Thriving On the Edge of Chaos

Photo by tim geers

Truthfully, I feel like I live on the brink. Have you been there? I’m talking about that cuspy, dangerous place where at any moment you will break through. Or, you will plunge to your peril.

I’m retooling. I’m creating a new research methodology for gathering user insights. Writing a new book. Quitting old habits. And wondering where I want to put down roots. It’s been an introspective process not without it’s surprising revelations, namely that I’m the wrong age to be taking so many risks and I crave walks in the woods despite the fact that I live a city.

Late last night, I was hovered over a federal report on Economic Development. I was researching ways to help local economies grow more jobs for young creatives. There, amidst the tables and sawtooth graphs I came across this handy rule of thumb from complexity science.

It’s a theory called the “edge of chaos”. And it defines that fine line between stability and chaos as the place of possibilities. Scientifically, it’s where innovation and survival are most likely to take place.

Let me explain.

Think about water—H20—and the form it takes. In the frozen regime, it would be ice. In the stable regime, it would be water. In the chaotic regime, it would be steam.

In the frozen regime, no information gets transferred, but no activity takes place either. It’s impossible to adapt. And in the chaotic regime, information and change takes place so fast that nothing is stable enough to retain its identity. This is where many of us have lived and worked for two decades—chaos.

The stable regime is more about a regular rhythm of activity in which identity is retained, but adaptation to changing conditions happens. But more slowly.

We all want stability. It gives us the illusion of safety. But it’s a scientific fact that nature favors the line between stability and chaos—the edge of chaos–because it’s here that adaptation is evolutionary and “allows an organism to survive over the long run”.

As I close up my studio for the evening I realize that I am two people. I want to be safe. And I want to pioneer. Risk is inherent in every innovation. Perhaps the tension is what it feels like to adapt. It’s like stretching a muscle in order to reach further.

I tell myself to believe this and go to bed.

Economic Gardening
Christian Gibbons

Director, Business/Industry Affairs
City of Littleton, Colorado