I want to share this article about the complexity of the olympic games
By Chris Davies
The spectacular spectacular
with which Danny Boyle opened the Olympics had many things to recommend
it. But alongside the dazzle, wit and downright eccentricity of the
whole thing, there were two aspects of the opening ceremony that led me
to reflect on the complexity of social systems.
first was Boyle’s history lesson. By selecting the Industrial and
Information Revolutions as punctuation for his story, Boyle picked not
only two great moments of British creativity (the former more than the
latter, of course), but also two key periods in the complexity of human
By enabling previously inaccessible stores of chemical energy to be
harnessed, the Industrial Revolution made possible an explosion in the
diversity of production, which in turn made human society dramatically
more complex. Broadly speaking, what happened was: cheaper energy led
to cheaper production, which facilitated greater diversity, which
involved greater complexity; and this catalysed a substantial increase
in living standards.
The digital transformation currently sweeping the world, stimulated
in part by Tim Berners-Lee’s creation of the World Wide Web, will be
similarly far-reaching in its effects; indeed it is already creating
major policy challenges, as I described in a previous blog.
By reducing to almost nothing a whole swathe of transaction costs, the
Information Revolution seems to be giving way to a second great wave of
“complexification”. It will do this by allowing us to combine ever
greater numbers of components in complex social systems, probably giving
way to increased specialisation, and unleashing greater levels of net
wealth. As I argued in my previous blog, this is likely to be net
beneficial but we should be mindful of the pain involved.
- The second aspect of the opening ceremony that spoke to complexity
was a subtler one. This was the message that achievement is a
collective, systemic phenomenon, not simply the result of one person’s
endeavours. This may seem paradoxical in the context of something like
sport, which is surely the very acme of individualism: what on earth
does Usain Bolt’s ability to run the 100 metres in 9.58 seconds have to
do with the broader social system?
The answer lies in some of Boyle’s more eye-catching artistic
decisions. The seething, semi-chaotic mass of people who represented
industry in the opening 15 minutes; the promotion of the message “This
is for everyone” when highlighting the digital era; the reference to a
collective system of social support, manifest in the NHS; the use, not
of a lone heroic sports star to light the Olympic cauldron, but of seven
children. All these moments suggested that collective effort is the
thing that will make possible the individual feats of sporting prowess
that will be on display during the Olympics.
This is because sport, like so much of the rest of modern life, is
about specialisation. Specialisation is possible only thanks to a
sustaining network, which is complex and sophisticated. In that regard,
professional sportspeople are no different to scientists, artists,
doctors, engineers, or any of the other millions of people whose
livelihoods depend on being part of a system that is capable of
marshalling resources to enable us as a society to specialise. Some may
be more talented than others, but as individuals we are only able to
exploit our talents if society as a whole works together to allow us to
focus on their development.
In that context, it’s no surprise that professional sport developed
comparatively recently*. It is only possible to devote the endless
hours of practice now necessary to reach Olympic greatness if there is
an abundant surplus in the economy, and mechanisms to channel it to you
as a specialist. And that surplus is created by all of us.
In that regard, Boyle’s message is a powerful one. For the first
time that I can recall, we had an Olympic opening ceremony that said:
“Well done for getting here. You are outstanding. But you are able to
be outstanding in large part because of those around you.” By shining a
light on the collective underpinnings of sport, the ceremony couldn’t
have been a better symbol for the power of complexity.