Challenges of a hyper-connected world

The world has become dynamic, uncertain and complex. Institutions, governments and business models cannot effectively manage the demands of current societies. Embracing and understanding complexity is critical to survive and operate nowadays.

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The world has become more dynamic, uncertain and complex. Both population and interconnections have exploded in recent decades, which are the basis of emergent behaviors at scale. Events in remote areas quickly become global and change the social space across nations. Institutions, governments and business models cannot effectively manage the demands of current societies, while protests and disruption are becoming ordinary. Having been created for a less complex world, these organizations cannot cope with the heterogeneity of modern society, showing fragility to changes in the social environment [1]. Embracing and understanding complexity is critical to operate nowadays. 

 A hyper-connected world lies behind the current events [2]. While viruses travel by plane, conspiracy theories, populist leaders, financial crises and bankruptcy propagate through ties and mutual interdependencies among banks and firms. Interconnections are double-edged. On one hand, they create the possibilities for synergies and cooperation, which are essential for great achievements. Society has historically prospered by increasing the number and strength of relationships among their actors including physical, virtual and economic connections. Developing a vaccine, or finding the Higgs-Boson, requires the collaboration of people, capital and equipment from all around the world. However, on the other hand, interconnections also pave the way for the propagation of local failures by increasing the risks we are exposed to. Unless certain principles are followed, such as precaution at scale [3], the uncontrolled establishment of interdependencies may lead to undesired outcomes such as economic crises, episodes of social unrest and pandemics.

 Oversimplifying the description of social systems decreases our chances to effectively address their issues [4]. In order to make decisions, humans reduce the complexity of the problem to a manageable level. If the reduction goes below the irreducible limit, the decision may have severe unintended consequences. Therefore, in order to effectively interact with a complex system, the relevant parts of the variance of their behavior should be captured, especially those in the tail of the distribution. 

Scale matters. The debate about the scale related to socio-economic interdependencies has become central since the disruption brought by CoVID-19. While some people advocate for more local economies, retail stores are increasingly replaced by digital platforms and countries find it impossible to operate without international trade. Advocates of large, optimized economies of scale, stand for centralized and specialized business models. They create a seemingly-optimal organization of production and flows, which operates with such a small margin of error that drastically dumps adaptation capabilities. While centralization and specialization seem to make things more efficient in the short term, they come at the expense of local variability in the long run, which eliminates the necessary response mechanisms in the event of systemic failure. Besides, centralization easily leads to further centralization given the dynamics of social systems.

 How to create a global society without losing local independence and individuality? One solution is to promote a system of systems [5] rather than a single-large system. A system of systems entails robust local communities and economies able to establish large scale interdependencies that expand the space of possibilities. It is about acting locally and thinking globally. Though apparently less efficient, such organizations are more effective in the long run since they can adapt more easily to drastic changes. Just like an organ tissue, the disruption of one cell should not compromise the functioning of the whole system. The principles we use to recognize and select varieties and interdependencies are crucial for creating a robust society. Localism and globalization are not necessarily antagonistic to each other but rather complementary. While globalization provides ingredients for more recipes or supplies to confront natural disasters, local resilience provides independent and reliable resources to thrive when international flows are not available. 

The question is not whether globalization is good or bad but how we are implementing it. We should act smartly when establishing interdependencies since these are the basis of what can happen in the future, but also in particular rare impactful events. Social scientists, complexity and network scholars, innovators, policy makers and the general public, will each face the fascinating challenge of building the world of the future, to learn from mistakes, and to consider an alternative path that can use the properties of complex systems to our social benefit, avoiding and minimizing the harm to the minimum.

Authors

Alfredo J. Morales, Aymeric Vie, José Balsa-Barreiro, Manuel Cebrian

References

[1] Bar-Yam, Y. Complexity rising: From human beings to human civilization, a complexity profile, in Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), developed under the Auspices of the UNESCO (EOLSS Publishers, Oxford, UK, 2002).

[2] Balsa-Barreiro, J., Vié, A., Morales, A.J., Cebrian, M. Deglobalization in a hyper-connected world. Palgrave Communications 6, 28 (2020).
https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-0403-x

[3] Taleb, N.N. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. First edition. New York: Random House, 2018.

[4] Scott, J.C. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. Print.

[5] McChrystal, Gral. S.A., et al. Team of Teams. Portfolio Penguin, 2015.

Alfredo J. Morales

Visiting Scholar, MIT Media Lab

Trying to figure out the complexity of society and make it work in our benefit