The great challenges of the 21st Century are systemic in nature. From ecological decline to cybersecurity in a digital age, the patterns of change we must grapple with are profoundly complex. Change agents will need to understand how change unfolds in complex systems in order to promote political and economic stability during these turbulent times.
I recently hosted a call with several futures strategists about the nature of phase transitions in social systems. We met to talk about what is known about phase transitions in physical systems and the lessons they can teach us for promoting cultural shifts in society.
A phase transition is simply the change of a substance from one phase to another. It’s most common usage refers to changes between solid, liquid, gaseous, and plasma states for physical materials — an example being the stages involved in transforming the surface of a lake from flowing waves of water to a frozen plateau of ice.
I seeded the conversation with the observation that phase transitions involve two levels of analysis — global features of the whole system and local rules of interaction between constituent parts.
Global features of a system are the aggregate or emergent properties that characterize the overall state of the system. Examples for the freezing process of water include the total amount of energy, average speed of the water molecules, surface tension, and the average rate of diffusion between the surface and air above. These features constitute the levels of homogeneity for the system. As symmetry breaks down (and homogeneity decreases), the water redistributes heat through the movement of water molecules and a complex pattern of liquid flows and ice crystals unfolds over time.
Local rules of interaction are the characteristic ways that the parts of the system interact with each other. As water freezes, water and air molecules move around each other. They exchange energy as they collide and bond with one another. The breaking of symmetry for the whole system follows the path of localized least resistance as the molecules seek their lowest energy state relative to what is happening in their vicinity.
Already we can begin to see why the study of phase transitions is vital for politics and economics. Global features like the rise of one ideology as the “common sense” for society are akin to the homogeneity of a complex system. And the stories comprising each ideology are shared by individual people configured at various levels of social organization — peer groups, families, religious communities, political parties, etc. — that constitute the rules of interaction for their local culture. The emergence of these structures involves a phase transition from one configuration to another.
So how can the study of physical systems inform our thinking about society? Here is a small sampling of relevant applications:
- By emphasizing the dynamic patterns of society as an evolving system to reveal how changes in one area can influence another;
- Characterizing the rules of engagement to see how local interactions influence and are constrained by global structures;
- Identifying universal properties of phase transitions that apply to all complex systems (such as the coupling of global with local patterns and the tendency for complexity to arise at boundaries);
- Creating categories for the common types of phase transitions in order to distinguish one historical context from another.
Seeing the world through the lens of complexity allows us to better explain why changes follow typical patterns. An example is the ongoing tension between open and closed societies. We tend to think about a country as either being one or the other — a dictatorship or a democracy, command-and-control or market capitalism — and yet history shows how these “attractors” are inherently unstable. They change slowly at times and them reach tipping points with a cascade of deep shifts from one pole to another.
This observation reveals that the stages of change are complex. They must be analyzed to reveal exactly how the system moves into a new phase. The tools of complexity science were created for this kind of analysis. And they are now being used to explain why one company dominates a market while another falters (e.g. Facebook exploding past MySpace to become the most used social media platform); how one political narrative arises as the perceived reality of a nation (such as the prominent rugged individualism at the core of conservative thought in the U.S.); and when changes in the environment become effectively irreversible (like when heating of the atmosphere causes storm tracks to relocate, with profound implications for local economies). Policy analysts, innovation strategists, and activists alike will be better able to grasp what is happening around them by putting these insights to use.
So it is vital that change agents learn about phase transitions. I hope this brief introduction stimulates you to learn more.