What is so important about the “edge of chaos?” What does it do? It seems that it is the sweet spot which complex systems have evolved to solve their own problems internally. At the edge of chaos, a body can heal itself through the activation of its immune system and its ability to call on other systems in the body to compensate for any loss of normal functioning. At the edge of chaos, an economy can use its feedback mechanisms to correct for any behaviors that are becoming destructive to the system as a whole. At the edge of chaos, a city can muster its strengths and creativity to weather gang problems, social decline, and/or economic stagnation. But these problems can only be addressed internally by the system if it is in that sweet spot. If to much chaos is present, there might be an abundance of potentially effective remedy options, but there can never be enough stability for one of those options to take hold for any length of time. And if the system is too stable, not enough creativity is brewing underneath to even come up with any potential answers.
Jane Jacobs described this phenomenon in cities. If the cities were lively and dynamic, they were always able to solve the problems that inevitably crop up in such brewing pots. In fact, vibrant cities are so good at solving problems, they seem to have enough energy to solve the problems of their surrounding suburbs. If the city is healthy, the suburbs will be healthy. If the city is stagnant and sick, it’s only a matter of time before the suburbs catch the disease. Stable, stagnant suburbs are never the solution to a sick center city. They are fragile takers that only live by the grace of the urban cores that feed them, no matter how affluent the residents of those suburbs are.
This sweet spot is the key to the life and death of any complex system. Earth produces and supports life because it lies in the sweet spot that astronomers so often describe and seek out in other corners of our universe. It has just enough randomness to allow things to adapt and just enough stability to allow the adaptable to grow. And it seems that natural selection sets the arc of all systems toward this edge of chaos, because it is systems that can operate in that sweet spot that get the most done and create the most value; the ones that can’t peter out. Deviations away from that sweet spot lead to death in one form or another. We can easily envision this being the case when the direction of deviation is toward more chaos. That is an easy sell. It makes intuitive sense, and, as a result, it is not at all interesting. What is interesting is when the deviation goes toward more stability, something that seems to be objectively positive. We all hope for more stability in our lives, and so we tend to think that stability is the end goal. But stability can easily cannibalize itself.
That is the interesting part about complex systems, the part we don’t know all that much about. The part that seems counterintuitive at first. This is why I am so obsessed with self-destructive success. I think it is key to understanding why systems sometimes do things we don’t expect them to. Maybe it’s not because it is too complex for us to comprehend. Maybe it is because we are consistently looking in the wrong places for answers. Maybe it is in coming to terms with oxymorons like “fragile stablility” that new waves of understanding will be opened to us.