4.1 Between Western and Chinese efficacy

In an interview in 2000 Steven Hawking suggested that the 21st Century will be the century of Complexity. It therefore might seem strange to search for its expression in methods developed three thousand years ago. And yet, while modern science’s take on complexity might have kicked off a conceptual revolution across the social sciences, the principles through which it depicts reality and transformation hold deep similarities with those found in the ancient Chinese schema. Overall, this approach, represented by historic texts on warfare, diplomacy, and medicine, seems to provide an exceptional epistemic fit with a complexity approach to strategy and change. Crucially though, what makes it particularly appealing is its emphasis on action, fully incorporating philosophical understandings with attuned modes of operation.

While human action has always strived to better one’s existing conditions, different civilisations developed different world views and preconceptions about the nature of reality and how it can be transformed. Attempting to encapsulate the cultural philosophies of two great civilisations is obviously impossible. However, I will attempt to generalise some of the most relevant key differentiating principles between the two. Such “Reference by difference” as displayed in François Julien’s fascinating comparative exploration of the Chinese versus Western approaches to strategy and the principles for action[1], can help us better understand the efficacy of the Chinese operational approach and its surprising compatibility with complexity thinking.

The Western schema, from ancient Greece onwards, developed a tradition that differentiated between theory and praxis. The goal of any strategy was based on defining an ideal model within which reality is entrusted with ultimate forms and virtues – an “end state” towards which all action should be directed. For western practitioners, this has meant being able to theorise alternative sets of conditions, or alternative realities, to prioritise and choose from. It has also required one to assume that reality could be wilfully constructed, in other words that some procedure of creation existed and could be manipulated.

The creation of reality has been a core metaphor in the Western tradition, with Plato’s demiurge in charge of fashioning and maintaining the physical universe[2]. Leaders of the ancient polities were similarly thought of as craftsmen. Even “drawing up a plan for a good constitution, the craftsman of the city is like a painter who working from a ‘divine model’, tries painstakingly to reproduce it”[3]. This Western worldview, described by Julian as “Fixing One’s Eye on the Model” has become a shared conceptual path taken by Western practitioners, from generals to economists. It is this coupling of theory and practice, which we now take so much for granted. As Julian notes “a revolutionary designs the model of the city that must be built; a soldier sets out the plan of war to be followed; an economist decides on the growth curve to target; and all of them, whatever their respective roles, operate in a similar way. Each projects upon the world an ideal plan that will then have to be incorporated into factual reality”[4].

Once we become more aware of this underlying cultural construct, it can be easily spotted all around us, most notably in the public media, where decision makers are interviewed daily about their “end goals” and how they plan to achieve them, only to be then criticised for either the “ideal model” they present, or their own skills of ‘craftsmanship’. These expectations of practitioners’ capacity to theorise, predict, and project, have been culturally ingrained for millenniums, helping us also better understand the philosophical sources of the reductionist Newtonian paradigm described earlier.
While expecting to be presented with an ideal theoretical model, it has also been culturally accepted to think of reality as always falling short of that model. Thus, whereas policy makers are constantly criticized for failing to achieve their set goals, there is also an inherent assumption of an inevitable gap between the model and reality. Such foreseen gaps are put down to the imperative notion of ‘circumstances’ (Clausewitz’s notion of friction) - unique sets of conditions which are acceptably unpredictable and always seem to come in the way of perfect achievement. In Western eyes therefore, the strategic hero has always been thought of as the one who defeated the odds and prevailed over unfavourable circumstances to impose his primary vision on reality.

The Chinese epistemic tradition did not develop a similar world of ideal forms in the Greek sense[5]. It therefore also did not explore the relations between theory and praxis but rather sidestepped it altogether. Overall, reality was perceived as a continuous process that stemmed purely from the interaction of the factors at play. These interactions produced both opposing and complimentary dynamics which had to be continuously assessed so as to identify any emerging orders. Thus, for Chinese practitioners, the source of any future order was not a process of wilful creation, but rather a state that has already existed as a potential combination of conditions contained within the course of reality. It was this very combination which needed to be identified as potential from within a situation, rather than through a removed intellectual exercise.

Fast forward three millenniums, it is easy to see an underlying correspondence with today’s understandings of human ecologies through complexity theories. Reality is perceived as emerging through a dynamic and never ending bottom-up process created through accumulative multiple interactions. While it is neither predictable nor controllable it is also not random, but rather based on dynamics whose formations can be made sense of in real time, and whose manifestations can be built upon as well as encouraged. This is why Chinese sages were not thought of as craftsmen but rather as explorers, developing strategies through an experiential navigation of reality. Julian therefore titles the Chinese schema as “building on the propensity of things”. Instead of the notions of ‘ideals’ and ‘creation’ this mind-set is led by two very different notions – ‘configuration’ and ‘potential’.

The notion of ‘configuration’ relates to the relations of forces that are developing within a situation, while ‘potential’ relates to the unique circumstances within a given configuration which are in one’s favour. Thus the role of strategy becomes to detect emerging configurations in the environment that are favourable and to help position oneself to take advantage of this configuration. In this sense another fascinating resemblance with a complexity approach can be detected. Properties, such as strength or weakness that within a reductionist world view would be attributed to individual elements (the “powerful” or the “powerless” agents) have been perceived by the Chinese as emanating from unique configurations inherent within situations. In other words, power is a systemic formation – the product of interacting factors within a given context which is dynamic and changing. Under different sets of circumstances different agents will hold different potential to have the upper hand. Thus “it is the potential of the situation that renders the combatants courageous or cowardly”[6].

The Chinese strategist is not trying to construct a whole new system from the outside, but rather intervene from within so as to impact situations as they unfold. Strategy is thus perceived of in terms of potential rather than as a course of action towards a predisposed ideal “end state”. Old Chinese scripts like to use topological metaphors, such as slopes which serve as an image for propensity. It is the slopes – temporary configurations created by existing conditions, which provide strategic opportunities. Once identified, these could be harnessed with little efforts to produce great results.

The fact that the ancient Chinese strategist is thought of as operating from within the system, is a vital missing link in operationalising complexity. Complexity scientists, like most others, focus on assessing systemic dynamics from outside the system, a bit like observing a phenomena such as a debt crisis or an innovation cluster, in a petri dish. However, when it comes to policy making and implementation, no agent is ever an outsider. Even the president of the United States, considerably the most powerful leader in the world, is an agent within a network. His actions, leverages and considerations are constrained by other players and formations, intentionally or unintentionally. Even if he wished to do so, he cannot construct a whole new banking system, but merely intervene within the one that already exists, and of which he is already part of. The practical significance of such constraints leads us to a final key differentiation to consider - the efficacy of ‘circumstances’.

It is those very ‘circumstances’ - that for the Western strategist comes in the way of achieving his goal, that are the actual source of potential for the Chinese strategist. Instead of trying to impose a plan, a set of constructs upon the world, the strategic hero is carried along by the propensity of things, relying on her ability to detect the potential emergent within the situation. At best, such achievements blend so effortlessly into the flow as to become undetected – thus depriving us of a heroic signature altogether. To sum up, the Western and Chinese world views about nature and social reality have evolved independently over millenniums and therefore developed some very different underlying principles for framing goals and taking action. Overall the Western schema emphasized the need to theorise ideal situations and backward engineer their creation, while the Chinese emphasised the need to identify emerging opportunities and continuous adaptive action. Considering our new scientific understandings of complex social systems and the challenges they present for intentional action, the Chinese schema seems to provide a surprisingly compatible starting point for developing a new mode of operation. Yet, in order to move from philosophical worldviews to operational frameworks, we must further explore how the Chinese approach differed in developing its own problem-solving methods. It is here that we turn to the field of Traditional Chinese Medicine in general and the art of Acupuncture in particular.

4.2 Traditional Chinese Medicine as a problem-solving framework

When looking for new approaches to help us transform complex problems, traditional Chinese medicine provides a great source of inspiration. It is important to emphasize this - not in terms of any literal translocation of its methods and concepts into the social ream, but rather as a stimuli for creatively designing our own new methods and concepts.

As suggested above, the ancient Chinese strategic approach to change assumed a holistic and continuously dynamic set of conditions that must be analysed in relations to one another, and then harnessed for one’s own benefit. Ultimate “solutions” therefore came in the form of fitness to emerging circumstances, rather than as fitness to an ideal model of reality. Consequently, the form of action itself, minimalistic by nature, builds on already existing dynamics within the environment – the emerging potential within existing configurations – to achieve maximum impact with minimal efforts. This is further detailed in the realm of ancient medicine.

By definition, all medicinal arts are problem-solving frameworks, developed to identify and address conditions that are thought of as harmful. So when looking to develop new operational tools for effecting a given phenomenon, rather than theoretical tools that can help us describe it better, the realm of medicine offers a great source for alternative perspectives that go beyond the generalized and more philosophical strategic notions discussed earlier.
Specifically, traditional Chinese medicine whose roots are attributed to the ancient texts of the “Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine”, dated around the 4th century BC, embodies four central rationales that profoundly resonate with complexity approaches. First, it does not try to reduce and take apart an observed phenomenon into its constituting elements, but rather analyses it as a systemic whole; second it focuses on the dynamics driving relations across the system rather than on static conditions; third, it assumes causes and effects to be mutually generating; and lastly, it proposes that multiple intervening actions at key points across the system can create indirect effects that transform the given phenomenon.

Chinese medicine[7] approaches the human body as a dynamic system comprising of multiple flows defined as three bodily energies. These have been translated as – Qi, Blood and Moisture. These flows are believed to be channelled through interdependent sub-systems that are linked through direct and indirect interactions across an invisible web of organic channels. However, the flows within each sub-system, named after vital organs, are not restricted to the specific structure and location of the organ. They are defined functionally according to their systemic contribution and are therefore depicted as a network, also referred to as ‘meridians’, that extends all over the body. In this sense the ancient Chinese view of the human body echoes the logic of an eco-system rather than that of a mechanical structure. Interestingly, recent modern medicine has also been raising the focus on our eco-system attributes, for example, by highlighting the important role of the microbiome – the trillions of multiple species of bacteria, co-inhabiting within our bodies with an estimated cell count that is ten times our own[8].

Fittingly, ancient Chinese discussions of the body as an ecology have been expressed by the use of the ‘garden’ as a leading metaphor. In “Between Heaven and Earth” Harriet Benfield further elaborates on the use of this metaphor for explaining concepts of health, disease as well as the role of the doctor. “A garden is a dynamic self-regulating system that transforms sunlight and water into living tissue of vegetation”. In this sense, the “garden is healthy when rich growing conditions prevail and when plants are resilient enough to tolerate adversity”. Overall a state of health is deemed as ‘harmonious’. However, such a state of ‘harmony’ should not be confused with a static state of equilibrium. Rather, harmony can be thought of as a state of dynamic coherency amongst all the different flows throughout the networks. For example, a garden needs sunshine, moisture and nutritious soil, yet it is the combination flows of nutrients, water and light throughout the garden’s ecology that determine its wellbeing, sustaining the wide variety of its relationships amongst plants and organisms.

Health and sickness are not thought of as digital dichotomies but as stages on a continuum, where sickness emerges when harmonious flows of energy, moisture, or nutrients move towards excess or deficiency. Such patterns create disease – defined as a loss of adaptive ability, i.e an inability to respond to the multitudes of emerging challenges. This loss of adaptive ability, very similar to the notion of resilience discussed earlier, is driven by emerging sets of inter-relationships across the body network, in other words – by circumstances. “The climates, emotions, and activities of life are not intrinsically good or bad. It is their excess or deficiency that distorts the pattern of flow”.

We can similarly think of social problems as emanating from attributes that are not intrinsically good or bad. For example, lack of an entrepreneurial drive might prevent innovation and development within our social ecology, while excess of it might contribute to extreme inequality and corruption; religious beliefs could benefit the bonding of communities as well as personal emotional wellbeing, but could also contribute to suppression, intolerance and violence. It’s the question of interactions with other corresponding attributes, not the issue itself, that all together create what are deemed as positive or negative circumstances. Because all flows and subnetworks are interdependent, cause and effect are not understood in terms of causality, but rather are viewed as simultaneous and mutually generating, corresponding rather than sequential.

Just as ancient Chinese worldviews of social change and action seem to chime with complexity thinking, so does viewing the body as an ecosystem seem to resonate with our initial discussions of complex problems. Complex social problems emerge out of the growing tensions between multiple economic, political, cultural and technological patterns, emerging through the endless flows of interactions between people across the social network. The question is, can these flows be manipulated in any way? In other words, what would treatment entail?

In the words of Benfield, “the role of the gardener is to protect the integrity of the garden, promoting growth in some areas, restricting in others… he observes and nurtures the interaction between the garden and the environment”. Importantly, the traditional Chinese doctor treats conditions, rather than causes, observing dynamics, identifying disharmonies and treating those disharmonies – what we would consider as effects, rather than searching to eliminate some root causes.

The acupuncturists diagnoses multiple parameters across the body, synthesizes her impressions, and formulates “a picture of healthy and distorted patterns of function rather than named diseases related to a single cause… there is not necessarily a causal chain of events, but a circle of invariable associations”. In that sense through her actions she “builds fences, digs ditches, ponds and channels for irrigation, adjusting the flow of water and wind”. Consequently this is an iterative process of continuous adaptive action. The acupuncturist intervenes, steps back to reassess the effects and changes in flows, and designs new sets of interventions.

The effects of action in the system are seen as uncertain and the acupuncturist learns more about the existing dynamics through her interventions. In complexity terms, this perception of change reflects some of the complexity notions discussed earlier, specifically the concept of non-linearity and lack of hierarchy. There is no direct proportion between the number or intensity of interventions and the level of change that can be detected in the felt symptoms; of course as the interventions are across a wide network, the underlying assumption is that through disruption or enhancement of different dynamics, change can be induced from a variety of locations in the system, not a command and control position.

To summarise, all acupuncture treatments are simply oriented towards diverting existing currents. This, with the aim of inducing the self-regulating response of the organism, helping it reorganize and replenish its energy flows. Once relations across the subnetworks resume harmony, the pathological conditions are expected to resolve themselves. In other words, the aim of the action is to help the body help itself.

So what about the forms of intervention? While also known for using herbs, acupuncturists’ main tools are acupuncture needles. These extremely thin needles are inserted into what are referred to as acupuncture points, situated all over the body in correspondence to traditional Chinese mapping of the body’s sub-system networks. The points are considered as gateways into the body’s highways of energy flows with up to two thousand referenced points connected across up to twenty referenced pathways[9]. Following her initial analysis of dynamic excesses and deficiencies, the acupuncturist chooses a unique set of points to work on. The inserted needle stimulates these connection points so as to disrupt, dampen or facilitate flows, thereby helping “reorganise the patterns of illness”.

The points chosen for intervention are not positioned according to the specific location of the symptom. For example a headache might be treated through points below the knees, or an upset stomach might be treated through points around the shoulders area. The points for intervention are chosen according to the network functional structure and flows across the body, which are assumed to produce the symptom, not their immediately experienced location. The idea is that any stimulation at a local site, will have a global impact, again resonating with a complexity understanding of a system.
Overall, Acupuncture needles do not insert new resources into the system, nor do they take temporary control over any key functions. They merely provide the body with information to re-organise itself. Early intervention is deemed as the best form of prevention, and is “most effective when functional disturbances have not yet developed into organic structural impairments”. In this sense, acupuncture treatment is an ongoing practice that is aimed at maintaining health, rather than a sporadic intervention aimed at treating illness.

4.3 Towards operationalizing complexity through ‘social acupuncture’

Drawing on a worldview that emphasises interdependence, uncertainly and the uncontrollability of nature and change, the art of acupuncture provides a fascinating conceptual reference for proactive interventions aimed to affect systemic conditions. The question is what can be learned from it when coming to design new tools for operating within our complex social sphere? Needless to say, this should not be about developing a corresponding traditional Chinese medicinal approach to society. It is not about defining social meridians, nor about developing notions of social Qi. Rather it is about taking some of acupuncture’s key principles for systemic analysis and for action design, and exploring what they could inspire within a social ecological context.

In terms of systemic analysis, acupuncture explores each health complaint as a global phenomenon with local manifestations. A migraine headache for example, is not thought of as a throbbing pain located in the forehead, but rather as a global condition emanating from excesses and deficiencies in flows across various parts of the body network. Similarly, when thinking about a social challenge, for example a recently felt shortage in bank lending to small businesses, analysis of the problem cannot be restricted to the relations between bank managers and small business owners. These are just local manifestations of a systemic problem that draws on a wide variety of inefficiencies in the risk management and capital flows of the financial system, as well as their other political, cultural and technological drivers. What is experienced by small business owners is a symptom that brings to the surface a myriad of interdependent dynamics across the network. It is these wider patterns that must be analysed before any action can be designed. At the same time, whatever action is chosen, it does not aim to alter or “fix” all underlying dynamics everywhere, but rather simply to nudge some of them so as to divert certain flows, hoping to ultimately affect some systemic symptoms such as freeing up investment funding for small businesses.

The fact that the problem is analysed as a global phenomenon does not imply the existence of a global solution. The myriad of interdependent dynamics that have emerged across the system, present simultaneous causes and effects that cannot be isolated or controlled. There is no fundamental deep root cause which can be manipulated through some “silver bullet solutions” to resolve the complex problem. Rather it is multiple interventions across different patterns that can directly and indirectly alter existing dynamics, gradually dissolving and transforming the problem. Most importantly, the interventions themselves, are always local – no one operates at the systemic level. The question is - what are the best locations to intervene so as to maximise our global effects? How can we identify them? Here we reach one significant limit to our metaphor. For the traditional acupuncturist, while each phenomenon is perceived as unique - no two people are assumed to ever experience the same illness in the same way, all body systems share a given set of points across a mapped network. A brilliant acupuncturist will identify the specific set of points for intervention, out of the endless number of existing combinations, which holds the most potential for driving change. A social acupuncturist does not have that privilege. A social ecology does not have a similarly structured underlying network that can be mapped out. Each case requires its own unique mapping effort.

While each social ecology shares some fundamental systemic functions - economies, norms, culture, governing systems, and technological means, the manner in which they interact creates a wide variety of networks and subnetwork structures. Moreover, these networks continually evolve, grow and expand over time, as humans innovate and adapt to emerging new conditions in their relatively fast changing environment[10]. The human body on the other hand, continues to evolve at such a slow pace, so as to make the notion of change irrelevant for the traditional acupuncturist. Much like the natural ecologies described in the beginning of this chapter, humans, like all organisms, evolve through a non-proactive inter-generational process. Human ecologies on the other hand evolve through continuous innovation and adaptation to their environment. In fact, the more this environment is man-made, the faster the evolutionary process.

To the dismay of social conservatives, history teaches us that social ecologies that strive to stay in place ultimately decline, thereby requiring continuous efforts to marry change with stability. Here too, the ancient Chinese notion of ‘harmony’ can provide us with a good conceptual anchor in a social context. As suggested earlier, ‘harmony’ is not a state of equilibrium but a state of dynamic coherency amongst all the different flows throughout the ecology. It is this dynamic coherency which promotes systemic resilience, i.e. the ability to innovate, learn and adapt, as ideas and resources flow throughout the system, maximising connectivity and allowing diversity in experimentation, thereby enabling better social outcomes[11]. Complex social problems damage these deeper functions of the ecology. The role of the social acupuncturist is to analyse the patterns and dynamics that drive them, with the aim of identifying potential points for intervention.

While there are no blueprints for such systemic mapping, the patterns shaping a given system will always be explored from multiple dimensions – economic, political, cultural and technological, looking for the manner in which different dynamics sustain and/or constrain one another. In essence, such patterns expose the underlying behavioural logics through which people interact across the social network, exchanging ideas and resources across different social and physical spaces. Once the dynamics making up the phenomenon at hand are better understood, specific configurations that provide room for action can be identified. Such configurations, depend to a large extent on the position of the social acupuncturist within the system – configurations creating potential for impact by the World Bank would be different than those of Greenpeace.

As assumed by complexity and ancient Chinese approaches alike, a system cannot be controlled or forcefully changed. Change is driven bottom-up through shifts within dynamic patterns of interactions across the system. Thus, when it comes to action, there is no endeavour to actively restructure the whole system. The aim of any designed intervention is to have one of two effects – either disrupt or enhance certain patterns. This with the hope of creating indirect effects that would overtime transform the social challenge at hand. In this sense, the logic of action follows an organic emerging process rather than an engineering approach. Moreover, as the influence of interventions are unpredictable and require an iterative process, part of any action design must take under consideration the sensing of new effects, i.e. how adaptive learning will take place.

The social acupuncturist works from within the system to alter existing patterns shaping the symptoms of a complex problem. In this sense, her “needles” are relatively low-intensity actions at specific intersections of social flows. Such social needles are inserted in multiple places across the social network aiming to stimulate an already existing potential identified within the system, rather than artificially creating new conditions. Many times the greatest potential will be found away from the core where intensive interdependencies have created impenetrable Gordian knots. Interventions upstream, at the peripheral creeks that feed the surging rivers below, will usually prove more effective.

The stimulations themselves can come in different forms. Providing local agents with new information, nudging specific incentive structure, connecting unconnected nodes, or disrupting existing connections. The strategic aim will always boil down to either disrupting or enhancing existing flows, not actively constructing new systems or “solving” root causes. While seemingly superficial, it is only by working within organically existing social patterns that one can affect deep network structures.

So to recap, the overall strategy underlying this proposed new approach to complex problem solving - Social Acupuncture, is to enable rather than to create change. The idea is that smart, accurate, low-profile interventions can actually provide multitude of players with the information to reorganise the way they connect, share and behave, thereby creating wider systemic impacts. The most effective systemic impacts are almost silent transformations. They become so deeply embedded within the existing landscape, that they are ultimately seen as inevitable by both supporters and oppositions alike. No heroic signature is required.

[1] Francois Jullien, A Treatise on Efficacy – Between Western and Chinese Thinking, (Honelulu, University of Hawaii Press: 2004).

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demiurge

[3] Jullien p2

[4] Jullien pp2-3 Western’s long tradition of “fixing one’s eye on the model”, it is also easy to see how this millenniums-old epistemic tradition has facilitated the development of modern science, itself a “vast operation of model-making”, epitomized by the Newtonian paradigm described above. Action has been inherently viewed as the extension of science, yet when science itself is changing so as to make extended action unknowable…

[6] The following discussion builds on Jullien’s chapter 2

[7] Jullien

[8] The following section draws on Between Heaven and Earth by Harriet Beinfield and Efram Korngold

[9] “Me, myself and us” http://www.economist.com/node/21560523

[10] http://www.acupuncturetoday.com/abc/acupuncture.php

[11] The more our environment is man-made, the faster the pace of change

[12] Alex Pentland, Social Physics: How good Ideas Spread – lessons from a new science, (Scribe: 2014)