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Professor John Dyson, co-author of Design to Value, shares his thoughts on…

Are projects complicated or complex and does it matter?

Designing a building is a technical affair however the function and the context of a building is social, environmental, political; therefore complex. The building details may be complicated but there is an empiricism to them, with the right expertise, modelling and calculations you can come to sound solution.

What is complexity? Complex system theory has been studied in depth since the mid 20th Century. Complex systems are all around us. For hundreds of years we were seduced by the ideas of amazing individuals like Newton, that the universe around us ran like clockwork. It may be that the metaphorical cogs are huge in number and linked in many ways but if we spend the time to study, analyse and calculate the whole system can be predicted. What has dawned since is that although some aspects of the universe are predictable, much is not. When systems have multiple interconnected parts and the relationships are not linear, they become complex and the rules change.

Patterns of interference showing peaks and troughs in a complex system @Bryden Wood

Caption: Patterns of interference showing peaks and troughs in a complex system by Bryden Wood

  1. Outcomes become unpredictable at any level of detail e.g. no amount of measurement, study or analysis can predict where and when an earthquake will strike.
  2. An intervention into a system can have hugely unpredictable consequences e.g. the introduction of cane toads into Australia to control the cane beetle, ended up with a plague of toads with no impact on the cane beetle population.
  3. Flow is irreversible, if you introduce a change, backing out will not put the system back e.g. look at the response of economic markets to changes and reversal of economic policy.
  4. An intervention which worked before will probably not work again next time the same way e.g. if you take the same route into a city every day the outcome can be very different.
  5. The overall performance of the system is not the summation of the performance of its parts. Reductive approaches, dividing the work into chunks and ensuring each is done well will not mean the whole is good. The interconnections are key. Recycling in US was working very well, there was a supply chain from disposer to recycling where all parties made money including the local government. The government therefore decided to incentivise householders to recycle more. Great? As the material went up the quality went down, much more contaminated. The end recycler could no longer process it and the whole chain broke down; the economics reversed with each party in the chain having to pay for the material to be taken away.

Projects which need to deliver multiple outcomes for multiple stakeholders within a whole host of constraints are complex systems. Pretending they are simple or controllable, if only we try hard enough and bang the table enough is wasted energy and stress.

Working with complex systems means keeping a handle on the whole system and its purpose; it means working adaptably with it, trying and testing ideas, looking for patterns and connections. This cannot be done by individual silos of design or work but through collaboration. It means that the processes for the last project will not work for this one.

The Design to Value approach embraces these concepts, it accepts and delights in the complexity as you would watching a flock of birds swirl in the sky. The opportunity is always to find and deliver something extraordinary.

The Design to Value by Mark Bryden, John Dyson, Jaimie Johnston and Martin Wood is available online from RIBA Books or visit RIBA bookshop.

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