Is South Africa in a state of chaos? Is there disorder and apparent lack of control? Does the country appear to you as being random; everyone running around not quite knowing what they are doing? Things that seem right on one day appear wrong the next day. Change abounds.
Perhaps we should not worry too much about this as mathematicians and scientists are proving that chaotic systems usually have some underlying order in them. Very few systems are entirely random.
What is a chaotic system? It can be defined as a dynamic system which is too rich and varied for us to understand in simple mechanistic or linear ways. Chaotic systems are non-linear, i.e. a change in input will not necessarily produce a proportional change in output.
Hi-fi owners are used to dealing with non-linear systems: an uncontrolled feedback to an amplifier will cause a severe distortion in the output signal. Non-linear systems are also exponential: a small change to the initial conditions can produce a massive change in the end result.
Think of what the El Nino effect does: a change of 3-5 degrees in the temperature of the Pacific Ocean causes irregular turbulent weather conditions all over the globe! A small change in carbon dioxide in the upper stratosphere produces undefinable and unpredictable climate changes.
Scientists, being scientists, go a bit further: they distinguish between chaotic systems and complicated systems. They define a chaotic system as one where neither the details of the system nor any general patterns or trends are discernible. In complicated systems, on the other hand, details may be understood but again no patterns. Just to confuse us even more, they define complex systems as being ones where patterns may be apparent, even though the details are unknown. Fortunately, chaos theory, as the study of seemingly unpredictable dynamic non-linear systems is called, can be applied to all three.
How can chaos theory be applied to South Africa? The country is certainly dynamic; this is what a lot of visitors to the country appreciate-not like Australia, which is so boring! The affairs of the country are non-linear systems. If you doubt this, think of how unpredictably people interact and communicate with one another, be it through social networks or the media. Think too, how frustrated and irritated we become when we see a country as wealthy as ours having so much unemployment and poverty. We throw money at the problems but do not produce the expected proportional improvement. The money seems to disappear in non-linear ways; like a sound wave increasing in frequency until no one can hear it any more or money vapourising into currency mists.
The globalisation of markets; economic deregulation; the computing and communication revolution; problems between labour and organised business and the increasing importance of green environmental issues are also causing non-linear turbulence in the state of our nation. Many people believe that our country today is so complex it is on the knife edge of chaos.
The sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaotic systems implies that strategic planning may be a futile exercise, rather like the difficulty in accurately predicting weather. Instead of predicting the future, perhaps it would be better to adapt to the future as it evolves around us. We must be prepared to react to unexpected and unanticipated events.
A competitive advantage will be gained by effectively adapting to novel and unpredictable situations faster than we normally do. Chaos theory tells us to be adaptive rather than manipulative. As Tom Peters says: “test fast, fail fast and adjust fast” or as the latest Pieter- Dirk Uys show is entitled: ‘Adapt or Fly’.
In nature, predators and prey must continuously co-evolve by adjusting to the adaptation of their opponents. Some species will reach a local optimum in their ‘survival fitness’ but each species must be able to adapt very rapidly if the environment changes in such a way as to make their behaviour sub-optimal. A change in the environment may cause an evolutionary spurt until a local optimum is again reached.
Chaos theory provides metaphors that can change the way we think about the problems facing us. Instead of competing in a game or a war, we should be trying to find our way in an ever changing, ever turbulent landscape. The vision we have for the country and the course of action we should take are factors which will affect the shape of our landscape.
The objective is to reach and climb a ‘peak’ and these peaks may be very different from what we currently think. Just as important is to get out of, and away from, any ‘troughs’ that will also form part of the landscape. An example of a trough is the situation regarding mining. It is one year since Marikana and as I write the same workers are on strike at the same mines. Could we not have seen and climbed a ‘peak’ during the last 12 months?
Chaos theory has allowed scientists to deal more confidently with non-linear dynamic systems, such as the effect of friction on a moving body, turbulence in fluids and biological growth. Now chaos theory invites us to explore the 95% of the South African world that has been avoided because it is too dark, murky and intimidating, e.g. the dynamic evolution of new technology and markets, the complex interaction of market forces, economic freedom and the eradication of poverty for all of our people, ‘breakthrough’ improvements in basic education and jobs for all.
By understanding chaos and complexity, we can get an insight into how seemingly unpredictable situations can manifest themselves in predictable patterns. The government can improve their decision making and their search for innovative solutions by looking at patterns rather than details and action rather than continual debate. The dynamic feature of chaos cannot be ignored. Things must happen fast!