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A network as complex as the three Rs

The autumn financial statement brought little but blindness or blitheness from the chancellor – it’s difficult to decipher which it was, probably a mix of both. Consequently, the cloud of gloom emanating from economic commentators grew ever darker, especially from the Office for Budget Responsibility who poured a lot of cold water on the ‘budget for growth’. The chancellor may have had one eye on his own future, but I’m certain he had not much care for ours.

So it seems imperative that we should take this as a timely reminder: we urgently need a new approach that moves us towards a practice that integrates social and economic dimensions. As both Neil McInroy points out here and Julian Dobson here we need an emphasis that is local in its configuration and participatory in its outlook.

It is a statement of the bleeding obvious but austerity is the zeitgeist. It is the unwelcome guest that won’t leave. It is the spectre of the 1% and the 99% who are too polite (or afraid) to show it it the door.

We have to adapt to this reality and begin to think differently. This requires a rich mixture of novelty in our method. I think, among other approaches, we could do with a good application of new thinking from the world of complexity science. While I imagine the words ‘complexity’ and ‘science’ already have some of you reaching for your mouse and heading for the close button, stay with me – you already know most of the fundamentals.

Understanding complexity is neither simple nor complicated. Complexity can be difficult to define, but then isn’t life like that? It’s fuzzy, it has shifting borders and there’s no complete agreement on what it means. We all live complex lives so it should be familiar to us. The amount of complexity in a system is determined by how much diversity/variation, connectivity/dependency and dimension it has. Complexity is the outcome from systems that are defined by many interactions. Those interactions exist as many networks, social networks.

So let’s place it in a bit of context. Lots of the work we all do is about networks. We usually deploy other names for these networks. Sometimes it might be community, sometimes stakeholders and so on. It’s about building relationships and making the connections meaningful. Its often about the distribution of something through the networks we inhabit: commodity, knowledge, culture, solidarity and so on. Some networks operate really well. Some are really ineffective. Some are designed with purpose and some are accidentally configured.

A good example of complexity and a networked approach in policy, and a massive missed opportunity, was Total Place. Although it was never configured as a complexity-based initiative, it recognised that effecting change at the local level required an understanding of the networks of people, institutions and resources and how they were all deployed.  Total Place sought to optimise the value of networks and deliver more impact.

This is why we need to get a better handle on networks: they help us to have impact by harnessing complexity. In my blogs for next year I’ll be expanding further on how networks can help us with the challenge of generating a new social and economic practice. I think three themes will appear regularly in 2012, these are the my three ‘Rs’.

The first of my Rs is an old CLES/NewStart favourite: Resilience. It is imperative that we scale-up the policy focus on resilience at all levels, from the individual right up to the UK and at the myriad and diverse functional levels in between. Whatever level your involvement in the social, economic and civic sectors it’s worth reflecting on how the services and support you offer are networked and how resilient those networks are.

Complexity lends itself to asking useful questions about resilience from a network perspective. How much diversity is in the network? How much connectivity exists in the network? Are some individuals or institutions key to the network’s operation. If one part of the network is removed, does the network fail? How does the network change over time? How can we strengthen the network? How can we extend the network’s reach? How dependent on place is the network?  Is it well connected beyond a locality? Is the network open? Is the network learning? Is this network resilient?

The second of my Rs is Re-integration. I have borrowed this term from fellow New Start blogger John P. Houghton. He uses the term alongside resilience as a double imperative, maintaining a deliberate focus on the wider economic context so that resilience doesn’t become an insular  process. Networks in deprived neighbourhoods are often badly configured and are externally dependent on the wrong connections. Dependencies exist in all communities both within and without, the issue is about the benefits of the connections. Re-integration is about re-configuring the networks so that the dependencies are useful and productive.

My final R is Resonance. A key reason for focusing on resilience and reintegration is that we recognise the importance of adaptability in the networks that support our economic and civic life. Effective networks need high levels of adaptability and this requires learning capability to harness the complexity they exist in. Yet networks don’t stay together unless they have have underlying purpose and a common set of operating principles. Mobilising people into networks and bridging networks requires a shared idea. An important goal of network development is finding ideas and ways of collaborating that resonate.

Understanding complexity or networks won’t change an uncertain and gloomy future. It’s hard to know what is coming or what the response should be. But this approach may help we us become ready and agile. We must build resilience into our networks. We must find new ways to re-integrate the edges and bridge the structural gaps. We must do stuff that resonates. There will be no simple explanations. Only complexities. But if we use this knowledge well and develop our networks accordingly we might co-produce a better response to the uncertainties that the new year will bring. It’s not the chancellor’s future that’s at stake here, it’s ours. It must be our networks that we develop to tackle the complexities of 2012.

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