Development & Complexity

The complexity of a toaster. Home made toaster by Thomas Thwaites.

Owen Barder, in his online lecture for the Center for Global Development in Europe, presents an insightful lecture into the implication of applying complexity theory to economics and to development in particular. He argues that we should see development as a property of the economic and social system itself.

See the lecture hereThe online form of the lecture is very engaging and shows how online lectures can be very capable of getting across complex ideas. I particularly like being able to read the transcript as I am not the best auditory learner. Being back at university and having to attend lectures which don’t take advantage of the educational benefits technology has given us has riled me recently. I sometimes think whether I could get as good an education reading books and researching on the internet as attending a very expensive graduate school. I shouldn’t berate my university too much, they did put me on to this lecture.

Barber’s conclusion that development policy should not try to look for missing ingredients or try to engineer poverty reduction, but should rather seek to harness the strength of adaptation and complexity are appealing. A development process that embraces experimentation and looks to adapt is needed or development will continue making the same mistakes over and over. However for an argument that seeks to embrace complexity Barber is too outright dismissive of many models of growth. There have been many explanations for how growth and development occur, emphasizing a myriad of different factors from institutions, technology, aid, and policies. Barber attempts to show that all these theories have got it wrong by not embracing complexity. I argue that taken all together these models are how we begin to understand complexity. The battle of ideas through models that inevitably simplify the world takes place in a theatre of crowded minds, and slowly but surely an equilibrium will be reached that balances out the models in our collective psyche with just the right amount of emphasis on each of the elements that contribute to growth. We will not know how the balance will be decided, just as we do not completely understand the process that makes any iterative process come up with near perfect solutions, but we must allow the models to compete so the process evolves as quickly as possible.

He also makes clear that humility should be at the forefront of development work. Development has been wrong before and it will be wrong again but it should face up to these mistakes and realize they may be due to being part of a hugely complex adaptive system. The biggest flaw is not recognizing the complexity of ‘development’ and utilizing our knowledge of complex systems to make incremental steps of progress through experimentation, learning and adaptation.

See Owen Barder’s excellent blog here.

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