The Allen Blog

December 10, 2007

All evolved systems need to accomplish two almost opposite tasks if they are to persist over a long time. First, they must have developed an internal structure of interacting elements that can together do something currently that allows them to pump in the necessary resources (they need a “cash-cow”). Second, in order to survive into the future they must be capable of adapting and transforming the identity and nature of these elements and their emergent capabilities in order to do something new in the changing world (they need to be looking for a NEW “cash-cow”).

In biological evolution, ecological communities achieve this quite normally as the result of the occurrence of mutations and natural variation through which individuals explore the pay-offs available to “novel” behaviour or identity. Because of the differential selection of these behaviours, fitness of a population can be maintained and new niches can be conceived and explored. Death, life and renewal are intimately intertwined for the collective object that is the ecosystem. For individuals however both death and life are experienced very personally, although this has no effect on the efficacy of the process. The sad thing is that only “individuals” really exist and so the pain of improving the “collective” behaviour does not really seem balanced by the resulting “pleasure” of the abstract collective entity. This is rather the case when you are told that, by leaving, you are playing an important role in the down-sizing which will lead to a more successful organization.

In human systems, doted with powers of “reason” and a (possibly over-rated) intelligence, individuals can suppress natural explorations in order to focus and amplify the currently most successful behaviours. In other words, we can “lock-in” to a particular circumstance and through the creation of an extremely efficient system of exploitation of current resources can suppress the natural adaptive capacity of the system that would be more pluralistic and heterogeneous. In some recent work by McGlade, Murray and Baldwin, 2006, a study has been made of the decline of coal mining and the associated communities in South Yorkshire. It demonstrated essentially how the geography of coal deposits, and the social evolution of the mining communities, mining towns evolved to become essentially “mining machines” where people’s identities and roles were all aimed at this single overall activity. This operated and evolved successfully for at least four generations, but when the demand for coal from South Yorkshire inevitably fell, the communities that were affected had no response or other possibilities available. The study documents the numerous ways in which the social, educational, family and institutional structures were all based on continuing coal mining and had no alternatives available. The result was a social disaster that is taking decades to resolve itself. Similar disasters occurred in many UK industrial areas such as Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, South Wales etc. as employment in coal mining, iron, steel and heavy industry all collapsed over a period of ten to fifteen years. In other countries facing similar problems, economic transformation was accomplished with far greater success, by more enlightened policies and carefully planned actions in, for example, Germany and the Netherlands, and this shows us that regional collapses on the UK scale are not a necessary outcome of economic transformation.

The development of the particular skills and social relationships that characterized mining communities was a remarkable story of growing efficiency and technological advance, with team working and interdependence that gave rise to a social experience much more intense than that experienced by typical “suburban” dwellers. The satisfaction that was drawn from being part of a successful, integrated community was probably very great, and its collapse therefore more strongly felt. In the end, the fixity of the identities and roles, and the unity in defence of the way of life is what led to the lack of adaptability and failure to “move on” to new things. In comparison, someone from suburban London, for example, never knew a community, and never had to conform to any particular career or role paths laid down by others. It was a kind of non-identity. All was possible, all was open and nothing was really forbidden. Obviously, there was a general feeling on the part of parents that they hoped their children would “get on”, but this was a relatively vague concept and could be influenced by emerging opportunities and influences that were experienced at school. This rather soulless society gave rise to a very adaptable, open post-war generation that could embrace whatever careers were on offer, and through this could build a complex and diverse economic system which it is difficult to characterize, other than by “post-industrial”.

Definition by what something is NOT (not-industrial) is an interesting idea, and shows that really we still do not really know what is driving our current economic capacities, and how they interlock and co-evolve. The much vaunted economic performance of the UK is in reality a mystery. We do not really know what much of the apparent “employment” is, simply that the officially unemployed are relatively few in number. Has the UK finally become entrepreneurial, creating all sorts of new and surprising niches, or have we been simply riding a borrowing-fuelled boom that may be followed by a debt-ridden bust? What we do know is that the ideal of stable communities, with local identities and social stability with which we had evolved over centuries – the “How green was my valley” – idea, has been put to rest by our own inventiveness. Of course it has given wide opportunities for people to share in the uplifting process of strengthening their own organization by leaving, as a result of out-sourcing and globalization to places where labour is cheap and the environment not entirely on the agenda.

Unfortunately, evolution and creative destruction have no particular aim but only emergent outcomes that do not necessarily reflect any ascending scale or progress. Perhaps, however, the study of complexity can allow an improved vision of possible consequences of different pathways and can influence collective choices in at least a slightly favourable way.

Murray R, Baldwin J and McGlade J, 2006, Industrial Resilience and decline: a co-evolutionary framework, McGlade, J.M., Murray, R. and Baldwin J., in “Complexity and Co-evolution”, Eds. E. Garnsey and J.M. McGlade, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham

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