Unnecessary complexity


When I first announced that Ideanthro was moving into the human movement space we told you that (at least in part) our reason for doing this was to explore the thematic interconnectedness of seemingly disparate disciplines. Well, it's time for our first foray. 

In this article I'll explain how a pattern of increasingly complexity that I first spoke about in Ideanthro Water episode 237 isn't just a water phenomenon, but in fact a pattern that permeates much of modern life (and in the long term, not for the better). 

My hope in writing this article is not that you'll go and try and fix these two problems. Instead, my hope is that you'll become aware of these patterns in whatever aspects of life interest you, look for their root causes and then look to systematically fix those. The word 'systematically' in that last sentence is a really important one. If I'm right, this is a systemic problem. Fixing just these two manifestations won't ultimately do much to benefit the world. Of much more interest (and benefit) is identifying and fixing the underlying causes.

Ok, here's the plan:

  1. I'll outline the original problem as I saw it applied to water sensitive urban design and urban water management in general.

  2. I'll show you how the same pattern plays out in human movement/ health/ fitness/ etc

  3. I'll muse over some possible underlying causes of this pattern

  4. I'll challenge you to identify (and then tell me about it in the comments section).

Let's go!

If you're a water sensitive urban design practitioner you're probable familiar with Rebekah Brown's Urban Water Transitions diagram. If you're not, don't worry, here's it is.

Urban water transitions.jpg

There are many things that you could take from this diagram. One thing that I notice is that the different phases of the city seem to be (in part) attempting to fix problems from earlier phases. Here is an example: 

The "water supply city" gives people access to water. That's pretty important, but it leads to wastewater being created. It becomes a problem, so in the "sewered city" we transport wastewater away from our cities with only rudimentary treatment to prevent health problems.. 

Not only does one phase attempt the fix the problems of the previous, but we inadvertently cause problems for the future. In our example, the "sewered city" has fixed the wastewater problems of the "water supply city", but in the process pushes that waste into waterways where it causes pollution that... you guessed it... we have to fix. So the "waterways city" begins treating that wastewater to a higher standard to prevent environmental harm. This in turn... we'll come back to that.

Let's look at another example. 

The "water supply city" allows people to settle in close proximity. We pave over permeable surfaces and begin to cause flooding and drainage problems. In response we shift to the "drained city" phase and implement stormwater drainage to prevent flooding. However, this delivers larger than normal quantities of water to waterways, eroding them, causing environmental harm. It also delivers more pollution to waterways. So we decide that we need to treat that stormwater (the "waterways city"). This in turn... we'll come back to that!

You can see the pattern emerging here. One action causes a series of unexpected problems. We seek to fix these problems and in turn cause further unexpected problems.

Let's pause briefly and take a detour. Let's look at that word 'unexpected'. 


Why are these negative consequences unexpected?

It turns out that humans are VERY BAD at predicting the future (I think that Matt Ridley discusses this in his book The Rational Optimist) (I also discuss it in Ideanthro water episode 163) . The reason is quite simple. When people are asked to predict the future they predict a future with slight changes from the present. If the present day is a shade of purple, they predict a slightly different shade of purple, not a shade of blue, let alone something in the infrared spectrum. In the distant past this worked because the world (for the most part) didn't change much from generation to generation. The modern world is not like this. The immense interconnectedness of the modern world allows for large and rapid change. With no reference point for what that change will be, we almost always predict it poorly. This should be abundantly clear when you consider old books and movies making predictions about the future... most are nonsense! 


Ok, back to those negative consequences. They're unexpected because we have no frame of reference to predict them. We fix the problem at hand and predict that everything else will remain the same, thus overlooking the negative consequence that we're blindly creating. And so the pattern repeats. 

Let's sum up the pattern in a few steps:

  1. People do something. It has benefits but it causes one or more unforeseen problems.

  2. People solve those problems and in the process create other unforeseen problems.

  3. People solve those problems and in the process... you get the idea...

  4. Over the long term, the system becomes more and more complex. It takes more and more resources (time, money, natural resources, mental capacity etc) to solve the various problems, the system becomes more and more complex and the negative consequences *might* begin to occur further and further from the original problem.

Let's look at that last statement. 

In that water example, our initial problem is one of getting water to an individual. It's a really important problem for that person but it's localised and pretty easy to understand. Then we have the problem of suddenly generating a lot of wastewater. That's a collective problem and its occurring away from the individual. Then we have the problem of environmental damage cause by poorly treated wastewater. The response is to treat it to a higher standard. That costs more money and energy, and gets wrapped up in a society wide problem of infrastructure affordability and energy supply.

Each problem is more and more complex and more and more removed from the original problem.

Okie dokie! Now we have the pattern, let's look at an example from another aspect of life... human movement.


We'll start this story with a graduate, an office and a simplifying assumption (just to make the story easier). A young engineer (it could be any profession) has just finished uni and gets a job in an office. They begin sitting all day instead of whatever they used to do. This is the simplifying assumption. It would be more accurate to start this story with the beginning of primary school but let's run with this. 

Sitting at a computer all day they start to develop a tight neck and headaches. They go see a physio who gives them some stretches to perform once an hour. That helps, but now they're doing stretches every hour and the stretches enable them to keep sitting in a chair all day (because they have less headaches). 

Then one day the engineer's back starts to ache. It gets more and more painful. They read on a blog about how sitting is bad because it causes you to slump. The blog explains how a special pillow behind the back will keep a natural curve in the lower back. The engineer tries it and they're able to sit kinda comfortably, but only with their pillow and only if they keep doing the stretches from the physio. 

Then the not-as-young-but-still-quite-young engineer goes home one weekend and tries to play with the kids and realises that he/she is really out of shape and can't move like they used to. So he/she joins a gym. The gym is great. They get stronger. They have more energy. But they're stiff and sore the next day and tighten up sitting in the chair all day. No worries, the coach at the gym shows them how to massage those tight muscles with a foam roller and a trigger ball. And the young engineer feels better, but only so long as they do the stretches from the physio, sit with the special pillow, go the gym and foam roll for 30 minutes twice a day.

That's a really complex life!

What happened here?

The original problem began with him doing the same thing all day (contrary to popular belief it wasn't sitting per say, but that's another story). Each 'fix' (the stretches, the pillow, the gym and the foam roller) looked like they solved the problem but didn't. The problem continued to grow our out of sight until it presented in a different form. This needed to be dealt with, but now the system was more complex. More needed to be done to offset the problem. 

In some cases, the solution to one problem probably caused others. For example, beginning to sit with the pillow behind the back likely further reduced the amount that the engineer moved (by giving them an 'idealised' sitting position). This accelerated his decline to being out of shape.

For this article though, the important point is to recognise the pattern. An original action causes a problem. The attempts to solve the problem cause further problems (and in the example of the engineer, they also hide the symptoms of the original problem, allowing it to grow in the background). There are further attempts to fix problems as they arrive. Life becomes more and more complex. More and more resources are required for fixing more and more problems (in this example, the resources are mostly the engineers time and mental capacity).


I said back at the beginning of this article that my hope in writing this piece is that it would help you to spot the pattern playing out aspects of life that interest you; and that you would then work to figure out and solve the underlying causes. That being the case, it's time for me to speculate on some possible causes (without any real proof).

Inability to predict the future

We have in fact already looked at one possible casue. The inability of people to predict the future. It seems to me that if humans were better at predicting the future, we would more clearly see the unintended negative consequences of each attempt to fix a problem. That might help with making better choices.

Mitigating problems rather than redesigning the system to avoid them

A common feature of every action that I described in this piece is that they were all attempts to mitigate the problem once it occurred rather than to go back and change the system to avoid the problem occurring. 

For example, the engineer's problems are fundamentally caused by a lack of movement and a lack of movement variety. The engineer mitigates the effects of their headaches with stretching, but the underlying lack of movement persists. An alternative would have been to build varied sitting positions into their day and begin taking walking meetings etc. This would have avoided the underlying issue. 

What I think is important about this is that it avoids building complexity into the system. Let's say that there is an unintended negative consequence of taking walking meetings (perhaps they're not as effective as sitting meetings) then at least we only have one problem. The original problem of being sedentary just doesn't exist anymore. By way of comparison, the stretching solution leaves the underlying issue of being sedentary all day in place, adds stretching to it in an attempt to mitigate its effects and risks some other unknown problem from arising (for example perhaps the colleague facing them gets distracted by the stretches and gets upset with the engineer).

The point here being that mitigating the effects of problems once they arise enables the system to become more complex over time, whereas going back and redesigning the system to avoid the original problem reduces the rate at which the complexity grows, even if that redesign still does create unforeseen problems.


Well that's me done. You have the pattern. It's your turn:

  1. Where can you spot this pattern playing out?

  2. What do you think the underlying causes are and how can we fix them?


Just a quick note before you go. We just wanted to let you know that we are aware of the irony in that we just opened a gym and then wrote this article wherein the engineer example points out that gyms typically seek to mitigate problems rather than avoid them in the first place, hence contributing to the pattern that this article is describing...

Our response comes in two parts.

The first part is... Yes! A gym is not the ideal response to this problem. The ideal response is called 'nutritious movement' (that term was coined by the biomechanist and author Katy Bowman). Nutritious movement is effectively about building wide varieties of real, useful movement into everyday life. We advocate this approach to life to our gym members.

The second part is... But gyms do have some benefits. One benefit is that a good gym teaches good movement practices that you can then take back into life, in effect turbo-charging your ability to implement nutritious movement in the rest of your life. Most gyms don't do this, but we do. Another benefit is that the modern world severely lacks variety of movement opportunities. You can do your best to implement nutritious movement in your life, but you'll probably find it hard to constantly generate enough variety. Its a story for another time, but left to their own devices our bodies tend to repeat the same movement patterns over and over again. If you want to implement nutritious movement in the modern world, you need to consciously find ways to add variety to those patterns. That takes a lot of mental energy. In our gym we use partner work and funky 'tools' to generate that variety for you.

So yeah, writing this article and opening a gym is highly ironic, but not entirely without merit.