments will be at a premium. Acting and reacting together, these, often inconspicuous, pluses will foster "co-operation", an original combination of phased-in and phased-out competition and co-operation, unimaginable only a generation ago.
To apply the principles and precepts of chaotics to social problems and woes may very well turn out to be even more relevant than preaching the same gospel to the business congregation. In this vast area, three problems stand out: unemployment; under-development; and the degradation of the environment.
All three lie at the intersection of the business of wealth creation and public welfare. In neither field the overall situation can be said to be satisfactory, and in some instances, social dislocation may have reached a point of no return. At the personal and local level, a clearly discernible identity crisis looms large and further complicates the general picture.
Taken together, the whole globe of the prevailing human and societal preoccupations is to be seen against a backdrop that in itself is shamefully disquieting. Consider a few hand-picked facts. Throughout the world, three billion human beings lead a highly precarious existence, whilst two billion are permanently parked under the poverty line. According to the OECD, there are over 800 million unemployed and grossly underemployed worldwide. In Europe alone, real joblessness is record high, estimated at perhaps 30-35 million. And, whilst the USA presently enjoys long-term growth and high employment the staggering figure of 1,800,000 prison inmates illuminates the shattered cultural frameworks of USA's marginalised millions.
Moreover, the casualty rates caused by natural and man-made calamities are rising exponentially at close to 6 per cent per annum. Think also of the near destruction of the ozone layer; the death-throes of the Caspian sea; the systematic deforestation of Amazonia and Malaysia; the desertification of sub-Saharan Africa; the continuous migration of the country folks everywhere to unmanageable megapolises; to say nothing of the gigantic Three Gorges Dam being built on the Yangtze river, which will drive over a million Chinese from their homes.
In a short article it is impossible to provide an overview of all the appropriate therapies for curing the many woes or, at least, to put a break on the ongoing decay. Innumerable piecemeal remedies have been tried and proved fruitless. We need a quantum leap in boldness of thinking and unshakeable steadfastness in combating rigidities, buttressed by inherited, obsolete, conventions.
Two examples, which follow, are intended to illustrate in a rather sketchy way, how modern chaotics could be used creatively. Let us being with ecology and the quality of life.
Scheme 1. Ecological Welfare Inc.
To ensure adequate permanent protection for our terrestrial environment, it is suggested that a comprehensive environmental health care plan be worked out on a scale comparable to the early health care schemes for people and gradually implemented in as many countries as possible. This is a realistic project, as it only implies shifting existing (human and financial) resources which are presently underutilised to a more productive use.
More specifically, we envisage recycling excess farm population and setting up a highly professional corps of guardians of the environment, to be paid at going rates out of bloated farm subsidies and put in charge of performing a series of specified, much-needed tasks, including monitoring and prevention. Furthermore, in order to revive dying countryside in the countries concerned, it is recommended that local authorities, public utilities, postal and banking networks, educational institutions, etc. should pool their means and start providing retraining facilities for thousands of (future) local staff equipped to discharge a variety of polyvalent, part-time jobs in the field. Other refinements could be added to this basic outline, eventually leading to a step-by-step enhancement of quality of life for the remaining sedentary population as well as for the benefit of the newcomers attracted to the countryside by high salaries, pleasant surroundings and an interesting mix of activities.
Scheme 1 could possibly be sold to the European Union as a partial substitute for the highly controversial CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), as well as to the USA where the problems are similar.
Scheme 2. Interlinking welfare, housing and jobs
Countries, typically France, Germany and Belgium, that are beset with persistent high unemployment, further aggravated by the presence of innumerable (often idle) immigrants, cannot reasonably expect to solve any of the knotty issues involved, unless they abandon their sterile policies and set about creating favourable conditions for active synergies to take hold and give rise to positive feedback.
How can a significant breakthrough be achieved? Let us assume that country A decides to overhaul its welfare laws and begins to provide housing free of charge to anyone under the poverty line.This, in return, for a commitment to partial repayment at some future date if and when the tenant's income increases (as was experimented successfully in Singapore years ago). In view of the extra costs, some other benefits would have to be scaled down, e.g. giving up compensation for short illness, limiting reimbursement of certain drugs, closing underutilised hospitals, etc. thus providing seed money for the new scheme.
Several interrelated goals could be attained. First, overall public welfare is optimised by retailoring the social protection package to meet people's essential needs of our age, rather than those of 50 years ago. Second, production costs for all sectors go down, as labour-related costs are lowered by the drive to lower-priced housing. The result is more work and so more employment, including a great many ancillary activities. Third, social and inter-ethnic cohesion within the country is enhanced. Finally, the construction and associated industries are pulled out of the present doldrums and begin creating new jobs. This sets in motion induced growth all around via new employment opportunities and increased disposable incomes.
The example is designed to show how daring changes can modify stagnant policies and retrograde structures and practices. The key point is that overall gains exceed the sum total of individual benefits. But a triggering action is necessary to precipitate the motion. The momentum will subsequently be sustained by a myriad interactions of the thousands of players (or agents, in chaotics terminology) involved in the scheme.
Needless to repeat the obvious, in the end, self-organisation is most likely to take hold and prevail, assuming, however, there is no further interference by the government, which could only dampen the impetus. Gradually sometimes grudgingly people at large will adjust and embrace a new philosophy of more gracious living, sustainable in the long run.