The Complexity Disease

by | Apr 15, 2008 | Business Trends

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker the complexity disease

Complexity is a Very-Real, Very-Destructive Disease
that Destroys Human-Based Systems

By Thomas Frey, Executive Director and Senior Futurist at the DaVinci Institute

Often time we hear about some new disease that sounds kind of phony and quickly discard it because it sounds like some made-up name for a common personality quirk. So, when I talk about the “complexity disease”, your first inclination will probably be to say “yeah right!”

But here’s the difference. Complexity is not a disease that affects humans. Complexity is a disease that affects systems. And even though it has never been labeled as such before now, it becomes a very useful frame of reference for people involved in building, operating, or managing a system. Complexity is a very-real, very-destructive disease.

Scientists and academics have been studying complexity for a couple of decades. There are numerous research centres and institutions around the world that study complexity and complex systems.

Systems come in many shapes and sizes. Large governmental systems range from air traffic control systems, to managing the power grid, to the income tax system. Local or community-based systems will include such things as water and sewer systems, parks and recreation systems, or local sales tax systems. Personal systems include everything from the sprinkler system used on the lawn, to electrical wiring in a house, to personal filing systems for books and records.

Systems are designed to solve problems. They are used to organize random efforts and channel the flow of information from beginning to end. They turn a chaotic effort into an organized, repeatable process.

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker As complexity increases, the cost of managing the complexity increases
As complexity increases, the cost of managing the complexity
increases at an exponential rate until the system finally collapses.

Complexity itself is neither good nor bad. On one hand, complexity is necessary because complexity means functionality. However, complex systems are created by people for use by other people. And it is the interface with people that causes the problems.

Typically, the success of an individual is directly proportional to the number of systems they employ to manage their lives. Some people are just far more adept at using systems than others.

Much like the rest of life, systems are never static. So therefore system-related complexity is never static. Systems are always evolving, always changing. With people at the heart of any complex system, there is always a propensity for adding features, adding functionality, and adding coverage to the domain of the system. This desire to complicate the complicated is what I refer to as the exponential nature of complexity.

Dr Jacek Marczyk, founder of the complexity management company, Ontonix, estimates that the yearly global growth of complexity is around 5-6%, based on OntoSpace analysis of data collected by the CIA (World Fact Book). At this pace, he anticipates that we will reach societal danger zones around 2040-2045.

Our biggest system-related problems come into play when we try to impose highly complex systems on people with relatively low complexity tolerance levels. A good example of this is the US income tax system.

The income tax system, based on an ever-expanding code now estimated to be over 64,000 pages long, is moving further and further out of the range of people with low complexity tolerance levels, and without a serious intervention to change things, is destined for a very near-term collapse.

In a similar fashion to the “Peter Principal”, complexity that remains unchecked will grow until it reaches a natural breaking point.
Political leaders continue to mask the underlying problems by equipping armies of people to support the current system, and using technology to better organize the complexity involved. However, more people and more technology can only lead to more complexity, hastening the demise.

In the end, the income tax system will collapse because of the heavy non-monetary toll it extracts on people, slowing competitiveness, dramatically shifting the US standing in the global marketplace. The US income tax system is a giant millstone around the neck of the American people and unleashing this noose will be the quickest way to “put our freedom to work”.

Rest assured that when the income tax system goes away that it will not mean that taxes will go away. New systems will be put into place and the most likely replacement tax will be the one that best plans for the transition. Politicians are not interested in going through periods of total chaos, so the replacement system that does the best job at working us through the transitioning process will likely prevail.


A recent poll by the DaVinci Institute showed that 41% of the general population does not think income tax will ever go away….even in 100 years. Many people have resigned themselves to the inevitability of the income tax system. Most grumble and complain about it feeling that the sheer inertia of this giant bureaucracy is like an unstoppable force of nature.

However, change does not happen because everyone gets together first and decides a change is going to happen. Momentum will build quickly around a single event or thought leader. When the general public senses that the end is near, an overwhelming flood of support will rapidly hasten its demise.

The income tax system is only one of many systems that will collapse in the coming years. It doesn’t mean that life as we know it will suddenly come to a screeching halt. Rather, things will change. They will change, just as they have throughout history. Our goal has to be that they change for the better.

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