4. ‘What’s the difference between a complicated system and a complex adaptive system? Consider the situations of Cogworld and Bugworld. Everything in Cogworld is made of interconnected cogs; big cogs are driven by smaller cogs that are in turn driven by tiny cogs…. Bugworld is quite different. It’s populated by lots of bugs. The bugs interact with each other and the overall performance of Bugworld depends on these interactions (as does Cogworld). But some subgroups of bugs are only loosely connected to other subgroups of bugs. Bugs can make and break connections with other bugs, and unlike the cogs in Cogworld, the bugs reproduce and each generation of bugs come with subtle variations in size or differences in behaviour. Because there is lots of variation, different bugs or subgroups of bugs respond in different ways as conditions change. As the world changes some of the subgroups perform better than other subgroups, and the whole system is modified over time. The system is self-organising. No one is in control.
Now let me be unequivocal: I’m not comparing arts councils, artists or RFOs to bugs. But the way Bugworld is described makes more sense of the arts ecology than a model which suggests you can turn a crank and definitely get a certain result out, and then keep doing that for ever more. Funding, for instance, should not be seen by either funder of funded as a turn of a cog that will deliver, in linear, predictable fashion, great art for everyone. We have to look very closely at the interactions of the different areas, rather than concentrate on individual subgroups. (That's why I have, for instance, always welcomed the move away from pre-defined ‘artform’ budgets in favour of a holistic approach, though I know some disagree.)
5. Social-ecological systems are complex adaptive systems. They do not change in a predictable, linear, incremental fashion. They have the potential to exist in more than one kind of regime (sometimes referred to as ‘alternate stable states’) in which their function, structure and feedbacks can drive them across a threshold into a different regime.
This builds on the last point but adds the notion of ‘threshold’ – those points where fundamental change happens. Recorded music helped push music-making and performance from one regime into another as the live communal tradition morphed. Digital downloads are pushing the music industry towards another threshold right now. Change is possible, however.
6. Knowing more hasn’t helped because the underlying expectation of the people in the region is that they want to continue doing things the way they’ve always done things. Consequently they have thus opted to fix up short-term problems rather than address the large system-wide issues.
This refers to one of the case studies, to do with an agricultural region. I think it applies to some people in the arts and cultural sector too. There are times when the short-term fix is necessary as a first step – emergency response to cuts or recession for instance – but they need to be seen in the bigger context, and not taken as a full response.
7. Though social-ecological systems are affected by many variables, they are usually driven by only a handful of key controlling (often slow-moving) variables. Along each of these variables are thresholds: if the system moves beyond a threshold it behaves in a different way, often with undesirable and unforeseen surprises. Once a threshold has been crossed it is usually difficult (in some cases) to cross back. A system’s resilience can be measured by its distance from these thresholds. The closer you are to a threshold, the less it takes to be pushed over. Sustainability is all about knowing if and where thresholds exist and having the capacity to manage the system in relation to these thresholds.
Developing a sense of what the key 'slow' variables are that might affect your resilience is key. Much of the sector has a long way to go on this. The ‘bottom line’ beloved of tough finance types is one such variable. Reviews might be another. Audiences figures and ages a third and fourth. What are the really vital ones – that might push you towards a threshold? The alleged pressure on arts organisations to be socially usefully in return for funding might be one such. At what point do you change function? The choice is up to you – it’s knowing what you’re doing that’s vital. There is a contrary thought from this quote also. Risk is key to innovation in the arts, and many organisations live healthily with it. Might an over-awareness of your thresholds lead to risk-aversion? Too great a distance from one a kind of 'safeness'? Perhaps this gives a new meaning to living on the edge?