Collapse – why civilisations fail?

truth and complexity

I enjoyed Jared Diamond’s book “collapse“, in the way it describes the range of forces that have bought earlier civilisations down. It teaches us humility and caution. He talks about drought, war, disease, ecosystem failure and a range of external and internal forces.

I think he missed one: complexity

Nicholas Taleb comes close to it in Black Swan, in that we, as a species, are shockingly bad at explaining the existence and occurrence of high-impact, hard-to-predict,
and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations.

I’m reminded of this as I read about changes to Britain’s motorway and railway networks.

My law: societies and businesses tend to increase in complexity until any attempt at change becomes exponentially slower until it eventually requires war or act of god to achieve


In 1955 planning began on the first 54 miles of the M1 from London to Northampton. Construction began in 1958 and was finished in 1959.

It has already taken over 4 years to add a single lane to the first tiny fraction of the distance, and at a cost for the whole scheme that exceeds the GDP of many nations.


In under a three decades Britain built ten THOUSAND miles of

Since 1990 it has proven impossible for the UK to build either the ‘Thameslink 2000’ or the ‘Crossrail projects’, both of which amount to under 100 miles of new track.

I could go on, and you can all think of examples, I am sure.

All of this leads me to one conclusion:

It is the job of management to remove complexity at each and every opportunity. If you don’t your business will soon collapse under its own complexity and nothing will get done.

I wish it was also the job of politicians, but sadly they seem to be responsible for a great deal of unnecessary complexity. After all, in just 10 years our current Government added some 3,600 laws – nearly 10% of the total laws on the statute database!