Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Big System, Design Complexity & Responsibility

Maybe one of the most interesting challenges we are facing today is the growing complexity in our artifacts and systems. When we move into the era of blended digital and physical materials, when digital systems becomes closely intertwined with biological and organizational systems, complexity increases.

It is not only the complexity of the systems themselves that increases, maybe more vital is the challenge this poses for designers. When every new design is supposed to be part of an already existing complex system, it will be almost impossible to understand the consequences and implications that even the smallest and most insignificant design will have on the whole. Emergent qualities of the Big System level will, at the same time, become more subtle and extreme.

In a way the Big System will become more like the biological environment, fractal like, and maybe only possible to understand on an abstract level, such as that of chaos theory, or as abstract dynamic structures and processes.

Imagine when you as a designer of a new "addition" to the Big System will be held responsible for any emergent consequence your addition will cause. I believe we are already at that point -- even though it is not fully understood yet. The incredible success of the internet and of digital technology is, at the same time as it is a success and proof of a robust and sustainable design, the foundation that creates the Big System that might soon be impossible to comprehend, and where causation will not be what we are used to see from other artificial systems. There will be mutations, systemic bifurcations, and other expressions of an ongoing evolution that will be impossible to trace to specific design intentions and design actions.

Well, even if this is so far only a theory, it is at least a theory that we should take seriously in our field and see if it is a plausible or not. And at the end, the question remains -- how do we as designers of such systems act in a responsible way?

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