Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Simple, Complicated or Complex?

I was recently in Washington, DC flying in and out of Washington Dulles international Airport. As I was returning, since the airport is being remodeled and expanded, I wondered if the security process and facilities were any different. This I thought would be an interesting opportunity to see what we’ve learned about the facility design for security. After all, this is one of major airports for our nation’s capital, and a brand
new facility.

The security area is a well lit large space with high ceilings. There were numerous x-ray inspection lanes spaced comfortably apart. There is no feeling of claustrophobia in going through this process. However, the process still had two choke points. The first was that there was only one document inspector, and that caused one of the typical snake lines you experience in all security areas. The second choke point was at the x-ray
inspection machines. It’s necessary now to remove a lot of things from your person and the bags and equipment you carry through. For me, it now takes at least three trays with shoes going in alone. It takes time to remember, extract and place the items correctly. The conveyor is short and a jam builds watching and waiting for all this to occur. The same thing occurs after the items have gone through the machine. Longer conveyors would help.

As I was walking out of the security area, but not yet out, I saw a woman standing still with multiple coats, bags and computer looking puzzled. I knew exactly what she was thinking because I had just gone through the same mental check list, “Did I forget any thing.” I stopped and smiled at her and she said, “It’s really complicated.” I agreed, and we walked to our separate gates.

As I was walking, I got to thinking. The systems intent on doing us harm are complex systems that have emergent properties and are composed of adaptive intelligent agents. The question I asked myself is, “Can a complicated system solve a complexity problem?”

Now I know that we have other simple, complicated and even complex systems working to deal with threats. The security process is not the only thing we have. But, the question is a real one.

We are now dealing with numerous complex systems - markets, the economy, insurance, health care and education to name a few. Paul Krugman in a recent New York Times article, “How Did Economists Get it so Wrong?”, quoted H. L. Menken:”There is always an easy solution to every human problem –
neat, plausible and wrong.”

So my questions are “Can simple or complicated systems solve problems created by a complex system? And, if so, under what conditions?”

For more about complexity, go to 1,2,a Few, Many and Foresight in a Time of Simplicity, Complexity and Chaos

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