[This is a response to an excellent post by JP Rangaswami entitled Wond’ring Aloud. I’m posting it here because the comment system on JP’s blog so mangled my HTML reply that it is almost unreadable. Please read JP’s post before attempting to read my comments below. Enjoy both of them! -NG]
JP, Gartner is embracing Stewart Brand’s pace layering concept and his related shearing layer concept in several ways. One way we are using it is to apply pace layers to application portfolio management. This is the work referenced by Sukumar in his post. Here is a blog post on the subject that gives a bit more detail on how we’re applying it: Is It Time to Rethink Your Enterprise Application Portfolio Strategy? (The rest is behind the Gartner paywall.)
But we’re also applying pace layers, shearing layers, and what I call generally “temporal frameworks” in combination with enterprise architecture to create what we call panarchitecture. This is more in line with your thinking on Trainter and the cyclical collapse of complex systems. It turns out that there is a fairly well developed framework for analyzing the cyclical nature of such collapses. It’s called Panarchy, and it’s been developed by the ecologist “Buzz” Holling and others over the past twenty years or so.
Panarchy models ecosystems as complex networks of adaptive cycles of various sizes and speeds. One of the key insights of Panarchy is that larger systems cycle through periods of sustained growth (called the front loop) and collapse/reorganization (called the back loop) more slowly than smaller systems. It is the interactions between the small fast loops and the big slow ones–called revolt and remembrance–that actually drives evolution.
So in response to your questions:
Which makes me wonder. What Tainter wrote about societies, what Shirky wrote about companies, are we about to witness something analogous in the systems world? A collapse of a monolith, consumed by its own growth and complexity? As against the simpler, fractal approach of ecosystems?
Yes, we are already witnessing something analogous in the (IT) systems world. Many of our most complex hw/sw systems are collapsing due to the growth in their complexity over the past several decades. And yes, simpler architectures will emerge from the collapse. But what Panarchy teaches us is that every ecosystem, both natural and metaphorical, starts out simple–composed of fragments of the previous ecosytem–and inexorably accretes greater and greater complexity until some release is triggered, and it too collapses.
And the biggest paradox of all is that these interconnected cycles of growth, collapse, and renewal are what make natural ecosystems so resilient! There is no escaping collapse, for it is essential to evolution. Accordingly, to make human-made systems more resilient, we must embrace collapse and renewal, not suppress it.
If you’d like to read more about Gartner’s Panarchitecture (an outgrowth of our work in design thinking), here is a blog post on the subject (Panarchitecture: Architecting a Network of Resilient Renewal) and a research note that is not behind the paywall (From Hierarchy to Panarchy: Hybrid Thinking’s Resilient Network of Renewal).
If you’d like to read some work integrating Tainter’s thinking with Holling’s thinking, check out Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down and his concept of catagenesis (roughly analogous to Panarchy). Several others, like Noah Raford, are working in this area. I’m delighted to hear you’ll be looking more deeply into this area. We’d love to have you join us!