The forest – the ideal metaphor for system complexity

The small grove in the city park can be easily surrounded. The woodland that stretches from Scandinavia to the farthest corner of Siberia, is a huge challenge. And yet, both form a whole consisting of the same, various components – trees, bushes, plants, mushrooms, game, birds, reptiles, snails, insects, spiders, worms, etc. Together they make up the forest, which we do not understand, if one separately looks at only one section – the oak, the hazel bush, the hares or the viper. The same effect is produced by all other systems, e.g. organizations, cultures, the World Wide Web, projects, sciences, and economies. For many, the look at a tree, a branch, a leaf or a sprout is more meaningful than the look at the forest. As a result, one can no longer see the forest for the trees.

The following aspects apply to the forest and all types of systems.

  • The edge of the forest – A system has boundaries
    The boundaries of large woodlands, such as the Black Forest, the Amazon Rainforest, or the Taiga, are more difficult to detect than those of small woods, e.g. the Bois du Bologne, the Tiergarten or the Yoyogi Park. The boundaries are fluid. With appropriate maps, the woodland is precisely ending. The same determination is needed by all systems. An economic area, such as the EU, requires clearly defined demarcation lines since it is not aligned to continents. In the middle of Europe is Switzerland. Melilla, an exclave of the EU, is located in North Africa. The definition of the edges of a forest or a system is the prerequisite for assigning responsibilities clearly.
  • Trees, bushes, plants, animals – A system consists of systems
    It would go beyond the scope of this article to itemize the components of a forest. The crucial aspect is that these elements represent systems on their own that together constitute the forest, but at the same time they have their complex, individual life. Whether the trees are social beings, which communicate with each other and have feelings, as a German forester imagines, may be a matter of believe. In any case, it has been shown that the flora and fauna together make up the forest. It loses its viability when the interaction is disturbed. The same applies to all types of systems. A society is kept together by individuals through their legal system, their art and science, who have similar convictions and gods. If disturbances occur in this fabric, it results in a clash of civilizations with the known consequences. For effective control of a system it is crucial to identify subsystems with their needs.
  • Nature – A system lives
    The fascination of a forest is the ability to autopoiesis. If an ecosystem, like a forest, is left to itself, its components arise out of nowhere. In the right climate and with sufficient water the plants and the creatures emerge. A good example is the Icelandic island of Surtsey, which arose in 1963 out of a series of volcanic eruptions. The newly created land was populated surprisingly fast by plants and eventually by birds. The whole thing works by the fact that everything on Earth is part of a large system called Gaia. The same applies to man-made objects. Take the World Wide Web as an example. It is still based on the concepts that were developed in 1989 – http(s), URLs, hyperlinks, email, etc. And it is still evolving – the WWW is living. People in charge of a system should always be aware that the system has its own dynamics, even without their constant influence.
  • The day, month, and year – A system has cycles
    The most important cycles of a forest are determined by the earth – the day, the month, the year, the life. The changes of day and night, the course of the sun and the seasons as well as the phases of life are firmly anchored in the behavior of the forest and its elements. Everything is set in order to gather the strength in summer that brings one across the deprivable winter. Knowing these cycles makes it possible to adapt to them. Everything grows out of nothing, goes through adolescence, is productive for a certain time, and somehow descends and disappears. The forest as a whole is accustomed to this. Everywhere is something in growth and on the way of passing away. The same applies to projects. They begin as an idea, become a complex whole and are resolved in the end. The consideration of the cycles of the overall system and its components is important for its control.
  • The jungle – A system tends to equilibrium
    If a forest is left to itself, it tends to a balanced state. The trees, bushes and plants become an impenetrable whole. Only the fact that there are disturbances in nature, such as thunderstorms, hurricanes, rivers that cross the shores, animals that eat the young sprouts of a tree, and, of course, man who mercilessly intervenes in the ecosystem, the forest comes into equilibrium, i.e. nothing happens anymore. The same applies to the sciences, which are constantly finding to new insights. Our Stone Age experience was different from the medieval or today’s. The consequences of quantum physics are not yet foreseeable. The crucial finding here is that disturbances are good because they keep the system alive.
  • The surrounding – A system continuously interacts with its environment
    As already mentioned, a forest is at least embedded in another system – Gaia. Looking at the forest independently of its environment, we lose an important engine for its further development. Just as the island of Surtsey was infected with life by the sea and the air, a forest is continually pressurized by its environment. This can be the cars that drive around it or the vehicles that discharge their emissions in the next city. Even the fauna invades the forests, like the wolves, which are now wandering through Europe without the insurmountable borders. The same applies to economies. An economy needs the energy from the outside in order to grow. If the money moves inside the system only from the right into the left pocket, wealth does not increase. It takes trade with the surrounding systems to generate a value from a product or service. If the costs are zero, as in the case of today’s digital services, and if sales happens outside of one’s own system, then the surplus grows immeasurably. Losers are those who produce nothing and are supplied from the outside. The interplay of one’s own system with other systems is critical to their prosperity.

Bottom line: The forest has an unimaginable diversity. At the same time, its elements are familiar to us. This makes the complexity of systems difficult to understand. A system has determined edges, consists of other subsystems, lives in cycles, strives for equilibrium and is in continuous interaction with its environment. Thus the forest is the ideal metaphor for system complexity.