Governance in a complex adaptive system

Governance is integral to nurturing the complex adaptive system that is an Intelligent Nation.The Intelligent Nation exhibits dynamic and probabilistic behaviour and its governance needs to embrace the words of Maton1 that ‘in a democratic society people have a right to regulate the problems capitalism creates, and shape the problems that it solves. Markets don’t operate in a social or environmental vacuum’.This requires that one of the things we evaluate and govern is the stewardship of the democracy itself and that is carried out through the electoral processes.

Turning to the economy, Maton cites Beinhocker’s (2007) view that ‘If we invented economics today from scratch, it would look nothing like what you see in textbooks’, while Lord Toby Harris2 discussing post-Covidl9 London argues for ‘E3’ (Economy, Equity, Environment) and asserts that no single interest can prosper at the expense of others. There are a number of elements not accounted for in the ideas for managing performance we have so far considered. First, they do not explicitly embrace the ideas of localisation, regionalisation and devolution or decentralisation, they are primarily national in conception. We should measure our autonomy and act to sustain it. Second, while Raworth talks about ‘society’, Mazzucato discusses sources of wealth and Elkington talks of societal benefits, none talks enough of the necessary role of the citizen in determining the meaning of value nor of the mechanisms of engagement essential to enabling everyone to contribute to relevant decisions. None consider the obligations of a government to govern, the powers that electors lend them to do so, the hierarchy of governance that necessarily emerges and the consequent need for ongoing reaffirmation of democratic legitimacy. Obligations and powers are reserved to a government through its constitutional structure, whether formal as in the case of most modern nations, or evolutionary and fluid as in the UK; the tension between governmental and electoral power needs to be managed. What is needed is a more comprehensive approach to understanding national performance. That approach needs to synthesise the multiple dimensions of performance, be aggregated from the individual view through the emergent hierarchy of local and regional perspectives to national government so as to allow for both distributed and centralised decisions to be competently taken. It must integrate the different dimensions of performance to constitute a purposeful whole reflecting the nation back to itself. The result will have the support of the citizens for whose benefit, guidance and information it is produced.

Any living or dynamical system (and an Intelligent Nation must be thought of as both) is sustainable within a particular set of parameters in concert with its environment; its host. That environment is also changing such that sustainability becomes joint and several, interdependent and co-evolutionary. Change in either the system itself or its environment that takes either outside its parameters of sustainability will initially compromise performance and ultimately kill the system, the environment or both. Lovelock (1995) referred to this at planetary level in his ‘Gaia Hypothesis’ suggesting that while planet earth will survive, conditions on it may not always support human life. Reflecting on the growth, decline and fall of empires through history and the equivalent by companies in industries which emerge, grow, dominate then ultimately fail, it is not a stretch to consider how such thinking might apply to contemporary nations and that a better way is needed. A richer, integrated, holistic mechanism is required for understanding the multidimensional well-being of individuals, locations, regions and nations in order that more informed decisions can be made.

Risk arises in attempts at measurement, first in understanding what is to be measured and why. Second, risk arises in the compilation, presentation and interpretation of the measurements. The outbreak of the Coronavirus Covid-19 and the subsequent reporting highlighted weaknesses in the ability of several countries to record accurately, interpret consistently and report faithfully those things chosen for measurement. It may be that the evaluation needs to be expressed in non-quantitative terms, that there is a need to become accustomed to only understanding improvement or deterioration in a situation rather than seeking the illusory certainty of a particular metric. Waddington (1977) explains this through the idea of searching an epigenetic landscape in which every step is taken not towards an absolute but towards ‘better’, defined as observably closer to a chosen destination or fulfilment of a purpose.

The following study was written at the height of the Covid-19 Pandemic in early 2020 when the cause and pathway of the virus w'ere poorly understood, when governments were of necessity making policy up on the fly and when much of the population in many countries had been confined to their homes to reduce propagation risk. Meanwhile the timing of the onset of the pandemic and governmental response in each country meant that some governments appeared to be more, or less, successful than others in their actions while much information available to the public was speculative rather than factual.

Covid-19: The necessity of evolving wisdom:

Dr. John Beckford3

I have previously confessed to spending a little too much time acquiring information from diverse sources. However, after one exposition on a well-known mainstream news channel I realised that I actually knew less after the programme than I did at the start.

Stories about Covid-19 from all over the world have a multiplicity of platforms, channels, networks and even newspapers on which to propagate - and there is neither transmission inhibitor nor vaccine! Once we are on line we are exposed.

One of the main themes, at least here in the UK, is stories which purport to compare the inadequate performance of the government of Country A (the host country) with the amazing performance of the government of Country В (any other country - or even several of them). In such a case, a number reported (I hesitate to call them metrics) is worse in Country A than it is in Country B.

We have all become familiar with the international league tables of deaths and recovery rates, the test rates for various categories of citizens, virus reproduction rates and the assorted speculations over antigen tests, antibody tests, post-infection immunity, viral load and the efficacy, or not, of experimental treatments and prophylactics including face masks, social distancing, self-isolation and the militaristically toned 'lockdown'.


We are seeking certainty where none exists, nor can it (yet) exist.


Not enough is yet known, by anyone, about the virus itself to provide certainty of almost anything


We are making comparisons where none is meaningful, nor can they (yet) be meaningful!


Comparisons made are often not appropriately underpinned by a comprehension and appreciation of differences:

Countries vary in their approach to recording primary cause of death:

The basis of recording and reporting of illness and death varies from country to country; are people dying purely OF Covid-19 or of some pre-existing morbidity but while infected WITH Covid-19;

The timing of recording and reporting varies from country to country;

The impact of infected patients' pre-existing conditions on the course of the virus is not fully understood;

Testing regimes vary substantially;

The effectiveness of therapeutic techniques is not fully understood:

PPE, ventilators, CPAP devices, intensity of care, existing drugs (or their absence), the physical conditions of the hospital itself The skills, experience, insight of clinicians is variable;

Differences in a wide variety of life circumstances are not factored in to gross comparisons:

Population Density, Domestic Circumstances, Living Conditions, Working Conditions, Population Age Profile, Diet and Nutrition, Alcohol and Tobacco Consumption, Co-morbidities, Occupations.

I could go on.

The welter of stories is amplified to a tsunami by the apparent desperate need among news providers to 'keep the public informed' during the current pandemic. The curious might wonder about the real purposes of the various stories, in the meanwhile we should work on the assumptions:

Scientists, everywhere, are doing their very best to provide their governments with the best information and advice they can give;

In a rapidly evolving situation it is inevitable, indeed it is to be expected, that some of that advice will change over time;

Different scientists in different countries drawing on different data will arrive at different advice and recommendations;

It is inevitable; indeed, it is to be expected, that governments will be differently advised;

Governments, everywhere, are doing their very best to provide their countries with the best decisions, guidance, information, social and economic outcomes that can be achieved in the light of the evidence they have received;

Given different advice it should be no surprise that governments make different judgements and do different things;

In a rapidly evolving situation it is inevitable, indeed it is to be expected, that some of the decisions, guidance, information, social and economic outcomes will change over time.

A useful working assumption is that every scientist and politician is authentically and persistently making the best recommendations and decisions they can in the light of the information available at the time. If when the information changes, they make a different decision, that does not mark a failure of the previous position but their evolving knowledge which we experience as wisdom.

However inept, however right or wrong in their decision-making our politicians and scientists appear in retrospect, let us not underestimate the challenge of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty.

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