M. Nirmala, Senior Writer

Complexity: When 1 + 2 becomes 4

If you search for fix-its only after nasty surprises arrive, it may be too late. Singapore has leapt into the world of trend-spotting with more centres dedicated to finding ways to reduce its vulnerability to future shocks in today's highly unpredictable world. This is the first of a five-part series on experts in Singapore tackling the future today.

When he came here in 2011, Mr Vasbinder discovered that Singapore already had a head start over many other countries in dealing with complexity issues. He feels Singapore can extend that into a decisive advantage if ongoing programmes to explore comp
When he came here in 2011, Mr Vasbinder discovered that Singapore already had a head start over many other countries in dealing with complexity issues. He feels Singapore can extend that into a decisive advantage if ongoing programmes to explore complexity science and its applications bear fruit. -- ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

MR JAN Wouter Vasbinder understands complexity science and tries to make it simple.

Think of a boy playing with sand on the beach, he says. The boy dribbles sand particles and starts to make a pile. He builds it higher and higher until, suddenly, it collapses.

The intricate connections and collisions between nature, human beings and systems are like that pile of sand on the beach, says Mr Vasbinder, 68.

And he points out a paradox - it was instability that first held the thousands of sand particles together, and it was also instability that caused the pile to crumble at some critical moment.

"Just one particle of sand can cause the pile to collapse. The trouble is, no one can predict when and which particle will cause the collapse," he says.

The interactions between sand particles offer a way to explain a relatively new science that tries to identify and understand the underlying principles that lead to complexity. What happened to that pile of sand on the beach can also be applied to a society facing new challenges in a turbulent world that will be rocked by shocks and changes.

Because the world has become so interconnected, an event in one place can have an impact on the lives of many people in far-flung regions.

For example, the 2011 earthquake in Japan triggered a tsunami that in turn damaged the Fukushima nuclear reactor. For some time afterwards, the triple disasters disrupted Japan's extensive supply chains to the world.

Clueless about complexity

COMPLEXITY science scrutinises the connections and contradictions, says Mr Vasbinder, director of the Complexity Programme set up in 2011 at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Try as he might, however, he has a tough time explaining complexity science to the uninitiated.

Complexity, he says, is the label people stick on many problems they do not understand.

"When we label a problem complex, we are basically saying: 'We have no clue how to analyse this problem, let alone solve it.' The solution is not to see a problem in isolation, but to see its connections to and interactions with other problems," he explains.

For example, cancer treatments target cancer cells during therapy. He says: "But it turns out that a large assembly of cancer cells can find ways to avoid the effects of therapy. If we want to fight cancer effectively, we need to understand the connections between the growing group of cancer cells."

The lessons learnt from collapsing sand piles and spreading cancer help explain the importance of understanding complexity in preparing for future shocks.

"The world needs to find ways to deal with complexity and establish some control over our future," says Mr Vasbinder.

The Dutch-born researcher graduated in physics from the Technical University of Delft in The Netherlands in 1972, before serving in various positions in research and government. In 2006, he founded a complexity science organisation called the Institute Para Limes in Holland.

Five years later, he moved to Singapore to take up his current post. He arrived here "totally ignorant of the culture, history and ways of doing things", and learnt by meeting civil servants, professionals and ordinary people.

Converts in Singapore

ONE thing he found out was that Singapore had a head start over many other countries in dealing with complexity issues. Its civil service had groups in several ministries with people trained to understand complexity and future studies, to prepare for future shocks.

"The thinkers in the civil service realised in the 1990s that the problems faced by Singapore were complex by nature and could not be solved by hierarchical or linear models of thinking," says Mr Vasbinder. "Singapore in itself is a complex system - one where the Western and Eastern worlds come together."

Singapore's future success, he thinks, will be determined by gaining superior insight into the dynamics of the way the world is changing.

The Complexity Programme set up at NTU three years ago was this year renamed Para Limes, which means "beyond boundaries". It laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Complexity Institute at the university this year.

Lessons from Lao Tzu

THE author of four books on innovation and knowledge management, Mr Vasbinder has not been able to put down a book he stumbled upon after arriving here, Dao De Jing.

Written in the third century BC in China by the sage Lao Tzu, it is regarded by Taoists as the essential guide to living a rich spiritual and ethical life.

"It's a beautiful book, and the more I read it, the more I sense it embodies wisdom that seems to have been lost in our Western reductionist thinking," says Mr Vasbinder.

He reaches for the book in his room, which is sparsely furnished except for the blooms from two large pots of orchids. Like an excited schoolboy, he loudly recites his favourite stanza, Verse 63:

That in the world that is difficult

Emerges from what is easy

That which is great to the world

Emerges from what is tiny

"To me, that is pure complexity thinking. Everything is connected, and everything relates to each other," he says.

The West is only just discovering the complexity of the world, he adds, whereas China has always known it and people there arrange their lives according to it.

In going from Third World to First World, Singapore relied on the Western model of linear thinking, where clear goals are set by a group of leaders and people follow and achieve results.

But many of today's issues - falling birth rates, ageing populations, climate change, rising costs of health care - cannot be solved using linear ways of thinking.

Now that Singapore has become a First World country, its leaders have to create new ways of leading, says Mr Vasbinder.

This phase will be more challenging as there are no models for Singapore to follow. It must create new paths for itself, he says.

"The good news is that Singapore, which seems to have rules for everything, has no rules for complexity - yet," he says.

"Learning how to master complexity will allow it to gain a decisive advantage over those who don't."


Tomorrow: Can Singapore survive future disasters?