Many people, especially civil servants, are able to recognise the interconnectedness of parts in a complex system that make up challenging societal problems, including those of high severity such as global catastrophic risk. We can often agree that big problems need a holistic, all-of-systems approach. So, on the basis of understanding of complex systems, institutions and institutional behaviour will need to be re-designed in order to avoid silo-enforcing, patch-work policy.
However (and although many conceptual analytical tools are available), the understanding of complex systems rarely leads to action or government practices in everyday life. We argue that all levels of government and in particular institutions of global governance need to adopt the mindset of complex systems and practices necessary to proactively deal with societal challenges.
“We need to acknowledge that the existing governance at the global level does not have all the answers, is not designed to deal with complexity and thus does not have a working problem solution.”
The degree of complexity in today’s challenges for authorities and NGOs is very high and the silo-based system developed to find solutions in the form of sectors (poverty reduction, peacekeeping, trade, climate, environment etc.) makes the system for global management of global problems very sluggish. There is a lack of effective proactivity in the institutions and laws or norms that are to deliver global policy.
An example could be the degree of complexity in the ongoing transition from a global fossil-based energy system to a similar but non-fossil-based one. The response to such tasks has often been tailored on a global level.
We need to acknowledge that the existing governance at the global level does not have all the answers, is not designed to deal with complexity and thus does not have a working problem solution. A completely new framework for incorporating global governance needs to be developed.
“By identifying blindspots and flashpoints as well as incorporating predictive technical analysis, participating nations would be able to establish safety nets ahead of time. These experiences would bolster crisis prevention and response capabilities in regions where there is increased probability of converging risks,” as Dr Natasha Bajema and Andrea Rezzonico write in Navigating the Complex Intersections of Diverse Global Catastrophic Risks, published in our report Global Catastrophic Risks 2021. The two authors have a point on the benefits of scenario development and exercises to make organisations aware of how complex problems can converge.
Complexity often arises from the bottom up, through the interaction of the parts with the whole. This is due to happen when centrally laid plans meet the many exigencies found in organisations.
As Dr Tom Pegram and Julia Kreienkamp describe in the knowledge overview “Governing Complexity Design Principles for Improving the Governance of Global Catastrophic Risks”, an important factor is that there are simply more interacting elements nowadays.
Modern global systems are unlimited, they note, which means that their boundaries can be difficult to determine and changes in one system can jump over boundaries and lead to unexpected changes in other systems. Failures can turn into cascades of errors and disasters that propagate and trigger new system errors in turn.
So it is necessary to integrate this lack of control while developing the solutions to the complex problems agitated by global catastrophic risk.
One model to develop
A model to consider for inspiration is the idea of humble governance from the thinktank Helsinki Demos, which originates from the thought that government institutions do not have all the answers to a problem and can be humble in their approach to allow a variety of stakeholders to find solutions. The model of humble governance advocates “thin consensus” as an initial framework for problem-solving but leaves great freedom and difference in approach to solutions and experimentation among a number of actors. Feedback and learning as well as revision of the goal are mechanisms that support problem-solving for complex problems.
Today’s public servants are required to be part of the solution to such global catastrophic risks such as climate change, pandemics, environmental collapse, armed conflicts and rapid technological development.
Often these are wicked problems, utterly difficult to solve, especially as they often demand quick changes in approach and organisation. Providing the resources for flexibility will give foresight to strategy and external analysis. This could defuse problems from being wicked to solvable missions.