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Project ComplexCity: a manual for collaborative complexity engineering

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Between May and October 2017, The Global Challenges Foundation ran a competition requesting for proposals to improve the framework of global governance to meet the increasing stakes of the 21st century. I was happy to take part in this competition with a diverse and global team, submitting an idea which we call “ComplexCity”. We were overjoyed to hear that our idea has been selected as a semi-finalist, top 100 out of more than 2500 submissions sourced globally.

I would like to share the executive summary of the idea with the Internet community, humbly requesting your consideration, feedback and suggestions.



We assert that while neoliberal globalisation showed a lot of promise, the growing demands of global development amidst a population boom, are severely straining planetary limits and democratic ideals across the globe. Moreover, the inextricable interconnection of human, resource, information and capital flows across the globe means that the world has become more complex (as opposed to merely complicated), complete with the unpredictability of emergent phenomena and feedback loops, black swans and butterfly effects. This complexity is overwhelming centralized top-down governance institutions into constantly putting out fires from all sides, not to mention the institutional gridlock in planning the way forward for the long-term benefit of humanity.

While things look bleak, all hope is not lost. Think about what centuries worth of human development has already accomplished — from 1) growing literacy and access to knowledge, 2) longer lifespans with better food, clean water, improved sanitation and healthcare, 3) increasing calls for diversity and inclusivity to 4) an ever-increasing inventory of tools and technologies to interact with one another and the world.

Let’s briefly focus on the first point. The average literacy and numeracy across the world has risen significantly in the last 2 centuries; while only 12% of the world’s population could read or write in the early 1800s, today this statistic has been effectively reversed with only 17% of the world’s population remaining illiterate. Consider also that the world’s population has exploded in the last century. For comparison, in the 1800s there were 0.9 billion people on the planet, while today there are 7.4 billion. This suggests that there are now billions of people who can share complex ideas than ever before in human history.

Also heartening is the last point on technological progress. 82% of the world has access to electricity, 95% of the world’s population lives in an area with a cellular network. To put that in perspective, more people have electricity than have a secondary school education; more people have access to the Internet than have clean water.

The network effects of our technologies are exponential and undeniable. A handful of smartphone companies can manufacture portable supercomputers that accelerate the productivity of millions. We have come to the point where a single social network can seamlessly connect almost 2 billion people across the world, allowing individuals to engage in unprecedented conversations without borders. In the case of Linux and the Internet, a single person created a powerful platform that will eventually came to power the most extensive communication tool ever devised by the species, and thousands can collaborate on improving such tools to positively and tangibly impact the lives of billions.

Even the early successes of the nascent commons-based peer production paradigm hint at great potential waiting to be unleashed. Take Wikipedia as an example: a modern day Library of Alexandria, enabled by tens of programmers but populated with millions of articles sourced by thousands of contributors, serving billions every year. These are examples that do not easily fit into conventional economic theories precisely because they are part of a fundamentally new economic paradigm.

In our telling, these are all the dividends from humanity’s investment into itself. The citizens of the 21st century are more educated, more informed and more capable than any century before, and not a moment too late. We recognise this as modern civilization’s hidden superpower, and ask how best to utilize it directly in the governance process.


So, what is ComplexCity?

Giving citizens the opportunity to participate in local governance could help offload some of the prosaic burdens that institutional actors currently face, thus freeing up bandwidth to engage with truly large-scale and long-term problems. In a nutshell, this is analogous to scaling proportionality problems of the form: “It takes X men Y days to solve Z problems”. The volume and frequency of issues (Z) or the severity (Y) can be managed by sharing the cognitive load among multiple stakeholders (X).

Our proposed solution, ComplexCity, is a platform designed to harness this new civic superpower in a responsible bottom-up manner, complementary with existing top-down global governance institutions, so as to truly tackle the complexity of the world together. At a philosophical level, there are 3 main themes that we hope to address with ComplexCity: 1) crowdsourcing holistic and systemic solutions to complex sociotechnical problems; 2) growing resilient commons-based societies; and 3) addressing civic legitimacy to engage with institutional actors in a constructive two-way dialogue. In contrast to dominant commercial platforms such as Facebook, and in alignment with the spirit of P2P, the platform itself is to be cooperatively owned and democratically governed by its members. The platform is also intended to be self-improving and ever-evolving over time, as befits any strategy to grapple with complexity.


And how would it work?

Our platform consists of 3 main pillars: 1) Learn, 2) Apply and 3) Build.

Pillar 1: Learn
In the first pillar of ComplexCity, Learn, we propose to create a series of educational resources for the layperson to be introduced to complexity science in an accessible way. In a nutshell, Complexity for Dummies in the form of open courseware. Anyone should be able to go through the course, but we will especially target high schools and universities as hubs for collaborative complexity engineering in their respective communities.

Pillar 2: Apply
The second pillar of ComplexCity, Apply, will provide citizens with a structured socio-scientific framework to: 1) identify and frame wicked problems; 2) gather perspectives from multiple stakeholders impacted by the problem; 3) design and conduct experiments with measurable inputs and outcomes and 4) share the process and results in an open and transparent way among all stakeholders. For citizens, going through the guided process builds credibility and legitimacy for their words and actions. For communities, disparate groups addressing one another and building ties builds understanding, fosters compromise and strengthens resilience. For institutional actors, this proactive and structured approach provides a pathway to engage in constructive two-way dialogue with proactive citizens, as opposed to acting *on* demographic statistics. The structured process should encourage the ideation, experimentation and implementation of mutually beneficial evidence-based policies.

Pillar 3: Build
We intend for the third pillar of ComplexCity to be the most impactful contribution to global governance, connecting the following stakeholders: 1) recognized community leaders and solution finders on ComplexCity; 2) subject-matter experts and mentors; and 3) national, international and supranational institutions across the private and public sector and 4) donors from grassroots communities, state actors, philanthropic foundations and (social) venture capital.

The ComplexCity team, will work with a broad coalition of institutions to define civilizational stretch-goals that are desired, and then design carefully framed challenges with significant funding to crowdsource entrepreneurial solutions to wicked problems. Imagine if global governance institutions, national governments, private sector and philanthropic organisations were jointly involved in defining mission-based goals like “Provide clean water for 5 billion people in 5 years”, and then pooling their capital (or other resources) into a fund dedicated to this mission. We envision teams from all over the world then coming up with ideas to achieve this goal for their local communities (say 5000 people at a time). The most promising ideas are given funding to explore their viability, and the results would be shared across the ComplexCity network for other communities to learn and replicate. In this way, global goals are achieved, not in one fell swoop but rather, slowly and just as surely by a thousand cuts.

Is this a fantasy? Consider the idea you’re reading right now is itself the result of such an initiative, just one of thousands of submissions from just one competition. What if we could have a hundred such competitions every year targeting just as many global issues, resulting in a thousand simultaneous constructive collaborations around the world, every single year? What if we improved the state of the world by 1% every year — what would the compound interest look like?


Parting thoughts

Philosophically, ComplexCity as the name implies builds on our appreciation of complex systems and wicked problems. Complex systems of course can be simply explained as assemblages of smaller parts that collectively behave and result in outcomes that cannot be predicted from the function of the smaller parts. This naturally implies non-linear emergent outcomes, positive and negative feedback loops, and time lags between caterpillar cause and butterfly effect.

This raises the question, can we even meaningfully intervene in a complex system? I have three simple answers.

1) We are already part of (multiple) complex systems operating at various scales. Doing nothing is also an input and entropy is not on our side.

2) Working with complex systems requires a mental paradigm shift: it requires us to think of the world less like a watchmaker, and more like a gardener. What do I mean?

A watch is indeed a very complicated device, but if the right components are assembled in just the right way by the watchmaker, the assemblage will function as designed. This picture of the world is simplistic and elevates the capabilities of humans to construct perfect assembly.

Consider instead a humble gardener. A gardener can not control whether there will be enough sun, too much or too little sun, when weeds will grow or disease will strike. But he/she can still set up the right conditions for flowers to bloom. It also implies that this process is continuous.

3) For an organism like a human being to survive, billions of different kinds of cells have to work together almost seamlessly. And so the onus is also on the organism to treat its body well if it wants to thrive. An organism is a complex system, and so is civilization. Just like we take care of our bodies, we must also take care of our civilization. In other words, don’t f**k the system, make love to the system. Care for it. Fix it. Teach it. Help it. Develop it. Grow it.

Finally, in designing ComplexCity, we were heavily inspired by the contemporary dynamism of startup thinking: from hackathons to Lean iteration. These hands-on innovation processes are extremely valuable and relevant even to the commons-based society, and ComplexCity employs these principles wherever possible. The ultimate goal then is nothing less than to drive an entirely new economic pathway where human, material, information and financial capital are invested into the commons to grow the commons in a way that is structured, objective, transparent and outcome-oriented, while addressing truly wicked problems and building strong coalitions within and across communities.


Let’s connect!

What do you think of the idea so far? Like what you see? We invite you to read the full submission, which can be found here.

I would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions to further develop this concept. Please also do get in touch if you’re working in this area and see opportunities for collaboration.

For now, that’s all I have to add. Watch this space or follow me for updates! Let’s save the world!

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