Society consists of a wide variety of densely connected, interdependent systems. These networks of networks enable the flow of information, ideas, goods, services and money. In turn, this leads to huge benefits in the form of free media, open democracy, global trade and international finance. However, this connectedness also makes our world vulnerable to extreme events in ways that are hard to imagine and even more difficult to avoid. Examples of the negative consequences of networked society include the 2008 global financial crisis, the ongoing climate crisis and the current Covid crisis. In each case, the disaster unfolded over a range of interconnected networks with powerful but difficult-to-predict feedback patterns.
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The science of complex systems can help here. This discipline seeks to characterise, understand and ultimately manage systems with emergent, self-organised behaviour that cannot be characterised as the sum of their parts. Human society falls squarely into this category, giving this science the potential to help understand and improve it. In particular, the science of complex systems can help us build our future by modelling alternative scenarios and opportunities, while putting humans, their values, and a democratic, participatory governance approach in the centre. It should also allow us to embrace desirable emergent behaviour such as coordination, cooperation, co-evolution, collective intelligence nd truth.
Selection of GESDA best reads and further key reports
The fragility of many aspects of our networked society has been highlighted by numerous authors. Joseph Stiglitz highlights the failures of modern macroeconomics in “Crises, Contagion, and the Need for a New Paradigm”.1 Dirk Helbing reviews the problems and challenges associated with complex social systems in “Globally networked risks and how to respond”.2 Reinhart and Rogoff study the networked links between financial crashes and debt crises.3 In “Values for the Future”,4 the European Union explores the values that European and global governance should embody.