And So It Begins

Being in this course came as somewhat of a surprise. I had already enrolled in another course, was happily thinking about spending a semester whiling away hours with creative writing when I received an email saying that I had been accepted into UGRD3001, Unravelling Complexity. The opportunity to fling myself out into the depths of things I know nothing about and meet students and ideas from other faculties seemed a little to good to resist so I gave up the stories and here I am. The introduction to the course by Lawrence Cram revealed a little of the philosophy behind why we are all here. The seed for the course seemingly came from the What Are Universities For? report. One answer seems to be “Universities serve to make students think: to resolve problems by argument supported by evidence, not to be dismayed by complexity, but bold in unravelling it”. And so we begin a thirteen week journey on Unravelling Complexity, juxtaposing case studies of collapse to pick out the commonalities to better equip us to problem solve.

Cram said in his lecture that "emotionality, rhetoric and politics are all time-tested techniques for resolving arguments". My initial reaction is that all of these things are essential and good to problem solving but the more I think about it, it seems that they are as much a hinderance. I will be interested over the coming weeks to see how they come into play within the case studies and in the dynamic of the students debating against each other from the view points of their different disciplines.

Donald Rumsfeld's (in)famous quote was resurrected by Cram " Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are “known knowns”; there are things we know we know. We also know there are “known unknowns”; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also “unknown unknowns”—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”. I can only hope that by the end of semester a series of unknown unknowns become things that I know, or at the very least, things I know that I don't know....


Starting the course with the GFC was nicely topical. I enjoyed the week because economics is something that I quite frankly know nothing about. After I slogged through all the reading I had a whole arsenal of terms to add to my vocabulary. Such as Leverage, Expansionary US monetary Policy, Efficient Market Hypothesis, Monetary vs Fiscal Policy, Liquidity and Nominal vs. Real.
The GFC seemed to unfold like an earthquake. A series of tremors leading up to a very rapid catastrophe. I remember, while in Vietnam at the beginning of 2008, waking up to CNN reporting a very large and rapid drop in the stock market, the next day the Federal Reserve Bank had readjusted the interest rate and within days the event had disappeared off the news cycle. This was a preface to the major culmination of complex factors that have resulted in what has now been affectionately dubbed The GFC. Renee's suggested reading, particularly David Gruen's Speech to the Sydney Institute and his seven causes for the crises really illuminated the topic for me. It echoed with a quote I came across from this article "The Queen and the perfect bicycle" on Inside Story exploring the value of the discipline of economics.
"AS EVEN the most ardent republican would acknowledge, Queen Elizabeth is not one to make flippant comments about grave matters of public policy. So when, capturing perfectly the mood of public exasperation, she asked an economist why his profession had not seen the crisis coming, it became a serious matter for the British Establishment. The response, which came at the end of July in the form of a letter to Her Majesty from that august institution, the British Academy, suggested that everyone had been doing their individual jobs correctly, but as a group economists had missed the big picture of a “series of interconnected imbalances.” If economists were guilty of anything, the letter suggested, it was “a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people… to understand the risks of the system as a whole.”. Which pairs perfectly with Gruen's statement:financial instruments became so complex that eventually literally no-one understood fully the nature of the instruments they were buying and selling”

The last sentence of that paragraph sums up, not only the GFC, but one of the greater themes of complexity. How the collection of many seemingly correct things can culminate in collapse. The question then arises, Is it necessary for a system to be holistically understood or is it better for people to specialise on parts of knowledge and to collaborate. How do you stabilise when there is too much distance between the various agents of the system for the system to function? Or even as I think back over that statement is it even possible for a system to be holistically understood. The gap between the possibility and impossibility I think is the tipping point between complicated and complex.

Questions: What are the workable alternatives to the free-market system as it was before the GFC? Or will we recover from the crisis and find equilibrium in the existing system?

Is Government regulation a good or necessary thing?

Money Makes The World Go Round

(click to make larger)

Money often leaves quite the calling card in complex situations. However, when it is a billion dollars here and a trillion dollars there it becomes hard to conceptualise what these figures mean. As is often the way, I begin to better understand things when they are explained visually. The Billion Dollar Gram helped to put money and complexity in perspective for me. Many of the problems that we have discussed are represented within.

Black Swans and Scenario Planning

Steve Cork's lecture on uncertainty was interesting but more than anything else it offered a framework for ways of understanding the rest of the course. It was a stern lesson in letting go of expectations and perceived inevitabilities. I agree that so many problems are due to a failure of imagination and a tacit acceptance that things are just the way that they are. It reminded me of the previous quote on the failure of economics. There is a difficultly in that the people who are in positions of power have often been promoted through specialisation and excellence in their field and have become bound by their expectations. Maybe they should take some advice from The Queen of Hearts:

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Alice in Wonderland.

The child-like whimsy epitomises for me the point of view necessary for beginning to address complex or even, wicked problems: To always be on the look out for Black Swans

Because I think that the ideas in Steve Cork's talk will be a good framework to keep coming back to throughout the course I have made some visual representations of key ideas for easy reference.

First of all a quick guide to identifying wicked problems (which can be clicked on to make larger and readable). The talk was thought-provoking in terms of the difference between complex problems and those that are simply complicated. The diagram helps in drawing the distinction.

I also think what Cork had to say about strategic planning was very helpful, not only for this course but as something that can be used from everyday problems right through to complex ones.
The other thing that came out his lecture is that emerging theme of connectedness. The whole format of the course reflects this idea and I think that as we go on it will become dominant. I wonder though if all problems lend themselves to connectedness or is it just not possible for some?

Dealing With Difference

The tutorial for the GFC topic was the playing ground for the first instance of differing disciplines/personalities being at loggerheads with each other. A discussion on the sub-prime mortgage crisis became quite emotional and heated and was split between an economists/lawyers point of view that 'people should have been more careful with the contracts that they were signing' and my touchy-feely humanities point of view that the people were victims of the greater machinations of a complex system. At the end of the discussion I don't believe that we had reached any compromise and were perhaps even more convinced of our own opinions. It possibly only highlights our personal stubbornness that may be worn down across the course but also one of the problems of interdisciplinary studies with high-achieving students: That they're all very used to getting their own way and being right.

The second tutorial didn't develop much past the first in respect to dealing with differences we ended up discussing the initial posts from the wattle exercise and then ended up choosing one to talk about in depth. It happened to be the article that I posted on the criminalisation of HIV. We split into small groups to discuss the problem. I felt that we spent so much time dancing around semantics that we didn't end up discussing any problems of politics, education, culture, history, corporate interests, research and development that contribute to the complexity of the problem.

One group declared that as we know what the answer is (find a cure for the disease) then the problem just isn't that complex. This makes me wonder about the frequency of this attitude on a wider scale. Clearly the parameters of the problem need to be defined but often it seems to happen that stakeholders define the parameters in such a way as to negate their responsibility.


This statement was made by David Gruen while commenting on the GFC. “Your views are so tightly held as to be impervious to new information” I think that it has wider implications than the GFC in the subjects that we are exploring.

Expansion is the opposite of this imperviousness. Expansion and new knowledge depend on the ability to be open to the unexpected and previously impossible. New knowledge is formed with tenacity, curiosity, the ability to be tangential and look for new knowledge in unexpected places and draw connections between disparate disciplines. Hopefully all of these things can be helpful in unravelling complexity. Lawrence Cram first mentioned expansion in his introduction

"Engestroem states that the alternative to reactive forms of problem solving is EXPANSION which transcends the given context. He is deeply committed to the proposition that “expansive learning” is the essence of the kind of learning that is required of humans. He concedes that this is an elusive idea, and one which is sometimes seen to lie in the domain of mysticism."

The melee of comment following the famed GFC seems representative of this reactive problem solving. However, expansionary knowledge does still seem a fabled and elusive idea.

Reflection on Systems

While interdependence of parties is integral to the implementation of complex solutions there needs to be an objective and hierarchical independent body that belongs to the solution-system only, this is important to monitor the involvement and effectiveness of the parties working inside the problem system


After a lecture, some questions, lots of reading and a tutorial could we arrive at a definition of empire? No. The closest i came was to devise some hallmarks of empire:
· border control
· money and military might
· ethnicity as a tool: finely tuned dynamic of inclusion and exclusion
· effective centralized government combined with empowered lawmakers at the locality
· monolithic polity
and Branding/culture: dress, language, capitals, architecture etc

All of these can also be adapted to look at corporate empires too.

Constantine cavafy's 1904 poem 'waiting for the barbarians' keeps coming to mind. It explores most of the 'hallmarks' from above. This has been one of my favourites since i first heard it in 2006 read by indigenous professor and lawyer larissa behrendt as a preface to a forum on homelands and displacement in australia

In Paul Burton's lecture on the Collapse of the Roman empire I was particularly struck by Demandt's 210 reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire. Within this list there seems to be reference to nearly every complication in collapse across all the subject areas that we have, and will be talking about. For example: Abolition of rights; Absence of character; Apathy; Capitalism; Climate; Epidemics; Excess; Over-expansion to Terrorism. I particularly felt the link between the excess and greed of the Roman Empire and the previous panel on the GFC. I was surprised by the climatic elements mentioned by Burton including near-industrial exploitation of resources, deforestation and over-farming. The possibility of sea-level rise seems like the idea of 'presentism' that was mentioned (imposing contemporary concerns on historical events) but the more agriculturally and industrially based factors seemed plausible as a part of the problem. This point isn't surprising but it is something that I had never considered in a problem (The Roman Empire) that I have always considered political. It brought home to me one of the emerging themes of the course, that macrocosmic problems are seemingly always comprised of a multitude of factors (perhaps even 210?).

The standout consideration for me from Joan Beaumont's talk was that empiric collapse happens when the focus shifts from the creation of wealth to over-investment in the military. From my somewhat patchy knowledge of political history this seems to be an apt conclusion. One figure that I came across suggested that the USA, including expenditure on Iraq and Afghanistan (not usually included in DoD budgeting) spent $623bil on defence vs. Everybody else in the world, which totaled around $500bil. The intuition of looking at past mistakes makes the future of US imperialism seem somewhat wobbly.

The discussion following the lecture was fascinating. The salient feature of which was the idea that studying history may only be so useful in predicting the future. Which tied nicely back to the previous discussion of Black Swans. We were warned that looking for patterns can be a dangerous game to play. I enjoy looking for patterns in history, I believe that the patterns are inevitable but perhaps the process for each collapse is wildly unpredictable.

I was also intrigued by the discussion of empire in the twenty-first century. That it has become an unfashionable (colonial?) concept and that the rise of ego and the individual is incompatible with the patriotism and human-canon-fodder style wars of imperialism witnessed in previous Empires. It was also suggested that Empire is impossible with a three-year election cycle. I wonder then if these are all 'Western' symptoms and we are at a massive disadvantage to rising powers with diametric philosophies?

This week's tutorial reading covered differentiating concepts of empire. The remnants of colonial empire in Zaire, the commercial empire of Martha Stewart and the historical comparisons of the Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire. It is from comparisons between these studies that I devised my previous 'hallmarks'.


Is the collapse of empires something that happens catalytically, in a certain culmination of many factors that incites rapid breakdown?

· Is it therefore futile to look for one cause of empire collapse?

· Is time too great a force for superpowers, is evolution just a natural progression?

Is it impossible to have an objective stance about contemporary events, can collapse only be defined retroactively?

Is political tyranny important in the twenty-first century? Or are the empires of today’s world based on the infiltration of dominant ideology (>Religion; educational models; consumer models; dominant corporations; communicative culture and language) rather than centralized governmental control

Our Sea of Islands

Figure of a spirit being [adaro] c. 1940
Star Harbour, Solomon Islands

I have to start by saying that this week sort of passed me by, although I went to the lecture I was in a daze and by the end of the week I was stuck in bed with swine flu and missed the tutorial.

Beginning to think about the Pacific Islands I realise that they have no real identity to me except as a far away place with white sand, coconuts, the occasional military coup and as a poster child for climate change. From my reading and understanding it seems that the complexity in the Pacific comes from the tension between history, geography and resource availability.

I appreciated Scott MacWilliam's points, if only generally, that all knowledge is deeply political and ideological and that we all take our personal context into interpretation. He asked of us to avoid being reductionist and to acknowledge the lenses of our culture. I think this is something that we should all be urged to do yet at the same time this is almost one of the necessities of this course, in that by going over such broad topics so quickly we are forced to be reductionist in the ways in which we approach the concepts with which we are dealing.

I was intrigued by the idea presented by McWilliam that the pacific states don't have a continuous collective identity. Rather they are intermittently linked such as when they collectivized in sporting arenas. He again raised the question: "is it easier to unite against something negative than it is around something positive?" This reminded me of the discussions that we started with about the definitions of Empire. The more I think about it is one of the main themes of the course. We are often collectivised around problems (negative) rather than preemptive with our solutions and preventative measures.

The other valuable point and again non-specific to the Pacific is the difference between inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary. Many of the ways that we have approached knowledge in this course involve discussions and solutions in a specialist arena while at the same time many of the stakeholders in the problems are non-specialist. I think this idea of transcending the academic sphere in problem solving is key to unravelling complexity.

Question: Do you think that the Pacific Islands will form a more cohesive identity as their geography is threatened by climate change?

If sea level rise does occur to the point of decimating the locality is the culture cohesive enough to survive a diaspora?

Closing The Gap

Once again I think that relations between Non-indigenous and Indigenous Australians is an area where there is a huge gap between the popular conception of the problem and the deeper intricacies of the problem. I think the points made in the Pacific studies lecture about the weight of history being a complicating factor are especially relevant in exploring this topic. I find my own discipline very helpful in understanding this topic as art is central to Indigenous Australian culture and has been often employed to exorcise some of the tensions of Australian history. Last year studying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art I wrote an essay with the title Black Art on White Walls exploring the historical tensions between indigenous and colonial culture. I think Richard Bell's provocative artworks which I have provided a sample of below explore some of the issues that we have discussed throughout this topic.

Richard Bell 'Uz vs. Them', Digital Video 2006

I facilitated the tutorial for this week and so do not really want to reiterate the ideas that Matt and I chose to explore in that forum. Instead I'd rather reflect on some of the other concepts that came across during my research. Firstly Closing the Gap isn't a complex problem, it is an attempt to break down the problem of the disparity between the quality of life for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians into a series of smaller problems that can each be addressed. Looking then at the state of Indigenous affairs in Australia and overlaying the Wicked problems diagram, it certainly qualifies.

The intervention was an attempt to run at the problem with 'one shot solution' and was a reactionary measure that failed to consult experts and to address a system. It took one small part of a complex system and tried to fit the mold to the whole. Which turned out to be wholly inappropriate.

The COAG report, from which the 'gaps' to be closed are defined says that "An improvement in one building block is heavily reliant on improvements made on other building blocks." These building blocks are as follows

(a) Remote Indigenous Service Delivery;

(b) Indigenous Economic Participation;

(c) Indigenous Early Childhood Development;

(d) Indigenous Health;

(e) Remote Indigenous Housing; and

(f) Remote Indigenous Public Internet Access.

The difference can be seen between this and the intervention in that this is an attempt to address the systemic problems rather than those most addressed by media outrage. The COAG report attempts to address the failings of a hierarchical approach and address a trans-disciplinary way of problem solving. In this instance trying to equally integrate the needs of competing parties as illustrated below.

The language and tone of the report seems to be working in the frameworks that we have been developing for problem solving. For example

Working in partnership ideally provides an opportunity to:

§ seek involvement to ensure that views are reflected in options developed; or

§ collaborate and partner with interested parties by directly incorporating their advice in the development of options and identification of the preferred solutions.

The Closing the Gap targets are ambitious and work to achieve them will need to be undertaken over a considerable period of time. The Strategy recognises that this will require:

§ sustained commitment from all levels of government to work together;

§ resetting of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – this reconciliation involves building mutually respectful relationships between Indigenous and other Australians that allows us to recognise our histories and our cultures; it will also involve us working together to solve problems and generate success that includes all Australians;

§ action through mainstream programs and Indigenous specific initiatives;

§ responses that address the nature of place and broader issues;

§ sound measures for progress, accountability, the development of an evidence base and identification of best practice; and

§ Involvement by the corporate sector, non-government organisations and local government with the aim of Closing the Gap and building partnerships across all sectors.

I can only hope that these documents are not rhetoric and actually translate into action.

In terms of learning process I think that it was interesting to work with someone from a different background. Matt kept bringing me back to a political/legal standpoint while I kept dragging him to look at the problem through the lens of cultural relations and cultural disempowerment. I think eventually we reached a good middle ground. I tried to bring my discipline to the tutorial. I didn't really expect that people would have much of a knowledge of art but was astounded that no-one knew any of the artworks that I bought along to discuss.

Question: How do we best communicate the imperative of reform in indigenous affairs to a largely apathetic public?

The Culpability of the Individual

As a preface to the first chapter of her book 'Complexity: A guided tour', which was set at tutorial reading for the maths tutorial, Melanie Mitchell has offered this quote
"Half a million army ants are on the march. No one is in charge of this army; it has no commander. Each individual and it blind and minimally intelligent, but the marching ants together create a fan-shaped mass of movement that swarms over, kills and efficiently devours all prey in its path"

Ants are certainly remarkable in their ability to create a communicative, cohesive whole. However, I think there is too much of a tendency in our society to reduce complex systems to this sort of model. One of too-large-to-manage collectivity with no power to the individual.

This thought really struck me while going to see the Vanity Fair exhibition at the Portrait Gallery. Although the portraits were all taken of great and varied people who had achieved a range of remarkable things the view of them all side by side revealed something stunningly obvious. They are all just human. They each took a small part of something much greater and changed it. This was especially illustrated by Annie Leibovitz's photo 'George W. Bush and his inner circle'. It is just a photo of seven people in a room who look slightly bemused as if they've just shared a joke. Many of the problems that we have, and will discuss can in some way be traced to or at least related to the seven people in this photo.

It is true that they are the public figureheads at the end of a great web of administrations and bureaucracies. However, I think that as we move through this course one of the things that is necessary in unravelling complexity is to recognise the power and the culpability of individuals within complex systems. This addressing of the individual within the system can be useful in a number of ways. For example, blame, as in the case study in which we looked at the collapse of Enron. Retroactively unravelling the complexity of this systems collapse revealed that some, though not all, of the problem was at the hands of maliciously intentioned individuals. On the other hand the culpability of the individual can be empowering, as in the case of climate change where small changes by individuals (and individual corporations) can (hopefully) result in some net change.

George W. Bush and his inner circle, photographed in the Cabinet Room of the White House in December 2001. From left: Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney, the president, National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, White House chief of staff Andrew Card, C.I.A. director George Tenet (seated), and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

Environmental Policy

Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger
The Water Hole

Steve Dovers' talk on environmental complexity was something that I could understand more fully than some of the other topics which we have discussed. Although I still come from a non-specialist view-point I can more clearly see the logical cause and effect of parts of the system than some of the other topics we have discussed, for example empire or The Pacific.

Almost more than anything environment management seems to be something that requires interconnected management. The natural world does not respect boundaries and neither should approaches to dealing with it.

I am really interested in ways that the human relationship with nature has changed over time. I wrote an essay in a Victorian and Edwardian Art course about how the human relationship with nature had changed over the nineteenth century. I want to continue this exploration through my honours thesis and explore how art expresses our contemporary relationship with nature. Another excellent source for this is William Cronon'sThe Trouble with wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’ . Analysing this relationsip is useful in working out ways to convey to people the imperatives and importance of environmental management. For example, with Dovers' discussion of paddock trees he mentioned had regulation had been informed by a changing need to control the environment and remove the trees which has evolved to a need to protect the biodiversity and protect the paddock trees. This emotional aspect is also important with trying to convince people to change their behaviour to become more carbon neutral. His talk also bought home the place of the ever-present unknown and unpredictable element when he talked about the fact that people are unwilling to sacrifice long drives and long showers because they found the time emotionally satisfying. This human feeling aspect is something that could have easily been missed approaching the problem from an empirical standpoint

In preparing for the tutorial I read a lot about nuclear power, something I haven't really thought much about since high-school chemistry. This is another example of a problem in which their is a huge gulf between the problem in popular imagination and the reality of the problem. I was surprised to be reminded that the storage for nuclear waste isn't necessarily as mammoth a problem. Although nuclear energy isn't as dangerous as popularly perceived I still would rather a greater imperative for research and development of sustainable technologies rather than heavy investing in infrastructure for technologies like nuclear power and clean coal and carbon capture.

The reading about the Nacirema was sort of facile and irritating but did provide a useful lesson in treating problems in which you are deeply entrenched with an element of objectivity.

Question: How do we empower people with participative and environmental management to have a noticeable and positive effect on the environment?

The Maths of Complexity

In year eleven maths teacher gave me an ultimatum about doing more work or just giving up. I called her bluff and dropped the course that day. I have a funny relationship with maths, I almost really like it, however, high school maths and I never got along because I always ended up asking 'but why?' and the answer always was 'you don't need to know, just work out this bit'. I always found that deeply unsatisfying and so have really enjoyed this week as it brings together the complicated bit with numbers with the real world.

That being said, as much as I have enjoyed it, it is still something I have a hard time getting to the bottom of and so have probably arrived at a point of deep-seated admiration rather than a satisfied comprehension of. I had a lot of fun playing The Chaos Game and making pretty patterns out of formulas and watching people much more in touch with numbers explain them to me in the documentary The Colours of Infinity.

I think in terms of complexity there is something especially important about maths, which I see parallel to art, in that it is a universal language that has the potential to transcend culture.

I really enjoyed Michael Barnsley's lecture, I love seeing people with so much energy and passion who can communicate with people outside their discipline. The salient points from Barnsley's lecture which I think can be applied to other areas are
  • I: Simple feedback systems may exhibit complex behaviour.
  • II: Simple systems can be very sensitive to initial conditions.

The best description I came across in terms of applying the idea conceptually came from the tutorial reading The Nazis' March to Chaos: the Hitler era through the lenses of chaos by Roger Beaumont:

Question: How do we apply these ideas if we have no way of determining the initial conditions?

Oh well, if my comprehension of mathematical concepts fails entirely I will just satisfy myself with the wonder of fractal broccoli.

Fractal Broccoli

Sustainable Development Speaker's Forum

Yesterday I went to a public lecture at the ANU on sustainable development. The speakers included Bob McMullan MP, the Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance and Professor Stephen Howes, formerly of the World Bank and previously Chief Economist of AusAID.

Bob McMullin talked about what is being doing to achieve the Millennium goals. One of the points that he kept coming back to, which I think is important to take into our framework for unravelling complexity is to keep taking stock of what it is that you have achieved and balance that against that which still needs work. When dealing with very large and complex problems it is often easy to be overwhelmed by their enormity and loose sight of the end point.

All the speakers highlighted the need to engage in constructive development rather than cheque book diplomacy. There was also exploration of the need to balance the growing necessity of sustainability against the desire for rapid economic development in poorer countries. They explored the value in engaging local knowledge and empowering small communities in appropriate ways.

One of the points raised by the second speaker, Stephen Howes, really brought home some of the concepts from the 'Our Sea of Islands' Panel. The speaker showed pictures of climate change offices on pacific islands that were just empty buildings with a sign, or perhaps just one bookcase filled with never-touched recommendations from far away universities and think-tanks. It showed how inappropriate 'western' methodologies can be for the diverse cultures that are all linked in to the system of global society.

Another key point was to be wary of the tendency to romanticise 'traditional knowledge' of other cultures. The speaker warned that because something is being done by local people and has been done that way for a long time it doesn't necessarily have best value. Diverse cultures are all entitled to adapt to best practice rather than be forced to remain in false-romantic primitivism. I think this warning needs to be especially heeded in Australian Indigenous affairs and closing the gap.

Engineering - Systems and Networks

Buckminster Fuller, Geodesic Dome

I'm starting with Buckminster Fuller for no particular reason other than I really like his ideas. For me he presents a cross-over between engineered and aesthetic design. Also, the forms of his work beautifully express a visual representation of connected and interdependent networks.

The hubs and nodes concept of systems could be applied to nearly any case study that we have looked at and seems to be another way of formalising the systems view that we have already discussed.

I like engineering case studies for complexity and collapse because they have tangible results and the success or failure is evident in ways that it sometimes hasn't been in other areas that we have studied. That being said this fact is quite a large part of one of the problems of engineering, because it exists in a sphere of specialists it is very easy to maintain a self-contained attitude to problem solving. Engineering problems could be solved solely by engineers or could choose to take in the advice of economists, demographers, psychologists, environmental scientists, artists and consumers among many others.

This idea was explored by Gaurav in our tutorial, who is a software engineer. He said that it is very very easy to remain in a bubble and not need to consult outside sources until product implementation, which in the case of large scale infrastructure projects could be disastrous.

I chose to look at the California Electricity Crisis as a case study for collapse in the engineering tutorial. This really showed up how engineered systems are still widely susceptible to the effects of outside factors. I mentioned Enron earlier when talking about culpability within systems.

The California Electricity Crisis had many elements. From my readings the key factors seem to include
  • Deregulated energy markets
  • Aging infrastructure
  • Environmental factors: Drought reducing hydro-electricity, Fire disrupting networks
  • Artificial manipulation of system by malicious parties, including Enron.

The first three of this list already makes for a complex, yet controllable system, however the balance in the system being upset by artificial manipulation created unnecessary complexity through a lack of transparency. I think that this type of complexity needs to considered often as a complication in systems.

I thought that this tutorial was run really well, giving people different viewpoints to research. Working in groups with the whiteboards to draw explanations of crisis and then to reconvene and discuss amongst the whole group was an effective learning strategy.

Question: How would my discipline (Art, culture and curatorship) be useful in an interdisciplinary engineering school?

Public Health

Public health is an area that I find very interesting. I have been doing self directed study in the area for my current affairs in the spanish speaking world course into forgotten diseases. I did a presentation on Chagas disease and Medecins Sans Frontiers' campaign to 'break the silence' on the disease.

The issue of equitable access to medicines seems to qualify as a complex problem in as much that there are so many parties with seriously conflicting interests. I understand the need for intellectual property but really can't get past an emotional point of view that there needs to be access for everyone to medicines to treat communicable diseases. Without really understanding the practical implications, I think that the idea that was raised in the tutorial about having a tiered system for TRIPS where drugs that relate to contagious disease that are a serious threat to global public health have different licensing laws. However, due to the seriousness and contagious nature of these diseases there is also a lot of money to be made from them and therefore, I imagine, not a lot of interest from companies such as Roche and GlaxoSmithKline in opening up the licensing.

Before even getting to this point though there is the massive complexity of the nature of diseases themselves as well as the unpredictable human reaction. The inconsistency of education and development in this areas was really confirmed by Kamalini Lokuge's story about traveling on the plane with a group of sick American students who didn't understand the reality of bringing H1N1 into an under resourced country.

In terms of looking at effective systems I think the take home message was that adapibility and effective communication (as well as financial resources) are key to having effective public health systems.

I had to go to an honours prep meeting and was disappointed to miss the first half of the public health tutorial. I think that Harriet and John really achieved excellent communication and reflection through modeling different ideas. Putting people in role plays really introduced empathy into the situation, which is something very necessary in public health.

Question: At what point do governments have an ethical responsibility to contravene trade laws and condone the manufacture of generic drugs?

Law and Complexity.

Tom Faunce's talk on nanotechnology was an interesting case-study of a wicked problem, however, like the maths I think I can quietly appreciate it rather than deeply engage. Apart from this I think the Faunce's points about the ways in which laws are formulated interesting and his ways to deal with problem solving were very helpful.

I think the point that laws are often the culmination of a developed sense of ethics and codes of practice of a society underpin the value of education and activism as having a very real role in helping to address problems. I believe that through collective action and the taking on of more personal responsibility we can address problems like climate change and indigenous rights.

Faunce's final reflections on problem solving and the value of looking for the completely ridiculous reminded me of a quote by surrealist André Breton:

"The man who cannot visualise a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot"

I think that there is a responsibility of those in policy making positions to inspire others outside the academic and institutional arenas with a sense of the possibilities of the seemingly impossible.

Mathew Zagor's talk on refugee law reminded me of the frustration I had way back at the beginning of the course with the tendency to redefine complex problems to shift responsibility. I was horrified to hear of countries deterring people in foreign waters and foreign airports so that they could side step around the parameters of international refugee conventions. These sorts of complicated legal issues and treaties are an example of something that alienates the greater public from the reality of a situation. Thanks to media spin-doctoring and hype, refugee politics is something that nearly everyone has an opinion on. An opinion which is unfortunately often far removed from the facts.

Thinking about what Zagor said about the Australian government investing money into scare-tactic videos of crocodiles and sharks to deter refugees reminded me of a similar idea from the other side of the problem. Médecins Sans Frontiers attempted to replicate experience to educate ordinary people about the realities of being a refugee with the Refugee Camp in Your City program. These two examples show that the provocation of emotion can be used both positively and negatively in complex situations. Rather than investing money in such nonsensical ways Zagor urged investing in preventative and appropriate development, such as was mentioned in the Sustainable Development forum

Zagor's point about academic knowledge being influential in the making of laws was heartening. It is good to be reminded that academic pursuits can have real world implications.

Question: How easy/possible is to undo laws which add to complexity?