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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Education that doesn't fit
Chaos coffee...

Education wise we all have more in common than most could imagine. We were all fed a diet of problems that had solutions from our earliest days until we graduated. Teachers and professors had no choice but to prescribe problems that had a clear definition and route to solution.

Almost all the mathematics, science and technology in our schools come from a prescriptive box. Students expect a clearly defined problem, a logical analysis, and clear solution. What's more, so do the academic staff and the education system. This creates mindsets that say - our universe is full of problems that have solutions, and somewhere there may be a small pocket where we can't find solutions. But you don't have to be out of school long to realise our universe is not a well-behaved place, and the converse is true.

By merely looking at the night sky and observing the clustering of constellations, or watching the cataclysmic events on our own planet, we can quickly see that chaos is a natural mode and not an exception. Natural disasters come in clusters, as do births, deaths, marriages, car accidents and electrical appliance failures in our homes. There is also ample evidence to suggest that Mother Nature's natural mode is also chaotic. The boom bust cycles in economies that politicians seek to smooth are also symptomatic of non-linear mechanisms. Many of the chaotic mechanisms are easy to understand, but many are not. The reality is we have little or no appreciation of the true magnitude and impact of non-linear systems.

Throughout my education I had a vision of a universe that was enclosed, bounded, well behaved, with some remote and small region that we didn't understand, which we avoided at all costs. My earliest industrial periods quickly corrected that view as most of the problems and their solutions that had been put in front of me were mostly approximations and distortions of the truth.

For the millennia we got away with applying linear thinking and limited models to complex non-linear situations and derived adequate answers. Everything you use today, from telephone, television, mobile phone to automobile have been created using material, systems, scientific and mathematical models that have been adequate from an engineering perspective. That is, good enough to get the job done.

It has always seemed to me to be paradoxical that ancient man making fire, stumbled on the bow and arrow and the ability to create a very rapid rotation of a pointed stick using the bow to convert lateral to rotary motion. To make the giant leap to the watchmakers lathe and the integrated circuit is astounding, but once we had hit on the idea that rotary motion allowed great precision, we could progress from the honing of saplings to create accurate dowels for arrows, to create the wooden lathe, followed by the metal lathe and today's precision manipulators.

This says you can take something very crude and continually refine it to create something extremely precise. This is exactly what has been happening across the broad front of our progress. Our mathematics, science, engineering and technology have all stood on the shoulders of previous generations to give us greater understanding, knowledge, capability and complexity.

Many of the chaos generating mechanisms are surprising. My favourite is coffee, which brings down telecommunications networks everyday. The mechanism is delightful. At some conference of 1,000 people they are listening to the morning speaker and no telephone calls are being made or received. At 10:15 coffee arrives and 300 mobile phones are switched on, and within seconds, the network is overloaded and crashes.

Coffee has become a strange attractor as have freeway accidents, which prompt localised telephone calls to bring down the mobile telephone network. Delayed flights, trains, and question times on some radio and TV phone in programme invoke similarly chaotic responses.

Recent years have seen mighty corporations with illustrious histories brought down in a few months. The apparently insignificant actions of accountants have destroyed complete industries, pension funds and the lives of people who were once proud to work for those companies. How did it all happen and why didn't we see it coming? The reality of business is that for the most part we're now moving at a pace that is faster then most CEOs, boards, and managers can digest.

It has always been fascinating to me that the military play games all day and occasionally have a war, whereas in industry we are at war everyday and we never stop to play. We have no models that satisfactorily predict the outcome of our business actions. We desperately need to start modelling and war-gaming to hone our strategic thinking. A once in three-year away day is not enough! If we do not create new tools we will see the business casualty rate increase.

Those in charge of industry who continue with their linear thinking and their limited perspective, they will continue making wrong decisions. This is both dangerous and increasingly serious. Building a facsimile of a company, with a government, regulator and competition, to play a N dimensional game of chess is the basic element missing. Here thousands of moves can be tried and the outcomes examined.

In the computing we use simulations, where we input new starting conditions and run computer models time and time again to see what the range of outcomes will be. In industry we see people taking the most obvious parameters to perform a superficial analysis to then make bad decisions. This is now a demonstrably flawed - they have to become more sophisticated - or die!

This column was dictated onto an Olympus recorder, typed on an Apple iBook by my secretary, emailed to me via a Cable Modem, picked up by me on a WiFi link in Brussels, edited on my Apple G4 Laptop, despatched to 20 minutes later on the same link.