puzzle piecePiece of the Puzzle:
Joseph Tainter on Complexity

I developed my understanding of sustainability essentially by hyperlinking books. I would read a book, then go through the citations and find another interesting book. This led me through design and ecology and economics and psychology and business and so many other things. At some point a pattern started emerging, and new bits and pieces began to fit into the pattern—each Piece of the Puzzle is something that has really stuck in my mind.
Not in chronological, or any other, order—just as the whim strikes me.

Joseph Tainter came to me relatively recently, maybe just in the last four or five years, but I find his work on complexity to be shockingly important.

He is an academic, so he does not lack for detail, but here is my favourite part in a nutshell:

We tend to solve problems by adding a layer of complexity to the situation. That new layer creates its own problems, which we solve with another layer of complexity. Each layer suffers from diminishing returns, and—here is the kicker—adding complexity eventually generates negative returns.

So, adding complexity eventually sucks value out of life, your project, our planet—everything. Here is a chart of what that looks like—Level of Complexity on the bottom axis, and Benefits of Complexity up the side axis:


Tainter’s big book is the Collapse of Complex Societies, which I found to be a very enjoyable read with lots of great examples.I find Tainter’s explanation of collapse to be more convincing than, say, Jared Diamond’s. Negative returns on complexity is a simple idea that you can see playing out on every scale in your life. Here is a 15 minute interview and a 90 minute YouTube. Ugo Bardi looked at the thermodynamics.

“A collapse is a rapid simplification of society. It is a rapid loss of complexity.” So Tainter asked, “One of the questions of history is why is this seemingly inexorable trend in human society towards innovation and complexity occasionally punctuated by collapse?”

Having worked as an industrial designer, I have had a front row seat to the manufacturing supply chain—a very visceral view of how complex and brittle the systems we have built our world out of truly are. When you look around the world, you can see the negative returns all around us:

  • build a highway to fix congestion—which doesn’t fix the congestion, but does drain the pothole budget, so all the other roads get worse.
  • require playgrounds to have soft surfaces to reduce injuries—which increases the costs and reduces the number of playgrounds.
  • agriculture is a big one—chemical agriculture is used to boost production, but eventually destroys the soil so nothing can grow there.

Tainter also takes on the most sacred of cows, Innovation. He points out that innovation is also subject to diminishing returns—the first flush toilet was seriously awesome, but figuring out how to put custom finishes on toilets is much less remarkable.Look! A toilet finished with red chrome and a rhinestone flush button!

In fact, if we are to maintain the illusion that indefinite growth is possible, we need ever-faster innovation cycles. Product design cycles used to be a couple of years, then one year, then six months. Now in some industries the design cycle may be just a few weeks.In the 90 minute video linked above, Tainter begins discussing innovation around minute 40. But we must go faster if we are to stay in the same place—soon we will be conceiving of, designing, prototyping, manufacturing and releasing products, all in the blink of an eye.

Except, of course, that is clearly impossible. So Tainter, with his modest puzzle piece, manages to skewer bureaucracy, complexity, collapse, innovation and growth. Phew! Heavy hitter!

So what next? “Now that we can do anything, we must do less.”A little quote I made up all by myself. When we are solving problems, we must try to find simpler solutions, rather than complex ones. How can we strip away bureaucracy, technology and data? How can we build a system simple enough to be understood and operated by its users?


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