Why Society is a Complex Matter: Meeting Twenty-first Century Challenges with a New Kind of Science
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Society is complicated. But this book argues that this does not place it beyond the reach of a science that can help to explain and perhaps even to predict social behaviour. As a system made up of many interacting agents – people, groups, institutions and governments, as well as physical and technological structures such as roads and computer networks – society can be regarded as a complex system. In recent years, scientists have made great progress in understanding how such complex systems operate, ranging from animal populations to earthquakes and weather. These systems show behaviours that cannot be predicted or intuited by focusing on the individual components, but which emerge spontaneously as a consequence of their interactions: they are said to be ‘self-organized’. Attempts to direct or manage such emergent properties generally reveal that ‘top-down’ approaches, which try to dictate a particular outcome, are ineffectual, and that what is needed instead is a ‘bottom-up’ approach that aims to guide self-organization towards desirable states.
This book shows how some of these ideas from the science of complexity can be applied to the study and management of social phenomena, including traffic flow, economic markets, opinion formation and the growth and structure of cities. Building on these successes, the book argues that the complex-systems view of the social sciences has now matured sufficiently for it to be possible, desirable and perhaps essential to attempt a grander objective: to integrate these efforts into a unified scheme for studying, understanding and ultimately predicting what happens in the world we have made. Such a scheme would require the mobilization and collaboration of many different research communities, and would allow society and its interactions with the physical environment to be explored through realistic models and large-scale data collection and analysis. It should enable us to find new and effective solutions to major global problems such as conflict, disease, financial instability, environmental despoliation and poverty, while avoiding unintended policy consequences. It could give us the foresight to anticipate and ameliorate crises, and to begin tackling some of the most intractable problems of the twenty-first century.
build a new picture of human social behaviour and its consequences. This is an immense task, but it is already beginning. It is one we can no longer afford to neglect. Is Society Predictable? The idea that the social sciences can usefully employ concepts developed in the natural sciences is not new. It was evident at the very origin of modern political philosophy. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes based his theory of the state on the laws of motion recently deduced by Galileo, in
periods of inactivity. This seems to be a very common pattern in human behaviour, seen also for example in the way we respond to letters or emails. Such phone-tracking data show that, while people do seem to follow Lévy-flight trajectories, there is a lot of person-to-person variation in their precise characteristics: we each have our own ‘signature’ variation on the same basic pattern. People who are closely linked in a social network – who call each other frequently – also show similar
to map out possible futures. Such efforts have already begun. Between 2006 and 2009 a European team created a model called Eurace, the largest agent-based model of the economy developed so far. It simulated a fictitious economy with several million agents, including markets for labour, goods, credit and finance. Firms within the model were characterized as collections of ‘worker’ agents, and the model had an explicit spatial structure: firms and workers were located somewhere in real space,
benefits of cooperation with their neighbours. In other words, the explanation depends on considering the population as a complex system involving interactions and feedback. The implications of these studies for social science are immense. Cooperation – its creation and its vulnerabilities – is arguably the defining feature of civilization. It is essential, for example, for the mutually beneficial exchange of goods, the payment of taxes, teamwork, management of common resources, collusion among
economic and environmental factors. As one urban theorist put it recently, “the planner must reconcile at least three conflicting interests: to ‘grow’ the economy, distribute this growth fairly, and in the process not degrade the ecosystem.” Yet already the infrastructures for water supply, sanitation, transport, energy and health are inadequate to meet the needs of many cities in the developing world. At the same time, cities have been relatively neglected in poverty relief programs. According