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Escaping the Global Complexity Trap

Democracy and capitalism, coupled with modern science, have given rise to a remarkable flourishing of thought, creativity, expression, and invention, which has entrenched the longstanding assumption that knowledge – and prospects for human control of our fate – would steadily increase. But we have now entered a phase in which increasing complexity is creating a world that no one understands in detail.

SAUSALITO, CALIFORNIA – Modern civilization has set a trap for itself, as ever more complex technologies are deployed at an accelerating rate. Every second, billions of devices, protocols, ideas, traditions, and people interact around the world. The resulting increase in complexity poses a huge and possibly unmanageable challenge.

Experts understand parts of the system, but the whole is far beyond the comprehension of any scientist, citizen, or political leader. To address the big global challenges of the next decade, we need a paradigm shift in societal regulatory systems to break us out of the complexity trap.

While humanity arrived at this point gradually, there have been foreshocks at earlier stages of technological development. Over the last several hundred years, science and technology, guided by reason and knowledge, have clearly improved daily life for most of humanity. But progress is not linear. Each advance produces some kind of disruption and side effects that society then struggles to address.

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