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Stop pretending that an economy can be controlled

29 September 2016
by Guest author

NAECAngel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General

The crisis exposed some serious flaws in our economic thinking. It has highlighted the need to look at economic policy with more critical, fresh approaches. It has also revealed the limitations of existing tools for structural analysis in factoring in key linkages, feedbacks and trade-offs – for example between growth, inequality and the environment.

We should seize the opportunity to develop a new understanding of the economy as a highly complex system that, like any complex system, is constantly reconfiguring itself in response to multiple inputs and influences, often with unforeseen or undesirable consequences. This has many implications. It suggests policymakers should be constantly vigilant and more humble about their policy prescriptions, act more like navigators than mechanics, and be open to systemic risks, spillovers, strengths, weaknesses, and human sensitivities. This demands a change in our mind-sets, and in our textbooks. As John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “the conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.”

This is why at the OECD we launched an initiative called New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC). With this initiative we want to understand better how the economy works, in all its complexity, and design policies that reflect this understanding. Our aim is to consider and address the unintended consequences of policies, while developing new approaches that foster more sustainable and inclusive growth.

Complexity is a common feature of a growing number of policy issues in an increasingly globalised world employing sophisticated technologies and running against resource constraints.

The report of the OECD Global Science Forum (2009) on Applications of Complexity Science for Public Policy reminds us of the distinction between complicated and complex systems. Traditional science (and technology) excels at the complicated, but is still at an early stage in its understanding of complex phenomena like the climate.

For example, the complicated car can be well understood using normal engineering analyses. An ensemble of cars travelling down a highway, by contrast, is a complex system. Drivers interact and mutually adjust their behaviours based on diverse factors such as perceptions, expectations, habits, even emotions. To understand traffic, and to build better highways, set speed limits, install automatic radar systems, etc., it is helpful to have tools that can accommodate non-linear and collective patterns of behaviour, and varieties of driver types or rules that might be imposed. The tools of complexity science are needed in this case. And we need better rules of the road in a number of areas.

This is not an academic debate. The importance of complexity is not limited to the realm of academia. It has some powerful advocates in the world of policy. Andy Haldane at the Bank of England has thought of the global financial system as a complex system and focused on applying the lessons from other network disciplines – such as ecology, epidemiology, and engineering – to the financial sphere. More generally, it is clear that the language of complexity theory – tipping points, feedback, discontinuities, fat tails – has entered the financial and regulatory lexicon. Haldane has shown the value of adopting a complexity lens, providing insights on structural vulnerabilities that built up in the financial system. This has led to policy suggestions for improving the robustness of the financial system.

Closer to home, Bill White, Chairman of our Economic and Development Review Committee (EDRC) has been an ardent advocate of thinking about the economy as a complex system. He has spoken in numerous OECD meetings – in part as an explanation and in part as a warning – that systems build up as a result of cumulative processes, can have highly unpredictable dynamics and can demonstrate significant non-linearity. As a result Bill has urged policymakers to accept more uncertainty and be more prudent. He also urged economists to learn some exceedingly simple but important lessons from those that have studied or work with complex systems such as biologists, botanists, anthropologists, traffic controllers, and military strategists.

Perhaps the most important insight of complexity is that policymakers should stop pretending that an economy can be controlled. Systems are prone to surprising, large-scale, seemingly uncontrollable, behaviours. Rather, a greater emphasis should be placed on building resilience, strengthening policy buffers and promoting adaptability by fostering a culture of policy experimentation.

At the OECD, we are starting to embrace complexity. For several years we have been mapping the trade “genome” with our Trade in Value Added (TiVA) database to explain the commercial interconnections between countries.

We have examined the possibilities for coupling economic and other systems models, for example environmental (climate) and societal (inequalities). Our work on the Costs of Inaction and Resource Constraints: Implications for Long-term Growth (CIRCLE) is a key example of linking bio-physical models and economic models to gauge the impact of environmental degradation and climate change on the economy.

We are also looking at governing complex systems in areas as diverse as education and international trade policy. And we are looking at the potential for tapping big data – an indispensable element of complexity modelling approaches. But there remains much to do to fully enrich our work with the perspectives of complexity.

The OECD is delighted to work with strong partners – the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) Oxford, and the European Commission to help policy-makers advance the use of complex systems thinking to address some of the most difficult challenges.

An important question remains. How can the insights and methods of complexity science be applied to assist policymakers as they tackle difficult problems in areas such as environmental protection, financial regulation, sustainability or urban development?

At the Workshop on Complexity and Policy on 29-30 September at the OECD, we will help find the answer – stimulate new thinking, new policy approaches and ultimately better policies for better lives.

Useful links

The OECD is organising a Workshop on Complexity and Policy, 29-30 September, OECD HQ, Paris, along with the European Commission and INET. Watch the webcast: 29/09 morning29/09 afternoon30/09 morning

Please consult the draft Agenda for more information, and a preliminary background paper “Insights into Complexity and Policy”.

If you are an OECD staff member, please click here to register: Registration


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