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Filmed on Monday August 7, 02017

Nicky Case

Seeing Whole Systems

Nicky Case is an independent game developer who creates interactive games and simulations including Parable of the Polygons (02014), Coming Out Simulator (02014), We Become What We Behold (02016), To Build A Better Ballot (02016), and LOOPY (02017).

Nicky Case’s presentations are as ingenious, compelling, and graphically rich as the visualizing tools and games Nicky creates for understanding complex dynamic systems.

Case writes: “We need to see the non-linear feedback loops between culture, economics, and technology. Not only that, but we need to see how collective behavior emerges from individual minds and motives. We need new tools, theories, and visualizations to help people talk across disciplines.”

Nicky Case is the creator of Parable of the Polygons (02014), Coming Out Simulator (02014), We Become What We Behold (02016), To Build A Better Ballot (02016), and LOOPY (02017).

How to finesse complexity

HE BEGAN, “Hi, I’m Nicky Case, and I explain complex systems in a visual, tangible, and playful way.” He did exactly that with 207 brilliant slides and clear terminology. What system engineers call “negative feedback,” for example, Case calls “balancing loops.” They maintain a value. Likewise “positive feedback” he calls “reinforcing loops.” They increase a value

Using examples and stories such as the viciousness of the board game Monopoly and the miracle of self-organizing starlings, Case laid out the visual basics of finessing complex systems. A reinforcing loop is like a ball on the top of a hill, ready to accelerate downhill when set in motion. A balancing loop is like a ball in a valley, always returning to the bottom of the valley when perturbed.

Now consider how to deal with a situation where you have an “attractor” (a deep valley) that attracts a system toward failure:

The situation is precarious for the ball because it is near a hilltop that is a reinforcing loop. If the ball is nudged over the top, it will plummet to the bottom of the balancing-loop valley and be stuck there. It would take enormous effort raise the ball out of such an attractor—which might be financial collapse or civil war. Case’s solution is not to try to move the ball, MOVE THE HILLS—identify the balancing and reinforcing loops in the system and weaken or strengthen them as needed to reconfigure the whole system so that the desired condition becomes the dominant attractor.

Now add two more characteristics of the real world—dense networks and chaos (randomness). They make possible the phenomena of emergence (a whole that is different than the sum of its parts) and evolution. Evolution is made of selection (managed by reinforcing and balancing loops) plus variation (unleashed by dense networks and chaos). You cannot control evolution and should not try--that way lies totalitarianism. Our ever popular over-emphasis on selection can lead to paralyzed systems—top-down autocratic governments and frozen businesses. Case urges attention to variation, harnessing networks and chaos from the bottom up via connecting various people from various fields, experimenting with lots of solutions, and welcoming a certain amount of randomness and play. “Design for evolution,” Case says, “and the system will surprise you with solutions you never thought of.”

To do that, “Make chaos your friend.”

More Seminars

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SALT Summaries Book

$2.99 Also available as a paperback book

Condensed ideas about long-term thinking summarized by Stewart Brand
(with Kevin Kelly, Alexander Rose and Paul Saffo) and a foreword by Brian Eno.

Seminar Sponsors

Will and Margaret Hearst • David and Abby Rumsey • Kim Polese • Shel Kaphan • Garrett Gruener • Stream Guys Media Streaming • The Libra Foundation • Peter Baumann • Brian Eno • Greg Stikeleather • Richard and Angie Thieriot • Nion McEvoy • Cameo Wood • Susie Tompkins Buell Fund • Panta Rhea Foundation • Patrick Tufts • Ping Fu • Peter Schwartz • The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation • Dean Ornish • The Baum Foundation • The Long Now Membership

We would also like to recognize George Cowan (01920 - 02012) for being the first to sponsor this series.