Updated: Sep 4, 2020
Navigating the change in complex system of state
The mushroom that rose above Beirut in the devastating explosion of improperly stored ammonium nitrate reminded many of the Chernobyl disaster, which accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lebanon has been in a state of disintegration for months, which this explosion has accelerated unstoppably. An accident is blamed on the same elements as the Chernobyl accident - incompetence, negligence, and corruption of a government.
Collapse of the Lebanese state is mostly the result of domestic problems, primarily decades of deep corruption. The government was resisting reforms and International Monetary Fond demands, while getting lost in party skirmishes between religious groups, and flirting with China. Lebanon was left without many allies who could or wanted to help.
Lebanon tried to stop the spread of the pandemic by closing its economy, and weak economy of the state in bankruptcy has now completely stopped. About 75 percent of the population is below the poverty line, there is a shortage of food, there is often no electricity, people are massively moving to Europe and Canada, and this summer there was a wave of public suicides.
A truly unusual phenomenon is happening before our eyes: the fundamental disintegration of the state in peacetime circumstances. We are witnessing the collapse of accumulated connections and the release of existing knowledge and capital. There is almost no way to get back to normal, and to the old order. As change continues, insisting on old structures and solutions will take the system straight to oblivion. At the same time, a creative potential and the possibility for "creative destruction” become more visible.
If human history teaches us one thing, that is that disruptions, like wars, natural catastrophes, revolutions, inevitably led to the different distributions of recourses in a community, city or a state. Those can lead systems to lose their utility and fail. One example is states losing their sovereignty, or cities their ability to sustain the life of their citizens. On the other hand, crisis and disruptions are the best opportunities for renewal, and establishment of better institutions, regulations, policies. That happens because the old power and control structures are fragmented, and there is nothing much to lose for the majority of actors. No energy needs no longer to be used for sustaining status quo.
The Lebanese people undoubtedly need all the help they can get from the international community. Offering aid and assistance to the existing system without questioning its role in this collapse, however, could prolong collapse, and thus bring much more harm. Aid for implementation of the structural reforms that country desperately needs can only come from understanding of its complexities and potentials for transformations.
So how can one state navigate towards the wished renewal, and avoid further collapse?
How to strategically build capacities, whom to direct the funds, which actions to undertake, and in which way?
In attempt to answer those questions, complex adaptive systems theory can help us lean into the change cycle, understand its edges, and navigate through uncertain times. When understood correctly, it can provide a vital guidance for strategic agency of in an emerging new reality.
Adaptive complex systems, like cities or states, exist in a constant state of flux, naturally going through cycles of collapse and reorganisation. The acceptance of this flux has become foundational for designing flexible planning and policies that are able to cope with disruptions, to be innovative, and change towards adaptation, or, when necessary, transformation. To be able to navigate the change, we need to understand the nature of change, and map the phases of change like we would map the unknown territory that we’re about to enter, with all of its traps and opportunities. Renewal cycle is the model that describes the flow of change, and it contains four phases: growth, conservation, collapse, and renewal.
This piece is attempt to anatomise the collapse and renewal phase, in order to understand direction to go after the system hits the “point of no return”. My intention here is to discuss a possibility of smartly reaching out towards the future in a case of Lebanon, by deliberately stretching our awareness beyond the immediate experience of loss, and into the new possibilities.
First stage of collapse: Maintaining vital functions
Although it is difficult to trace an exact starting point of Lebanon collapse phase, transformations generally begin with a perturbation or crisis that hit the point of no return. The disruption in Lebanon emerged both internally, with lack of resource stocks, and ongoing pandemic regulations, and with exogenous shock, followed by civil unrest trying to intentionally disrupt a dominant state that has become rigid, and has locked the system into an unsustainable trajectory.
In this first stage of change, institutions lost their credibility, and will shortly collapse, making room for novelty, while uncertainty about the future is high. Organisational forms are fragmented and become more and more loosely connected to resources. This fragmentation makes it difficult to mobilise actors and resources to support any innovative or ambitious activities.
Although the willingness to take risks necessary for reorganisation is on its rise, and actors and organisations may be open to novel ideas and relationships, uncertainty over the future makes it difficult to act strategically and effectively.
Acting strategically can be reached in the next stage only if vital functions are able to be maintained in this stage. The international help and internal efforts should be exclusively held towards identifying and maintaining functions that are essential to the continuation of a minimum level of individual and social utility. Ability to prioritise according to survival functions, like providing redundancy of life supporting routines, following crisis plans, and maintaining diverse access to reserves are crucial. Above all, having the ability to improvise, like putting off prescribed roles in response to immediate needs, can save the initial shock and help get into the next stage.
Second stage of collapse: New meanings and values
During the collapse, uncertainty is high, control is weakened and confused, and unpredictability is immense. In this circumstances, communities and individuals often experience collective regression, and try to hold on to the familiar, old structures that were one working, just to witness their further disintegration. Letting go of the resistance to change, and regret over whatever might be decreasing at this time would save energy to prevent crises from spreading throughout the system.
Historically, we have seen examples of the extreme periods of social and economic collapse so deep that the only remaining social support for the individual was the family. When those dependencies continue for too long, potential for evolution and renewal generated usually goes elsewhere, in a subsystem or a system with more potential to act strategically.
For that reason, the establishment of the new, weak ties between the actors is the primary focus of this stage.
Learning about who’s on the scene, what are theirs recourses, e.g., money, connections, skills, experiences, trustworthiness, and how to use them, is the only way to move forward.
In these stage, there must be basic consensus on new meanings and values required to mobilise resources of capital, and to build new organisational linkages. Lebanon has no other choice but to go through with reconfiguring its political system, and people regaining their dignity, and a functioning state. Sometimes such new consensus can be built on a shadow system, which has been cultivated and is waiting for an opportunity to activate.
International aid and internal effort are to be directed to umbrella organisations or “brokers”, who catalyse the process of establishing weak ties and spreading the information. They come up with strategies to bring organisations and individuals together to create common interpretations, meaningful narratives, visions, and goals that provide the platform and focal point for future collective action and the flow of resources.
Once such a strategies are manifested through various platforms, they can begin to facilitate relationships between ideas, resources, and organisations in response to an existing context, and move to renewal stage.
Entering the renewal: Innovation generation and experimentation
During this stage unexpected interactions can occur among previously separate individuals and organisations, that can then evolve into novel and unexpected entities that establish new domains of influence and power. It is the short time of opportunity for individuals and organisations, without much legitimate power, to use the current confusion and transform the future for great good or great ill. New leadership often arises when actors informally take key positions during crisis.
The best way to approach such a period, in which one cannot predict what the future holds, is not to guess and force the solutions, but to experiment and act inventively and curiously through diverse potentials. The future is then mapped by experiments that fail and succeed, rather than by long-term rigid plans.
Progress towards more stabile state cannot be achieved through command and control, it must be realised through a smart mobilisation of energy, i.e., choosing the right time and place, working through networks and partnerships, and through connecting resources and opportunities to reach meaning and goals set up in the previous stage.
Umbrella projects can be seen as a continuation of the sense making and convening described in the previous stage. When first conceived, these projects do not in themselves provide the answers to all of the problems, but they create a accumulation of knowledge, meaning, and vision that attracts diverse interest groups with their specific concerns, and to allow them to work collaboratively on a common projects.
Thus, the funds and actions are to be focused on setting the emergent coordinators, who are able to change the flow of political authority and resources, reorient the system successfully, and some of them will eventually turn into new leaders. They would work to change beliefs by mobilising individuals and organisations to act around a common vision, creating strong links among them, and challenge technical and legal frameworks by implementing local and scientific knowledge.
Renewal: Formalising innovations
Multiple, competing pathways are possible at this point, based on the number of scenarios and activities generated in previous stage. Not all of the those ideas can become widely adopted innovations or technical and legal routines. Only the ones that are able to attract sufficient resources to support growth can come to practice.
In this context, funding and activities are all about finding and attracting all sorts of capital - social, material, human, economical, cultural, environmental. This resources should ensure that the innovation survives this “formation” phase, and gets into another period of stability, when opportunities for change will decrease.
To achieve durability for the transformation, fundings and activities should focus on institutionalising the change that is created. Therefore, activities in this stage have to work on formalising innovations via incentivising, coalition forming, agenda setting, and establishing new technologies, laws and protocols.
At the end of this stage new strong network connections are established, and new networks of trust and dependencies are built. The system can successfully be reoriented post-crisis, and seeking the ways for scaling up changes, rapid growth and development.
A new order is being firmed up, and the “new way” becomes “business as usual.”
Fortunately, “business as usual” never works forever, the change will constantly challenge it, and threaten the utility of the system, liveability of our cities, and humanity of our states. Striving in the change stands for the ability of a system to constantly be ready to question and give up the concepts that worked so far, and be open enough to engage its innovative, adaptive and transformative capacities. In that way, every moment the environment changes, our system changes as well, consciously and purposefully, in our behalf.