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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.


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Environments and Mindsets for Complex Change

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 30, 2014

Balinese farmers have grown rice in paddies irrigated through an intricate network of canals and aqueducts built around hundreds of tiered water temples for more than a thousand years. Priests in the temples and hundreds of grower collectives known as subaks evolved a well orchestrated collaboration to control pests and make sure water was fairly distributed.

In the 1980s, international development organizations introduced chemical fertilizers and re-engineered growing and harvest patterns with the goal of growing more rice. The water temples and subaks were disregarded. Several years into the program, rice yield had plunged and rats and other pests were proliferating. In his extraordinary book Aid on the Edge of Chaos, Ben Ramalingam tells the story of the subaks in Bali and the dynamic self-organization that had allowed growers to cooperate in management of complex issues related to soil quality, pest control, crop yields, and rainfall and to make continual adjustments as local conditions required. The subaks also performed social, legal and spiritual functions.

Researchers from the Santa Fe Institute found that the farmers cooperated on the basis of their own dominant needs. Those upstream were most worried about pests, and those down stream worried about water shortages. Ramalingam explains the researchers used ecological simulation models to show how humans were reshaping the ecosystem, and how cooperative behavior emerged over time. With the water temples as the nodes, he writes, the subak networks were "a particular form of social organization shaped by a process of cooperative agents co-evolving in a changing environment." By 2012, he says, the government of Bali had arranged that the subaks would be preserved in perpetuity as a vital part of the country's unique cultural, social and economic farming system.

Ramalingam believes an understanding of complexity science and complex adaptive systems can help cultivate new mindsets that will enable policy makers and program designers to increase effectiveness as they try to improve health and economic conditions, reverse adverse impacts of climate change, and build peace in war ravaged areas. He provides lucid examples and commentary on the work of many complexity scholars, including John Holland, Stuart Kauffman, Jane Jacobs, Herbert Simon, Joshua Epstein, a scholar of agent based modeling, and Warren Weaver, a mathematician who wrote an influential paper on "Science and Complexity" in 1948. He quotes Friedrich Hayek's 1974 Nobel acceptance speech in which the economist said we can't acquire enough knowledge to master complex events, so we need to use the knowledge we can get to "cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment" for growth the way a gardener does for plants.

Ramalingam cites several innovative development and humanitarian efforts that draw upon the concepts of complexity: they include dealing with epidemic outbreaks in Asia, water sharing in Bhutan, subsistence farming and urban change in East Africa, disaster responses in Southern Africa, and industrial production globally. This informative book is filled with memorable stories, well-turned phrases, extensive research, and a wide-ranging exploration of the insights of complexity science. While the focus is aid, the usefulness extends to just about any field.

In a section on positive deviance, Ramalingam describes the work of Monique Sternin and the late Jerry Sternin in reducing childhood malnutrition in Vietnam. The Sternins pioneered the use of positive deviance (PD) in social and behavioral change. They helped parents living in impoverished villages discover that some of their neighbors had healthier kids despite having no additional resources. The parents of the healthier children were gathering shrimps, crabs and greens that were free but generally considered unsuitable for children, and they had different mealtime practices. Ramalingam also notes the successful use of PD in reducing MRSA rates and in improving business operations. Plexus Institute led an initiative in which several hospitals using PD processes dramatically reduced the incidence of healthcare associated infections. In an interview with Ramalingam, Monique Sternin noted Plexus Institute's role in developing the science and theory behind PD and scaling up the work.

image from wikipedia

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  ecology  environment  organizations 

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Architectural Designs for Food of the Future

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 25, 2014

Vertical farms are blossoming in several big cities, including Chicago, Kyoto and Singapore, with plants growing in artificial light in specially reconfigured buildings. The Brooklyn-based design firm Aprilli has expanded the idea with a proposal for a giant tree-shaped skyscraper the architects believe will maximize food production and improve local environment through water and air filtration and renewable energy output.

The Urban Skyfarm, winner of an A'Design Award, is described in a FastCompanyExist story by Adele Peters. Architects Steve Lee and See Yoon Park told Peters they envision the giant agricultural skyscraper in the heart of downtown Seoul, South Korea, a densely populated city with air pollution and other environmental problems. There's little space for on the ground farming there, and fresh fruits and vegetables at local markets are in demand but very expensive.

Urban Skyfarm by Aprilli Design Studio

The design mimics the shape of an enormous tree, with leaf-like open air decks built of strong but light weight materials that provide as much as 24 acres for growing fruit trees and plants like tomatoes. The more enclosed lower and inner portions of the structure have space for plants growing in a more controlled environment. The roots, trunk, branches and leaves have different characteristics to suit different farming conditions. The trunk houses a hydroponic farm for greens, and wind turbines and solar panels at the top provide energy to keep the whole mini ecosystem in operation. The solar panels generate energy for night time lighting and heat where needed for plant growth.

Another idea for agriculture in places where farms won't fit comes from JAPA, a design firm in Barcelona now called Forward Thinking Architecture. Architects there propose a system of looping towers that could float in harbors and provide new space for year round crops. In another FastCompany article by Peters, JAPA architect Javier Ponce explains that a network of towers called floating responsive architecture (FRA) is designed for Singapore-or any other densely populated city near water where food is expensively imported from long distances. Throughout the towers, which would surround the city, networks of sensors would monitor crops and communicate with networks in the city creating a data management system that would keep track of food supplies and purchases. Economists say as much as 30 percent of food is wasted, and Ponce says this system would aim for zero waste.

Kyoto Group - proposed network of towers around Singapore 

While creative architectural vertical design may help supply nutritious food to urban centers in the future, many creative projects are already producing food in urban areas. One example is the work of entrepreneurs in Chicago who bought an abandoned factory building and transformed it into a multi-story indoor farm that produces everything from fish to salad greens to beer. Another example is Urban Farming Guys, a nonprofit based in Kansas City, dedicated to creating sustainable urban communities, starting with local food and water security, alternative energy and economic resilience. 

Tags:  buscell  community  complexity matters  ecology 

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Scientist's Passion and an Engaged Community Restore New Life and Hope to a Ravaged Land

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Willie Smits’s passionate desire to save orangutans from extinction led to an unceasing campaign to transform the scorched earth of Borneo into a new natural habitat—one plot of land and one tree at a time.

Smits is a forestry scientist and microbiologist who emigrated from The Netherlands to Indonesia nearly 30 years ago to help the country grow trees. While advising the Indonesian government on conservation issues, he had witnessed the destruction of rain forests by logging, new roads, and conversion of wild lands to agriculture. In 1989 he saw a caged orangutan in a market place. He still remembers, "She had the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen.” He returned to the place later, and found that the creature was ill and had been thrown in the trash. He took the orangutan home, nursed it back to health, and his life was changed. He coauthored a book, Thinkers of the Jungle, about these intelligent and endangered primates. Hear him tell this inspiring story at

Borneo, the world’s third largest island, is bisected by the equator and divided into Indonesia, Malaysia, and the small nation of Brunei. It was once a land of lush rain forest and one of the world’s richest sources of biodiversity with thousands of plant and animal species. In the 1970s, loggers came for the hardwood. Oil palm was a profitable crop, and fire was a cheap and traditional way to clear the land plantations. Fires became calamitous. Smits says in his lecture that in 1998 some 5.5 million hectares (that’s nearly 13.6 million acres) were lost, a choking haze darkened the sky, and the area, which has virtually no heavy industry, became the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. And he adds that for a year, children gained no weight, and lost twelve IQ points.

Smits was undaunted. He had been researching and experimenting with ways to bring life back to the land. He formed partnerships with people of the Dayak tribe in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan, buying land from them on behalf of the nonprofit Borneo Orangutan Survival, BOS. He employed them in many projects, such as planting sugar palm trees, which do not burn easily, as a buffer against fire. The trees also yield thatch, medicine and edible fruit, and he has future plans a refining sugar and producing high energy fuel. A Scientific American story by Jane Braxton Little described dozens of specific small steps pursued consistently over the years. Planting fast growing acacia trees supplied shade eventually that killed alang-alang, a grass that secretes cyanide and makes the land toxic. Many cooperated in creating huge amounts of compost to restore the soil, and in planting trees and crops that Smits selected for their benefit to the wildlife and a recreated habitat. He calls the area Samjoba Lestari, which means Everlasting Forest.

Not all scientists endorse Smits’s project. Some biologists are afraid if people get the idea a rain forest can be "recreated”, they will be less afraid of destroying it. Smits hasn’t presented his project for scientific review. But before and after photographs are stunning, and he says in his lecture that the new vegetation has actually increased cloud cover and rain fall. And the habitat now welcomes the return of many species, including birds, as well as a growing community of orangutans. Smits says success has been possible because of the work and cooperation of members of the local community and their commitment to their own environment and economic future. Amory Lovins, chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado and an advocate of renewable energy, is quoted on the BOS website. He says Smits’s achievement is "confirmation of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy that if you look after the poorest, everything else will take care of itself.”

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  ecology 

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Ancient Plagues, Modern Science, and the Double Lives of Locusts

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, March 9, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
The brain chemical serotonin triggers one of nature’s most astounding transformations, which happens when solitary placid desert locusts converge into terrifying plant-devouring swarms, scientists have found.

When driven by fluctuating environmental cycles and the compulsion to eat, locusts alter not only their behavior, but their size, strength and color as well. In fact, the change in appearance is so dramatic that until the 1920s scientists thought the two phases of locust existence were actually two separate species.

Researchers led by Michael Anstey of Oxford University in the UK studied changes in locust behavior and tested them with a variety of chemicals. They found that when the insects were swarming, they had three times more serotonin in their systems than when they were living alone.

"Up until now, whilst we knew the stimuli that cause locusts' amazing 'Jekyll and Hyde'-style transformation, nobody had been able to identify the changes in the nervous system that turn antisocial locusts into monstrous swarms,”Dr. Anstey explained in an academic press release. "The question of how locusts transform their behavior in this way has puzzled scientists for almost 90 years, now we finally have the evidence to provide an answer.” The researchers found that drugs that block serotonin made locusts shy, even when other factors suggested they congregate, and drugs that boost serotonin made solitary locusts suddenly gregarious. Serotonin, which carries nerve signals in nearly all animals, plays a role in human moods, emotions and desires.

Dr. Anstey, and colleaguesStephen M. Rogers, of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Swidbert R. Ott, and Malcolm Burrows, of Cambridge and Stephen J. Simpson of the University of Sydney in Australia, reported their findings in a paper published in the January 30 issue of Science magazine.

Dr. Rogers says locusts are finely tuned to adjust to their dry but changeable desert environment. In dry periods, they are fairly antisocial, existing as harmless green grasshoppers. After the occasional rainstorm, locusts gather to follow the newly increased vegetation, heading out from the driest regions into more fertile adjacent lands. As they see, smell or touch other locusts, their behavior and appearance transforms in a matter of hours. Their darker color scares predators, and their stronger muscles and bigger wings let them make long migratory trips, flying 60 miles in five to eight hours.

It’s one of nature’s cruelest tricks, says Dr. Rogers: Farmers rejoice with rain and then see their crops are devoured. Locust swarms affect 20 percent of the earth’s land mass and have occurred periodically in Africa, Asia, Australia and the western US. The Old Testament, describing the Eighth Plague of Egypt, says locusts shall cover the face of the earth, fill every house and eat everything that grows. The prophet Joel also warned of locusts coming in deadly clouds. The researchers suggest in their Science article that the discovery could lead to new pest control strategies.

Darwin’s 200th Birthday and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of the Species: The New York Times carried several articles commemorating Charles Darwin, including Olivia Judson’s thoughtful piece, The Origin of Darwin.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  ecology  nature 

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Bees and Hornets: Decapitations and Death Balls

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, September 21, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Hornets are nasty predators that chop off the heads of honey bees before devouring them. They also feast on honey bee larvae. Bee stingers can’t penetrate the hornet’s body armor. But don’t think honeybees are defenseless.

Cyprian honeybees will swarm around a threatening hornet and form a tightly packed ball that kills the invader, according to a story in New Scientist by Roxanne Khamsi. Scientists used to think the bee ball generated enough heat to kill the hornet. But a new study suggests the hornet inside the ball is suffocated. The hornet-destruction balls may be composed of as many as 300 bees, the story says, and pity the hornet—the execution by oxygen deprivation takes about an hour. It’s not clear how the bees coordinate their behavior to form the death ball, but bee researcher Alexandros Papachristoforou of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece thinks the bees might use chemical signals known as alarm pheromones to convene a gathering.

A National Geographic article "Hornets from Hell” tells how just one Japanese giant hornet can dispatch 40 European honeybees in one minute, and a handful of them can slaughter 30,000 honeybees in a matter of hours. The Japanese giant hornet has venom powerful enough to "disintegrate human flesh,” the story says. But we also learn that hornets are extraordinarily good parents, who chew their prey into baby food for their larvae. And high-powered hornet saliva has been synthetically replicated in an energy drink popular in Japan. We say a dangerously angry person is "mad as a hornet." We say bees are industrious, but so are hornets. Do bees and hornets experience some mysterious elements of fear, glee or revenge in these life and death encounters? Will we ever know? We can only marvel at what scientists discover on how these amazing creatures with minuscule brains organize their lives, protect their own, coordinate their behavior, and survive in spite of relentless duties and random danger.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  ecology 

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