Complexity Strategy for Breaking the Logjam

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Essay: Beth Noveck and David Johnson. A Complexity Strategy for Breaking the Logjam.



"In this essay, we explore how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) might use technology to improve the agency’s level of scientific expertise and to obtain useful information sooner to inform EPA policymaking. By creating a self-reinforcing collaboration between government and networked publics, new web-based tools could help produce change within government and without — namely governmental decisions informed by better data obtained through citizen participation and civic action coordinated with governmental priorities. ...

The key insight is not to throw open the floodgates to undifferentiated public input, but to design group-based processes that enable online communities to collaborate on finding and vetting information for agencies. ...

Complex systems science teaches us that organisms (indeed, life itself) flourish(es) at a “sweet spot” between randomness and rigidity. That is to say, the complex flow of signals among autonomous agents becomes richer and more diverse when ambient conditions allow just enough flexibility to adapt to new challenges and just enough order to allow the persistence and replication necessary to enable evolution to operate.

For more complex social systems, this means that the primary goals of any governmental effort should be to (1) recognize whether relevant social subsystems have moved too far towards the random or rigid side of the continuum (as they do when we become constrained by outmoded environmental legislation and regulation) and (2) intervene to nudge these systems back towards the sweet spot in the middle, opening it up to new signals and interactions. ...

Our strategies have to grow—have to evolve — through experiment and trial-and-error. We cannot be afraid, merely because we are in the traditional domain of law, to start small, see what works and try again. Inescapably, we are gardeners, not mechanics, and so we should think about our legal institutions as social organisms." (