The Open Complexity Centre – birth pangs or stillborn?

Some personal reflections from David Hales

The OCC exists. Although at this early stage it is hard to say if it will continue to exist. Existence constitues two physical meetings of people at the OU and this wordpress site. From my perspective the meetings were fun because we managed to discuss some ideas – quite deep ideas really. This is what I want from such an informal group. Discussion of ideas rather than process or activity per se. An advantage of not being some kind of formal group, project or committee is we can free ourselves from organisational niceties and “cut to the chase” – robust debate and uncensored discussion of our research interests, views and wider ideas.

I believe that academic culture – particularly in the UK – has gone downhill recently. There seems to be a fear of change and an attitude of doing what one is told to do by bureaucrats, funding agencies and other people who are not primarily thinkers but managers. This can lead to mediocre results, lack of honesty in exchange of ideas and worse insufficient robust debate and basic thinking in relation to important issues. That kind of thing is the enemy which we must fight. Because it can deaden the soul and mind by sapping enthusiasm and genuine interest that surely drives all original thinking.

If we are to suppose we can foster a process that forms new economic models, new ways of doing policy, new ways of understanding and even solving social problems then debate must be built into our DNA from day one. If not we go down a well trodden technocratic road which leads to a dead end. People have been down that road again and again. We must learn from history. We must be rigourous – yes, but not fall into the pseudoscience of “scientism” or the “historical inevitability” of historicism.

I say all this because I am combative and critical in ideas. That is my tradition. It is how I was trained. I understand that not everyone is from this tradition and seek consensus in formal process. Neither is better or worse in general because it depends on what one wants to achieve. In fact it would seem a mix is always desirable since this provides flexibility and diversity in decision making.

Critical debate is often lacking within the complexity communities (as far as I have seen) –  too much emphasis on how great we all are. Back slapping and self-congratulation. Lots of in-groups talking to themselves. There is no future in this way of doing things that I want to be a part of.

Now the positive bit. If we can manage, even a modicum, of open critical debate and make that a defining way of working then, I believe, we could make serious advances that could actually improve the world for ordinary people. The world is crying out for new ideas – it’s our job to supply them.

Of course this is my personal view based on what I want. I doubt it is shared by others. But I welcome the debate!

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The formation of an Open Complexity Centre?

Discussions are underway on the formation of the Open Complexity Centre. An interdisciplinary group that would encompass researchers and practitioners working with complex systems, both modelling and simulation, applications and policy – with an emphasis on social systems. Though several potential members are associated with the Open University the centre is open to anyone with suitable interests and is not tied to any institution.

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