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A Complex System of Systems: The Hidden Symphony of Everyday Life

Jun 19, 2024
Jonas Hultenius

Life is complex and filled with hidden nuances. Things like AI, communication networks and spaceflight are all massively complex subjects that, directly or indirectly, might seem like rocket science to most of us. Some things are just more complex than others. Right?

Well, the world around us often lulls us into a false sense of simplicity.

A seemingly mundane morning routine hides beneath its surface a hidden symphony, a complex dance of interconnected systems working in concert. As we grab a cup of coffee and, newly awake, swipe through social media and the morning news on our phones, we are happily unaware that each action, each seemingly simple task, is a ripple in a vast network of systems, a testament to the intricate tapestry of our world.

I’m a tech guy and as such I’m used to complexity. In a sense this is my bread and butter. I bring order to chaos, or at least that is the way I heroically think of myself, and so I often dream of a simpler life that just works. Why can’t things just be simple for once?

Let’s consider the seemingly straightforward act of brewing a cup of coffee. On the surface, it involves scooping grounds, pouring hot water and maybe adding a splash of milk.

However, if we delve a little deeper, the complexity explodes. The coffee beans themselves are the product of a delicate and fragile agricultural system. Everything is purposely done and thought out, from planting and cultivating to harvesting, and processing. Each step is dependent on weather patterns, global trade routes and the expertise of farmers. The water that fills your cup comes from a complex network of reservoirs, treatment plants, and distribution channels – a system engineered to ensure clean and readily available water for millions.

Everything is complex. The simple cup you pour your hot roasted bean juice into is also far more complex than you might first have thought. It might be crafted from ceramic or glass, cold, hard steel or even recycled plastic. Each material with its own backstory and each representing its own intricate system of systems. Ranging from the mining of raw materials to the intricate manufacturing processes and the vast international trade network and myriads of transportation that delivered the final product to your hands.

Even the seemingly simple act of adding milk involves a complex web of dairy farms, processing plants, and distribution networks. As well as the domestication of milk producing mammals, a process that started in prehistorical times, only to end up as a step in your morning routine.

And that’s not all. The energy that powers the coffee maker comes from a vast and international electrical grid. A huge system of power plants, transmission lines and distribution networks that span continents and that each on their own consist of systems of systems.

The information you access on your phone while waiting for that cup to brew relies on a global network of communication infrastructure. It consists of satellites in orbit, fiber optic cables under the oceans and vast forests of cellular towers that all are working in tandem to deliver you cat videos and news at lightning speed.

This intricate web of interconnected systems extends far beyond the simple act of brewing coffee. Every aspect of our lives, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat to the transportation we use, is underpinned by complex systems of systems, or SoSs.

A SoS is a collection of independent but interdependent systems that, when working together, produce an emergent whole with properties that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Just like a cup of morning brew or society as a whole.

The human body, in of itself, is a prime example of an SoS. Our circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems are all operating independently, yet are intricately linked. A single disruption in any one system can have a cascading effect on the others, highlighting the interconnected nature of our whole being.

Another prime example is the global economy. National economies, with their own production, consumption and trade dynamics, interact with each other through a complex web of financial markets, trade agreements and international institutions. This interplay creates a dynamic and often unpredictable economic landscape, where the actions of one nation can have ripple effects across the globe. Layers upon layers, systems of systems, that together works both with and against each other.

The concept of SoSs isn’t just an academic exercise. Understanding these complex systems is crucial for managing them effectively.

In the case of the coffee example, a disruption in any part of the system, from a weather event impacting coffee bean production to a cyberattack crippling the power grid. Or for that matter a global pandemic, just imagine one of those, affecting the transportation networks. Would all have cascading consequences throughout the entire chain.

By recognizing these interdependencies, we can build resilience into the system. And by creating buffers and contingency plans we have the option to mitigate some, but not all, potential disruptions.

As humans we love organizing and optimizing, but focusing solely on an individual component can lead to unintended and unforeseen consequences. Optimizing a single farm’s coffee production might seem beneficial, but it could disrupt the delicate balance within the global coffee market. Similarly, focusing solely on economic growth without considering the impact on environmental sustainability can and will lead to long-term problems.

We often, or at least I, overlook these hidden complexities and carry on with our day. Happily unaware of the underlying complexities of it all and focusing on the things that we feel should garner our attention. But when we allow us to see it, it is a mesmerizing thing to behold. Complexity disguised as simplicity and the mundane.    But why do we so often neglect to see it? Surely this hidden symphony should be celebrated.

In short, seeing it all would drive even the sanest among us completely mad. There is just too much complexity for us to handle. Luckily, together we are legion, and there will be others that handle their part in this interlocking and intertwined dance of materials, goods, ideas and trade. So the next time you pour yourself a fresh brewed cup of coffee, think about the collective effort to grant you that privilege. And then relax. We’ve got this together.

About the author

Jonas Hultenius

Software Architect | Sweden
I love technology and I tend to collect languages, techniques, patterns and ideas and stack them high. There is a beautiful synergy to be had and endless possibilities when mixing and matching. A process I find to be both exciting and fun. Innovation has always been a driving force for me.

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