Edge of chaos?

This weeend there was fascinating fragmental evidence, in the form of ‘weak signals’  in the Guardian, that complex adaptive systems thinking may well be about to assert itself as the new paradigm but the early adopters are unlikely to be the business leaders and knowledge managers: From the two major stories of last week:

In the aftermath of the student protests in London the Met Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson said he blamed

Unpredictable movement of some numbers of demonstrators

for the resulting chaos in Regent Street.

A second article quotes Commissioner Brian Paddick as saying:

The protesters seem to have learned, by doing this on a weekly basis, how to outmanoeuvre the containment tactics. They splinter into small groups, running at speed en masse, rather than staying in one group.

A third features The National Campaign against Fees and Cuts who comment:

The strength of the national campaign is that it doesn’t rely on those groups at all. Our activists are basically independents.

Finally onto the Wikileaks story where the hacker group Anonymous, behind the recent cyber reprisal attacks claim:

Anonymous has no command structure… The movement works through “organised chaos” where individuals post ideas and new targets to attack, and wait to see the response. Eventually popular ideas generate action.

Self-organising systems that learn and evolve based on feedback loops, utilising local interactions, attractors and no visible hierachical structure. I wonder if it is more likely for ‘systems’ at the ‘edge of chaos’ to exhibit these evolutionary, emergent behaviours and characteristics.

So is this really the weak signals of a new paradigm? Or is it  just my good old coherence in hindsight because I am looking for anything that matches certain patterns of behaviours?. What I do believe is that assuming certainty and predictability is wrong and imposing too much order in these situations may lead to any manner of unforseen/unwanted outcomes.



  1. Another great post, Ron.

    Please allow me to contribute additional material to your reflection, by quoting from a blog post entitled “On Our Chaotic Swarm”, which had been posted on 2 December 2010 by the Edinburgh University Anti-Cuts Coalition. It is most fascinating in that it seems to be clearly informed by complexity thinking.

    It states, that “Edinburgh, is a non-hierarchical occupation. Entirely leaderless” and that “the occupations have formed a swarm network. This network is very hard to destroy. For every occupation that is forcibly evicted, five more have sprung up. We do not rely on leaders or student unions. And in doing so we lack weak links. We can afford to lose connections and nodes in this network, for new ones are continuously forming in their place.”

    It goes on by adding “We have to remain unquantifiable and chaotic. We act independently, and are hard to track definitively. We can leak rumours, and form truths. […] “As a networked, chaotic group we can act powerfully and unpredictably. […] From our nodes we can mobilise, organise. Entirely chaotically. We are inspirational.”

    Source: http://edinunianticuts.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/on-our-chaotic-swarm/

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Edge of chaos? « The ecology of knowledge -- Topsy.com

  3. “So is this really the weak signals of a new paradigm? Or is it  just my good old coherence in hindsight because I am looking for anything that matches certain patterns of behaviours?”

    My first reaction was, “You find what you’re looking for” but then it occurred to me that pattern recognition and subsequent sense-making exists somewhere between the past and present. Spot the patterns that have occurred and are occurring, make sense of them, extrapolate and project forward.

  4. Thanks for all the comments.

    Pascal, I am particularly intrigued by the Edinburgh source you quote. I had never considered that a complex adaptive system might purposefully avoid the very ‘attractors’ that might attract denunciation. Without a leader, or a union or a manifesto the group make themselves much less ‘conventional’ and therefore difficult to pin down and discredit. I suppose they then use ‘ambiguity’ to maximise support and involvement. Very interesting.

    Cheers, Ron

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