I was struck by the following headline in last weekend’s Sunday Times,
"Virtual ‘mirror’ of world to help predict future".
I see the future as being perpetually constructed in the complex reality of people's present-day interactions. So the claim that it will be possible to make meaningful predictions by 'mirroring' these complex dynamics clearly merited attention.
Digging a little deeper into the FuturICT project to which the article refers, it appears that a wealth of top-level European universities and other scientific institutions are participating in the project. So the enterprise carries a vast weight of academic credibility, based on participants’ expertise and methodological rigour. However, despite recognizing the complex and uncertain nature of human interaction, statements on the related website still make confident claims about the benefits that the project will deliver. For example,
"FuturICT will integrate different scientific areas and activities into a FuturICT platform that will enable participatory science and technology to manage our complex world in a sustainable and resilient manner (my emphasis)"
This prediction (as with others on the site) seems quite a bold one to make, given the inherent complexity and uncertainty of the process that the sponsors are seeking to model – and the absence of the very ‘tools’ of predictability and control that they are setting out to develop!
Thankfully, despite the eye-catching Sunday Times headline and confident claims on the website, the article includes a quotation from the project’s co-ordinator, Prof. Steven Bishop of University College London, which suggests more modest ambitions,
"I’m not saying we would be able to predict the [banking] collapse itself, but we would be in a better position to deal with it."
An extract from the website further clarifies this point (again with my emphasis),
"This system will be able to act as a ‘Policy Simulator’ or ‘Policy Wind Tunnel’, allowing people to test multiple options in a complex and uncertain world, and produce pluralistic perspectives of possible outcomes. The platform will analyse data on a massive scale and leverage them with scientific knowledge, thereby giving politicians, businesses, decision-makers and citizens a better understanding to base their decisions on. In the long run, this will enable all of us to explore the possible or likely consequences of even barely imaginable scenarios, effectively helping us to see just a little around the corner into possible futures.
So what we appear to be talking about here is what might – or might not – turn out to be a more informed approach to scenario planning and ‘what-if?’ analyses, based on extensive, technology-enabled data analysis.
Despite this clarification, though, I still have concerns.
The statement that "the platform will analyse data on a massive scale and leverage them with scientific knowledge" will no doubt cause many people to salivate in eager anticipation. To me, though, the very suggestion that meaningful data on the complex dynamics of human interaction can be obtained in the first place – let alone "analysed and leveraged on a massive scale"- is simply not credible. Small differences in the myriad interactions that comprise "the world" can produce dramatically different - and unrpedictable - outcomes. And so, despite the more restrained statements of the project's initiators, I would be concerned if raised expectations and media hype spawned applications that appeared to give scientific credence to questionable claims about the nature and predictability of the complex social process of human being.
Taken-for-granted assumptions and a 'false-concreteness'
According to the website,the bringing together of "the best knowledge of experts on information and communication systems, complex systems and the social sciences" will create a "new science" - and with it the ability of people to "manage" the future in predictably positive ways. But the unspoken question in all of this is whether human interaction is amenable to scientific analysis at all. I agree instead with Ralph Stacey when he says, in Complexity and Organizational Reality*,
"Perhaps we need to accept that management and leadership are not sciences but fundamentally social phenomena which cannot be understood simply in terms of the application of science, both the sciences of certainty and those of uncertainty."
A view of leadership and organizational dynamics that is congruent with people’s lived experience – in all of its hidden, messy and informal ‘humanness’ – cannot be modelled by information and communication technology, however advanced it might become. And its very sophistication is likely to imbue the resulting analyses with a ‘false concreteness’ that is far removed from the complex and uncertain reality of everyday life.
Taking complexity and uncertainty seriously - it's not 'rocket science'
It might be more beneficial if we were to take seriously the complex, uncertain, and paradoxical nature of human interaction, on which the supposed need for projects such as this are justified. To do so would challenge the very fundamentals of established management practice, including the mistaken belief that more data, ever more sophisticated modelling, and in-depth scientific analysis can overcome the inherent complexity of human interaction. Or that these would enable outcomes to be predicted and controlled in line with the stated intentions of managers and policy makers.
The flawed premise on which the project is based is perhaps best illustrated in the opening paragraph of the Project Proposal. This cites mankind’s ability to send men to the moon as evidence in support of the proposition that technology can similarly be deployed to predict and control the social world. Of course human beings are capable of designing technologies that can facilitate their own human being and human doing – such as building a rocket and related capabilities that enable a man to land on the moon. But organizations are not technologies. And the dynamics of organizations are not rocket science – they’re much more complex than that.
*A copy of my review of Complexity and Organizational Reality, published in the March 2010 edition of AMED's e-O&P, can be read here.