“Hi, I’m Nicky Case,” he began, “and I explain complex systems in a visual, 
tangible, and playful way.”  He did exactly that with 207 brilliant slides and 
clear terminology.  What system engineers call “negative feedback,” for 
example, Case calls “balancing loops.”  They maintain a value.  Likewise 
“positive feedback” he calls “reinforcing loops.”  They increase a value.

Using examples and stories such as the viciousness of the board game Monopoly 
and the miracle of self-organizing starlings, Case laid out visually the basics 
of finessing complex systems.  A reinforcing loop is like a ball on the top of 
a hill, ready to accelerate downhill when set in motion.  A balancing loop is 
like a ball in a valley, always returning to the bottom of the valley when 

Now consider how to deal with a situation where you have an “attractor” (a deep 
valley) that attracts a system toward failure:

The situation is precarious for the ball because it is near a hilltop that is a 
reinforcing loop.  If the ball is nudged over the top, it will plummet to the 
bottom of the balancing-loop valley and be stuck there. It would take enormous 
effort raise the ball out of such an attractor — which might be financial 
collapse or civil war.  Case’s solution is not to try to move the ball, MOVE 
THE HILLS — identify the balancing and reinforcing loops in the system and 
weaken or strengthen them as needed to reconfigure the whole system so that the 
desired condition becomes the dominant attractor.

Now add two more characteristics of the real world — dense networks and chaos 
(randomness).  They make possible the phenomena of emergence (a whole that is 
different than the sum of its parts) and evolution.  Evolution is made of 
selection (managed by reinforcing and balancing loops) plus variation 
(unleashed by dense networks and chaos).  You cannot control evolution and 
should not try — that way lies totalitarianism.  Our ever popular over-emphasis 
on selection can lead to paralyzed systems — top-down autocratic governments 
and frozen businesses.  Case urges attention to variation, harnessing networks 
and chaos from the bottom up via connecting various kinds of people from 
various fields, experimenting with lots of solutions, and welcoming a certain 
amount of randomness and play.  “Design for evolution,” Case says, “and the 
system will surprise you with solutions you never thought of.”

To do that: “Make chaos your friend.”

                                                                —Stewart Brand 
s...@longnow.org <mailto:s...@longnow.org>

A linkable version of this summary is on Medium, here 
<https://medium.com/@stewartbrand/how-to-finesse-complexity-5376c65a47f5>.  The 
audio and (soon) video versions of Case’s talk are at Long Now, here 

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