COVID‐19 – How a Pandemic Reveals That Everything is Connected! A Systems Perspective on Adaptability

Huda Almadhoob

Oct, 30th 2020

Author: Mohamad El Tannir & Dr. Huda Almadhoob

Mankind has always been in a battle with his environment” a statement echoed by Stafford Beer 40 years ago when he discussed emerging, now persisting challenges humankind is facing. Cities and their ghettos, widespread pollution, ever-growing social inequalities, and the list go on.  

Forty years later, no wonder the challenges persist but now in a much complex and ambiguous environment representing interwoven societies and enigmatic world. With much complexity comes a higher uncertainty, another perspective that, we, human beings detest.  We hate it so much that we try to predict the future whether through astrology and magic on one side of the spectrum or through the use of probabilistic models that make sense of big data collected, on the other side of the spectrum, which we usually associate it with science.

The Law of Requisite Variety

Whether you agree with astrology being a science or not, the prediction is becoming essential in our lives, primarily through big data “science”, nonetheless, we still cannot predict everything. This is especially true in case of extreme events[1]Similar to financial crises, pandemics or earthquakes. For that matter, many scholars argue against most of the predictive models that disregard such events. Let’s take the financial crises that happened in 2008 as an example; it emerged from a loophole, mistake or greed in the housing market and its regulations. Whatever was the main reason, an oversight and ease in the assessment of mortgage applications have had tremendous effects on the whole world. These chains of consequences were the result of an interconnected complex world with much interdependencies making our reasoning bounded by such bewildering complexity.

Now let’s put prediction aside and return to what was and will ever be essentially human -that is adaptability. It is vitally important to say that we, as humans, are adaptive creatures. Perhaps such feature is what made us survive and thrive. Arguably, adaptation has been a focal idea in the explanation of survival through Darwin’s theory of evolution and the process of natural selection. Adaptability has been a salient attribute of all organisms to achieve viability. Nonetheless, it is usually associated with uncertainty. So, it is crucial to associate adaptability as a response to perturbations happening.

To deal with such perturbations in complex systems – whereby the world is considered to be characterized intrinsically as such – Ashby has developed the notion of requisite variety[2]For example, if one wants to place chopsticks, independently of one another. The base can be either put upward or downward, yet next to each other; we can say that such placement has 4x4x4= 64 varieties (assuming the sticks are not placed directly below the plate). Now Trying to look at it form a substantial distance, one can only distinguish three varieties (positions), that are left, front and right. Therefore, the variety is not an inherent characteristic of the set as the observer and his discriminative power play a role in distinguishing variety. With such discrimination comes the postulations of Beer in his work in management cybernetics, namely; the attenuation and amplification of variety. There are many examples in our daily life that depicts this law.

[1]. The concept of Black Swan was introduced by Taleb who addressed the issue of randomness which human beings are prone to overlook especially that of large events. That is not to say Covid-19 is considered a Black Swan, as this event was predictable by many.

[2] The Law of Requisite Variety states that “only variety can destroy variety” (Ashby,1956 p.207), postulating that for regulation to be achieved the regulator needs to have at least as much variety as the system being controlled in order to achieve equilibrium.

Reflection of the Law on COVID-19 Pandemic

Now with what is happening in our world especially by the trendy-deadly pandemic known as “covid-19”, one would say WOW didn’t see that coming!  –  as many of us did. Others, including Bill Gates, predicted that but now what? It’s all about the “Here and Now” what shall we do? Here comes the adaptability process.

To deal with such perturbations, Ashby’s have developed the law of requisite variety which is commonly unconsciously used. We started imposing laws and regulations to deal with such situation such as imposing travel bans or wearing masks. Considering what was imposed, one needs to carefully look at the equation and assess the implications so as not to be projected to other undesirable implications. Acknowledging Complex systems is a way to understand the formula of control and regulation, especially in what concerns the Law of Requisite Variety. It is crucial to understand that such systems cannot operate separately; indeed, they operate and gain from their interactions. In a sense, you cannot separate the travel ban regulations to the economy as much as you cannot separate the supply chain of goods issues on consumer behaviour. These chains of effect have a tremendous influence on our lives, let alone our survival.

Consequently, we need to use our repository of responses – which we have a lot of –  to such problems arising by amplifying and attenuating variety. As such, amplifying our own variety against the pandemic (to increase our ability to tackle the virus) can be testing, improving healthcare systems, developing vaccines, stocking up food and medicine, producing ventilators and masks to name a few. On the other hand, attenuating the variety of virus (to reduce the spread of the virus) include social distancing, lockdown, travel bans, quarantine, etc. These repositories of responses are clearly used to reach a control status against the virus, that is to manage the virus (equilibrium in Ashby’s terms). Nonetheless, this is considered to be a rather simple calculus problem of adding this and eliminating that. We really do wish this was the case, unfortunately, it is not for the simple reasons stated earlier; one action leads to multiple effects and responses in a complex dynamic world.

Therefore, one needs to carefully assess the situation and the context by which an intervention is needed. In fact, this elucidates why many countries responded differently to the pandemic and will continue to do so. For instance, one country has imposed a strict lockdown measures while another country kept the economy running while applying soft regulations. Such responses clearly reflect the locality of each context.

Moving Forward

To conclude, we must note down a list of recommendation when we encounter such situations. “We” can be individuals, communities, governments, or any other form of social structure level.

1) Acknowledging and applying the law of requisite variety when dealing with perturbations in our environment (not necessarily limited to pandemics or Natural disasters).

2) Defining the boundaries for the application of the law, for instance, what is the ecosystem that concerns us; can be as micro as family level or as macro as a world level.

3) Using tools and techniques to map out and tackle the situation such as Systems Dynamics (SD), Social Network Analysis (SNA), Soft Systems Methodology, the numerous managerial, social, psychological, metaphysical, bodybuilding, meditation, diet tools found in our repositories – But make sure you don’t use it on the other side of the equation, that is amplifying the variety of the thing that needs to be controlled and attenuating our own variety.

4) Sharing information and assessing impacts among the actors of the system, this will address the interrelated issues across the ecosystem. For instance, it is much beneficial to have a task force of multiple sectors tackling the pandemic as participants will learn about the effect of one action taken on other sectors. This is much more helpful than narrowing our focus solely on the medical industry. What about the economy, firms, technology, astronauts, animals? Aren’t they part of our ecosystem? This takes us back to the importance of setting out boundaries, especially when dealing with the complex issue as the pandemic.

Finally, we want to end this article as we started it with a quote from Stafford Beer which somehow summarizes everything said: “A stochastic process is about the results of convolving probabilities-which is just what management is about, as well”. While the infection rates are increasing again, we invite you to stay safe and start to comprehensively using this law in your daily life. Our tips would be start by wearing masks! And think twice before disposing them on the floors – they need to make it to the trash bins!