An interesting experiment is to put your laptop next to a friend’s and Google a bunch of highly charged political terms at the same time. The results may surprise you. Your results will differ from your friend’s. It’s a fun demonstration of how there doesn’t seem to be a correct answer for anything these days. Now, imagine that for all these years, we’ve all been reading different answers for the same searches. Then, consider that we haven’t even been watching the same news sources during that time. So who’s right in stating their opinion? It’s hard to say. Our societies are incredibly complex. They’ve always been, but now it’s more apparent.
Complexity is a part of life. And it should be understood. Take for instance something simple like measuring a coastline. That should be easy. Not so fast. In 1967, Benoit Mandelbrot, published a paper called, “How long is the coast of Britain?” that disputed the coastline of Great Britain having a fixed measurement. In that paper, he showed how the resulting measurement is highly effected by the tool being used to measure. Recording the coast with a very long stick will result in a much shorter measurement than a short stick. In his words the short stick would get into the little crevices to measure the full “wiggliness” of the coast. To see how different agencies see that same distance, visit the CIA’s World Factbook. It lists the U.K.’s coastline as 12,429 km. In contrast, the World Resources Institute records that same oceanfront as 19,717 km.
Complexity is something creative people should use as a strategy for success. Knowing that our surroundings are complex can help us solve problems.
The cement industry is a frustrating one. Building sites often fall behind on deadlines or run out of funds. These setbacks are costly when a bunch of cement trucks sit idle with hardening cement inside. Cemex (one of the largest cement companies in the world), found a way around this. They decided to embrace the complexity of their industry and go with the flow. They stopped filling trucks to order and sending those to specific destinations. Now, they fill a fleet of trucks and send them out to wander the streets. When orders come in, they reroute trucks to fill the need. When empty, the trucks return home for more. During the day, they maintain a flexible pattern of coverage for the whole city. The nearest truck delivers the cement. In doing so, their trucks roam the streets like a colony of ants. The result though, is they became so fast and dependable, they guarantee cement anywhere in two hours. They are almost as fast as pizza delivery.
In not seeing the full complexity of situations, we fail to design the best solutions. Complexity is just that; it’s complex. When you look at the parts, it’s doesn’t make sense. But when you look at the trends, it does. More on this in my upcoming book, A Curious Path: Creativity in an Age of Abundance.