When a person is single they make their own decisions and any consequences are self-contained. In a relationship, the needs and desires of a second person must be taken into consideration. Decision making calls for ongoing compromise between both people. As more people are added to the household, including other adults, family members or children, the system becomes more complex and requires structure to maintain its equilibrium. Communication becomes more critical to understand the needs of each member and achieve a happy home.  This scalable approach can be used on most complex systems; the greater the complexity, the greater the need for communication and understanding. System may have underlying similarities, but each is unique and may not respond to a one-size-fits-all approach, the same way each household is unique.

An example in education is Brazil’s Fund for Strengthening Our Schools (Fundescola) program, partially funded with loans from the World Bank. In order to reorganize the country’s public school system, the government imposed a top-down strategy for all 185,000 schools impacting 45 million students. Where municipalities had previously governed their regional school system, the new approach empowered the schools themselves. They were given 50% of the budget and the ability to make decisions on their own behalf. Schools that already had a strong interconnected network between the administration, teachers, parents and students succeeded in this new environment, but schools lacking structure faltered. Many of the schools, especially in urban areas that had experienced exponential growth in the student population, struggled just to address the daily needs and maintenance of the school building; the program burdened them with more administrative requirements. Without additional support this program will create a larger divide between success stories and the struggling schools will fall further behind. The well-intentioned program provided a template to unify the school system, and flexibility to tailor it for each school, but cannot provide the necessary structure to help it succeed.

Building a resilient structure in a company also requires communication and flexibility, as well as a clear objectives. Larger companies are comprised of separate teams that must work together toward the same goal. This cannot be achieved without leadership, planning, open communication, and an understanding of how the teams interrelate. As discussed in Designing Resilience: Preparing for Extreme Events, there are many ways in which a system can go awry, but there are paths to success. One case centered on the conflicting goals of a comprehensive water management system that needed to maintain a consistent source of potable water and produce hydro-power while simultaneously protecting the biological integrity of the watershed. It required developing a new structure, multiple planning and development stages, model simulations, and communication between the teams. This communication wasn’t achieved only in meetings, but with the assistance of “interpreters” who could, for instance, help the engineers understand the concerns of the ecologists who had been added to the team. All of the parties had a stake in aligning the conflicting goals, and success was only achieved by consensus. They will need to continuously strive toward this shifting goals over time.

This approach can also be applied to the global issue of climate change. Humanity has always altered the planet throughout our history, however we have altered it beyond recognition over the last 200 years. We have changed not just the face of the earth with development, but the climate, oceans and atmosphere.  Our actions had unforeseeable consequences, notably the burning of fossil fuels that has caused a series of events leading to climate change, which has had different impacts on every ecological system. Our shared future is dependent on correcting this problem, but engineering a solution—creating a technological response to counterbalance our previous mistakes—may only complicate or amplify the existing problems. The earth’s climate system is so complex that we cannot accurately predict the outcome of a proposed response to solve one part of the problem we created. It is unlikely that we will intentionally return to a pre-industrial lifestyle, but we must find a way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and explore effective alternatives, rather than attempt to counterbalance greenhouse gases with another technology like carbon capture and storage (CCS). Our solution may end up being worse than our current problem.

There is a childhood rhyme about an old woman who swallows a fly. She reacts to the minor problem with a logical solution; a spider. This does not resolve the problem. She continues using more extreme measures to deal with the consequence of her previous decisions, creating more complex problems, until finally the poor woman perishes from her solution, not the original cause. Should our planet take reactive measures to respond to a problem with a known solution—reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels—we may be in for similar fate. We can avoid this by continuing to work together on mitigation and adaptation and for each person to make a personal choice to change.

Image Credit: Association for Library Service to Children