"Système de la Mécanique à la Jacquard" (Master weaver's thesis book), 1848. CC0 via Smithsonian Open Access.

All day


This event is private.

Freeman Dyson famously wrote that  “A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few ideas as possible. There are no prima donnas in engineering.” Dyson’s premise is that ideas that work need to be simple enough to implement, complicated enough to solve the problem, and robust enough to withstand the rigors of reality. What Dyson failed to address is the complex domain where the application of engineering principles has been by and large a history of unmitigated failure - these include attempts to Engineer-X, where X = {environments, minds, societies, markets, political institutions, and companies}. The list is almost endless. The question is why has finding “designs that work with as few ideas as possible” been so difficult in complex systems.

There are several candidate answers: (1) the idea of a fixed design is the wrong idea when dealing with an evolving systems, (2) the particular simple idea has been the wrong classical idea and not the right adaptive idea, (3) we do not know what design means when we are dealing with collective systems with competing interests, (4) we do not know how to think about designing systems with functional emergent properties.

In all likelihood all of these answers have some truth to them. But it is in combination that they explain why our best efforts to intervene into complex systems have proven to be so unsuccessful. If we are to be good engineers of complexity we need to learn how to be “Emergent Engineers” and this means learning the design principles for adaptive systems.

In this meeting we shall be exploring how to become effective Emergent Engineers by exploring a broad range of functions where new practical ideas are urgently required. These functions include the law (and regulation more generally), social life and media, health systems, socio-political systems, and companies. We need a better understanding of the limitations of our thinking and a willingness to explore new paradigms that are currently uncertain but potentially transformative.

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