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The COVID-19 pandemic can be understood as the first complexity crisis in history, according to SFI Distinguished Shannan Professor Geoffrey West, SFI President David Krakauer, and their colleagues working in SFI’s Transmission Project. By capturing the kinds of tradeoffs that lie at the heart of complexity crises, complexity science can help us manage the pandemic’s long-term ramifications.

Complexity crises have two main features, Krakauer and West argue. First, they involve the “failure of multiple coupled systems—our physical bodies, cities, societies, economies, and ecosystems.” Second, they call for solutions that involve unavoidable tradeoffs that amplify initial system failures.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to negotiate a tradeoff between social conventions of the past and new conventions that help us manage contagion. We choose between a handshake and elbow bump, for example. In general, it is much easier for human communities to retain old conventions than to adopt new ones. Complexity scientists call the way that we lock-in old habits path dependence. In the pandemic, path dependence suggests that trading old habits for new ones is not a straightforward switch. Not only must we adopt new habits, we must also expend energy breaking old ones. By illuminating the path dependence that characterizes the tradeoff between past and future conventions, complexity science can help us better manage contagion.

In their article in Nautilus, Krakauer and West identify six tradeoffs that lie at the heart of the pandemic. They show that when we gain a clearer picture of the ways that different tradeoffs make us vulnerable, we can become better at shoring up our interrelated life systems.

Read the article in Nautilus (July 8, 2020)