The Futurists

To prepare for the future, be like ants

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.

Mr Jan Vasbinder is always looking for simple ways to describe complexity science, his area of expertise. 

So he says perhaps people should be more like ants. Then people may stop clinging to old ways of doing things that no longer work because too much has changed.

Ask what he means and the man who heads the Complexity Programme at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) talks about how ants behave when they look for food. 

First, they spread out from their nests. Then, when they find food and move back to their nests, they disperse pheromones, a chemical that attracts other ants. Soon, an ant trail forms. This is not planned and results from the collective behaviour of each ant.

Once the food source runs dry, no more pheromones are produced, the ants disperse and the trail disappears. The ants then begin searching for new food sources and the cycle is repeated.

“Perhaps we should learn from ant behaviour how to let go of accepted institutions and nodes of thinking once they have stopped serving their original purpose,” he says. That is called adaptive behaviour, and complexity science studies such behaviour.

Singapore civil servants and other experts have embraced complexity science as a way to look for connections between issues and problems previously regarded as unrelated. Doing so may be useful in preparing for future shocks and problems that may crop up in an increasingly connected world and affect Singapore.

The NTU’s Complexity Programme brings together top thinkers to discuss complexity, while the Complexity Institute set up at the university this year will do multi-disciplinary research in the field.

Mr Vasbinder speaks to The Straits Times in the first of a series of articles kicking off today on how experts in different fields have taken to complexity science to look for telling links that can help Singapore prepare for possible future problems.

Read the full interview with Mr Jan Vasbinder in The Straits Times today.