A while ago, courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell, I came across a distinction between puzzles and mysteries.
The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.
The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much.
This distinction speaks to the difficulty at the heart of futures, I think, and it came to mind recently when I read David Segal's piece in the New York Times on complexity and complication:
Complexity used to signify progress — it was the frisson of a new gadget, the riddle of some advance in technology. Now complexity lurks behind the most expensive and intractable issues of our age. It’s the pet that grew fangs and started eating the furniture….
What we need, suggests Brenda Zimmerman, a professor at Schulich School of Business in Ontario, is a distinction between the complicated and the complex. It’s complicated, she says, to send a rocket to the moon — it requires blueprints, math and a lot of carefully calibrated hardware and expertly written software. Raising a child, on the other hand, is complex. It is an enormous challenge, but math and blueprints won’t help. Performing hip replacement surgery, she says, is complicated. It takes well-trained personnel, precision and carefully calibrated equipment. Running a health care system, on the other hand, is complex. It’s filled with thousands of parts and players, all of whom must act within a fluid, unpredictable environment. To run a system that is complex, it’s not enough to get the right people and the ideal equipment. It takes a set of simple principles that guide and shape the system. For instance: Teach everyone the best practices of doctors who are really good at hip replacement surgery.
“We get seduced by the complicated in Western society,” Ms. Zimmerman says. “We’re in awe of it and we pull away from the duty to ask simple questions, which we do whenever we deal with matters that are complex.”
I begin to think, after reading Treverton, Nassim Taleb, David Orrell, Donald Michael, and others, that the First Principle of Futures 2.0 ought to be: to map as clearly as we can what is fundamentally unknowable about the future– not because it's hard, or because it's just complicated, or because knowledge of potential futures has the capacity to affect the future (a "problem" that I'm coming to believe is tractable), but because the Nature of Things makes it impossible. Once you have that, you have a very firm foundation upon which to develop all your other tools, to measure your success, and to know how you can improve.