The Catalan referendum and the Brexit vote are the symptoms of a disconnect between government decision making time lag and voters opinion forming time scale.
In this exclusive interview, EuroScientist Editor, Sabine Louët, speaks with German physicist Claudius Gros about the insights that complex systems bring into our society, which help in understanding their deficiencies regarding how decisions are made. In turn, highlighting such issues could inform future public policy governance. With his work, at the Institute for Theoretical Physics, Goethe University Frankfurt in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, Gros reveals in a recent publication that the pace of governance is out sync’ with the timescale of decision making among citizens. He studies how such a society would fare over time and suggests an explanation for the societal instabilities we have been observing in the wake of the move towards independence in Catalonia and the Brexit vote, among others. Gros’ analysis is based on the observation that citizens’ opinions are now forming faster than ever before, relative to the time scale of policy decision making, due to mobile phone communication and internet technology. This suggests the need to introduce necessary changes in the modes of governance, to enhance the reactivity of policy decisions, as means of keeping our democratic societies steady.
What motivated you to apply complex systems theory to public policy?
Years ago I did read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, which is based on the premise that individual actions would average out in large societies. The consequence being that sociological, political and economic events become predictable. This is apparently, however, not the case. And I always wondered why.
The situation changed in the last decades, as more and more studies are starting to use tools from dynamical and complex systems theory. The aim is however not to predict specific developments, as it was the case in Asimov’s novels, but to characterise socio-political systems as such.
Which particular theory did you focus on for this purpose and why?
I essentially adopted two standard methods from complex systems theory. First, I created a simulated society of agents, representing both voters and politicians. To characterise such society using a complex systems model requires to specify a relatively large range of parameters. It is not easy. This is why I used a second approach, relying on averages, to describe the opinion of the electorate and the status of the democracy. The idea is to study the feedback loop between average voters’ opinions and the actions of the political elite. It turns out that this feedback loop is likely to produce self-reinforcing developments linked to voters’ opinions, in particular in in an era where political correctness dominates, nudging citizens in staying close to the norms. This second approach leads to concrete results we can analyse explicitly. The latter would be substantially more difficult should we rely on numerical simulations alone, as these produce relatively unspecific outcomes.
Could you give some concrete examples of where such theory applies?
Our models may describe the effect of external disruptions to an established order. The model is not specific, that is it does not predict any concrete political development. It does, however, predict that the inherently present tendency towards runaway developments, straying from the established order, may materialised at any time. The Catalan independence movement and the Brexit are typical examples of such issues. Another example comes from the US. Many actions of the current US-president, Donald Trump, clash with the political normative order, until recently considered to be without alternatives. The question is to identify the underlying driving forces in Trump’s election. The present theory suggests, that an underlying generic tendency towards an instability of the socio-political system may have been one of the components contributing to the election of the current US president.
What did you find in your study that informs our future governance of policy making in response to a crisis situation?
A political system may change substantially during a crisis, but hardly in controlled direction. Controlled changes can only happen in quieter times. This is because a crisis tends to amplify small and in many cases irrelevant facets of a given situation.
What are the possible implication for future governance mechanisms?
Present national States tend to change their institutions only very slowly, if at all. Even though there has been 60 year since the signature of one of its founding treaty— The Treaty of Rome–the European Union is still in a nascent state as a political entity. The present theory implies that instabilities in society may follow from a loss of flexibility, namely whenever it becomes difficult to voice points of views deviating from the norm. We can take an example from the field of construction, by referring to skyscrapers in Japan. They are not built stiff, but allowed to swing forth and back when an earthquake hits. What makes it possible them to endure an earthquake is that they are flexible. Rigid high-rising buildings are on the other side more likely to eventually crash.
This means that the European Union may develop along two paths. Either it becomes a monolithic supra-national state, which will entail most likely encrusted structures and decision making. This seems to be the vision adopted by most past and present-day pro-European mainstream politicians. The second option is that the EU evolves towards a dynamic set of ensembles—represented as circles—which could refer to either nation states, autonomous regions or devolved provinces, centred around specific fields. Think, for instance, about the intersecting Olympic rings, as a metaphor. Presently, we have a core EU surrounded by circles involving Schengen, the Euro zone, European patents, etc.
The present theory implies that the EU would be stronger if developing towards a dense, but dynamic network of collaborative circles. In this case the core of the EU would not be enlarged. Countries then do not have to leave the EU altogether when unhappy about certain aspects, but just leave the respective circles. A sort of à la carte EU membership.
What could happen if such findings were not taken into account by policy makers?
The present theory is a simplification in the sense that the system remains democratic for all times, however large the deviations from the steady state turn out to may be. Substantial fluctuations may in reality induce a transition to a different political system, for instance, towards an autocratic government. Such transitions may happen, for instance, if the time spans of policy making remain far longer that citizens’ opinion formation timelines.
Going beyond your most recent study, what do complex system models teach us about the way research funding is being allocated?
There are convincing indications that scientific progress is slowed down in established fields by complexity barriers. Take, for example, the maximum life expectancy, which has been increasing for the last century at a steady pace of about 2.4 years per decade. An ever larger effort in terms of science funding is nowadays necessary to keep the progress at this rate.
What needs to change in the way the governance of the way research funding is being done?
Science funding tends to tackle the complexity barriers research is facing by channelling extensive amounts of money into large collaborative projects, like the EU flagship projects. This focus on large funding project is on one side necessary, it implies on the other side the danger of squeezing out smaller projects. Small scale projects are however often efficient and innovative. Our previous studies have shown that it is more cost effective to actually support a great number of smaller projects, than larger projects.
Claudius is a professor of theoretical physics at Goethe University Frankfurt in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. He is the author of Complex and Adaptive Dynamical Systems, A Primer, as well as a fiction book in German Mageia, das Buch der Farben. He pointed out in 2016 that humanity will acquire within this century the technical capabilities to bring life to distant world (Genesis project).
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