John W. Crawford, Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, AL5 2JQ, UK and Yaneer Bar-Yam, New England Complex Systems Institute, 277 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139 USA
The way we start out thinking about a problem shapes the solutions that we end up with. This is as true in physics as it is in biology and so it is with political challenges like Brexit. There are cognitive and technological limitations on how we are able to think when complexity is high. This has meant that for most of the last 300 years, science has only succeeded in solving problems where complexity can be eliminated either by breaking the problem up in to simpler parts, or by averaging the complexity out. We now know that only an infinitesimally small class of problems can be solved in this way and for the rest, when we simplify the complexity, we get it wrong.
Recently, there has been a revolution in data and analytic technology that has freed us from many of our cognitive constraints. The amount of information we can collect means that we can describe more realistic levels of complexity, and modern mathematical methods and computers mean we can crunch those numbers to better understand how different levels of detail affect the way a system behaves. This has validated a new science of systems (or complexity science) and a great deal in common has been found, at a fundamental level, between the behaviour of systems as diverse as the internet, cancer, honey bees, soil and economies. In general, the link between the behaviour of a system as a whole (internet or cancer) depends more on how the parts (computers or genes) interact as it does on the behaviour of the parts themselves.
Embracing complexity in this way has allowed us to find totally new kinds of solutions to some of the most pressing global challenges. For example, a potential global pandemic in Ebola during 2014/15 was averted by calculating the importance of interactions between individuals at the neighbourhood, regional, national and international level for spreading the disease. A new community monitoring and response program was introduced and prevented a wider pandemic, saving millions of lives. Social connectivity is enabling a kind of “hive mind” to connect individuals and drive social change at an unprecedented pace and scale. By contrast, our democratic institutions are still designed around historic limitations that ignore complexity and are increasingly misaligned with the modern hyper-connected world.
In the case of Brexit, the solutions being considered are very much constrained by the desire for simplification. From the outset, the problem was posed at the national scale: UK vs. Europe — imagining that each construct is a homogenous entity. The debate ignored, or was ignorant of, the importance of variation in the social and economic environments at the regional scale within the UK. Because of this way of thinking, a one-size-fits-all mentality was enforced in seeking solutions, and there has been two years of fruitless search.
In reality there are complex social and economic issues that trade-off between each other in a manner that are strongly regionally- or demographically-dependent. For example, people’s belief on whether high levels of immigration act positively or negatively on local jobs, wages, services and culture depend on their local circumstances. Frictionless trade of goods and services with the European single market is significant or irrelevant depending on whether you are a local shopkeeper in the north west of England or employed in the financial services sector in London. Both sides of the Brexit argument are holding on to the notion that a national referendum that averages out all this complexity provides the optimal solution, whether it is because “the people have chosen” or because there should be a “peoples’ choice” in a second referendum. The fact that consensus changes between national and regional scales and across the demographic is argued away as racism, ignorance or elitism.
Taking the social and economic dimensions of the debate in turn, the impact of immigration can be mitigated if government devolves appropriate powers to neighbourhoods and regions to ensure that local cultural and social needs are recognised and that concerns are appropriately addressed. It is governments that create the policies that dictate income distribution. In the US, the argument is being made that by shifting the tax burden to wealthy investors to enable wage increases and social benefits to lower and middle classes, the nation as a whole can enjoy stronger economic growth. Freedom of movement into the UK can be reconciled with regional policies that mitigate the local impact of immigration withinthe UK. Economic inequities across the regions (and across society) can be eliminated if Government chooses to do it.
The UK Government has conceded aspects of decision-making to devolved administrations in Scotland, N. Ireland and Wales. Continuing this to other regions and demographies, while also considering more carefully how regional and national-scale decision-making could be re-imagined in the 21st century to ensure optimal outcomes, would enable a multi-scale approach to democracy. By abandoning a one-size-fits-all philosophy, the social and economic impasses can be overcome and the issues surrounding the Irish Backstop disappear. We have the technology, data and knowledge to enable that, we just seem to lack the awareness and political will.