Articles

In praise of complexity

When faced with a problem, the normal tendency is to find a solution. The indefinite article "a" here is important. Not because it is indefinite but because it implies singularity. When finding a solution we often think in terms of replacement because it is easier but it is rarely what happens.

Let's look at energy for example. For centuries the only source of energy was wood, then came coal and oil, hydro power, nuclear, wind, solar, biomass, load management, tidal... Today, our energy mix is made up of at least a dozen sources. However, in the mid-20th century most people thought nuclear energy would simply replace carbon sources. 1950s science fiction is full of atomic toasters and cars and still today the possibility of fusion being the one and only energy source of humanity remains as "the perfect solution" for some.

 Past Energy Mix

Past Energy Mix

 Projected Energy Mix

Projected Energy Mix

In transport, when faced with the environmental issue of runaway gas-guzzling cars, we think firstof replacing them with electric cars. This is normal because it is intellectually easier to grasp as a solution. Our way of using the new solution is very close to how we use the existing technology. We use the same underlying infrastructure (roads and parking), the same property scheme (individual ownership), they even look similar. The only difference is how one fills them up with energy. Even there, Better Place imagined initially a solution very similar to how we fill up petrol cars, using battery-swapping stations that change the whole car's battery pack in one go just like filling up a tank of petrol.

Yet again, reality is more complex. The petrol car is actually being replaced by a myriad of solutions each more adapted to a specific use while at the same time addressing the carbon and gridlock problem of the car: this is called multimodal mobility. The solutions are both old (walking, biking, buses, subways, car pooling) and new (car sharing, electric cars, so-called hoverboards). Some require new infrastructure (fast charging stations or more pedestrian-friendly streets in cities like Los Angeles initially designed for just cars) or new ownership models (for car sharing for example). The true novelty though is the ability to seamlessly transition from one mode of transport to the next.

When working in Paris, I would leave my house on foot, take a Vélib' (Paris' bike sharing program), cycle to Gare de Lyon to take a regional train, get off at the station close to my work where I left a bike to finish the couple kilometres from the train station to my office. On days with a public transport strike or mechanical issues, I could always take an Autolib' (Paris' electric car-charing system). And all this was much faster, less costly and more environmentally friendly than owning my own car.

Though these solutions ask us to make an effort to adopt them and come up with them in the first place, and complexity is often derided as being complicated, this complexity should be praised and should be a source of pride. These complex solutions are a testament to human ingenuity and progress. To make more and more complex systems work requires a much better understanding of the world, increased collaboration and in turn these solutions not only address the underlying issue they are there to solve but also offer a more customised solution to individual needs and environmental realities.

I wished to write this brief post to warn that whatever I come up with during this year will not be a one size fits all solution. It will have to be thought through, chosen, adapted to a place, a time, a purpose but not only is that not a bad thing, it is great and and measure of how far we have come along since the only tool mankind had to do anything was a rock.