This community is led by Greg Fisher, who until May 2011 was the Chief Economist at ResPublica, a think-tank focusing on social and political decentralisation via “the Big Society”.
Our society appears too centralised, by which we mean that too much decision-making power resides in too few hands. We can see this most of all in the economy and the financial system but we can also see it in government.
Can our understanding of complex networks add to this debate? Very much so.
Broadly speaking, the move towards ever-greater centralisation has resulted from a machine-based view of human systems, combined with some idea that such systems exhibit economies of scale. The bigger the better. Over-generalising a little, corporations and government departments are currently run on the basis that senior managers decide an overall strategy (involving “leadership”) for the organisation, which is cascaded “downwards” through layers of management. People within the organisation are viewed as parts of some machine and bigger machines are viewed as more efficient on average because economies of scale are thought to exist in human systems.
However, the study of complex networks teaches us that society is constantly evolving, and it increases our emphasis on idiosyncrasies. If we also take account of the true limitations of human cognition, we see there is a stark contrast between the complexity of social systems (including idiosyncrasies and the fact of constant change) and our ability to understand and plan. Decisions made by human beings several layers of bureaucracy, and often several hundred miles, away from the communities they effect, are often far from perfect. The study of complex networks leads us to appreciate idiosyncrasies and the importance of tacit knowledge at local levels, and to question the idea of economies of scale in human systems. These concepts and issues lead us to argue that decision-making power ought to be devolved across much of our political and economic systems.
Interestingly, there are three broad strands of thinking, spanning the political spectrum, which seem to amount to the same thing – a decentralising society. These are communitarianism, subsidiarity, and “the Big Society”.