Simulating Complexity

My first memory of  glimpsing complexity in the mathematical sense was a planetary gravity simulation program in high school physics class. This was just a black-and-white program with little white circles that you could position in space, and change their size, which corresponded to their mass. Then you started the simulation, and these planets would whirl about in very complex ways that were predictable at the beginning but you hardly ever knew where they would end up over time.

Ken Robinson, author of The Element, thinks that we need to change our guiding metaphor when thinking about physics and organizations to be an ecosystem metaphor — an appreciation of the fact that everything depends on everything else. In Ken Wilbur’s terms, this is the understanding that every holon is a part of some larger whole.

Complex systems are difficult to represent because, well, they are so complex. If a function neatly describes the position of a planet over time, that function could simply be plotted. But complex systems (such as the simulation of multiple planets acting on each other via gravity) change over time in non-linear ways that don’t follow well-defined functions.

If it were easier to create complex system models, it would be easier to see and understand and test and predict the connectedness of things. If you can’t plot it on a graph, the next best thing is to see it in action. We need the “spreadsheet of simulations” — software that is accessible to anyone and enables users to model and visualize complex systems. StarLogo is a step in the right direction, but it still requires users to learn a fairly difficult programming language.

Is it even possible to model general complex systems without using traditional programming languages? I don’t actually know. But my hunch is that it is possible, and multi-touch interfaces could play a significant role.

Leave a Comment