Mastering Complexity: The London Underground

Complexity surrounds us. Mastering new technology, understanding scientific discoveries, even learning how to play an instrument well. But few things are more fearsome to master than the evil intricacies of the London Underground network, a system of such unending complexity that several of the original Victorian innovators are still looping the Circle Line in their top hat and tails, trying to generate enough centrifugal force to escape.

Tube Map

The system itself was built to master plans. Unfortunately, those master plans resided in the heads, hearts and wallets of a number of individuals, and bore little resemblance to each other. The resulting tangle of tubes, deep lines, tunnels, cuts and escalators circle and transect the city like a spiders web on acid. Some lines are grand: Art Deco wrought iron fixtures and echoing hallways, others squalid, modernist or just plain odd.

There are few straight lines on the Tube: your journey usually starts with a crowded ticket hall and scramble through the gates, followed by a sinking feeling as you mount the escalator that pulls you inexorably into the depths. There are exceptions: Covent Garden has no escalator. Instead, your choice is a mass transit lift or around four hundred steps. I often opt for the spiral staircase, on the basis that the vertigo and dizziness is a small price to pay to avoid the crowding.

Once in the subterranean vaults, you continue via curving corridors, steps, shafts and platforms to mount the train.

Trains emerge with regularity from the black maw and a familiar sense of dread descends as you note the already packed carriages, cramped with commuters wedged at unlikely angles and unwelcome personal proximity.

And all of this supposes that you’ve worked out where to go: the map of the Tube, with over four hundred stations and multiple multi coloured lines is a triumph of spatial engineering and abstract art combined.

Yesterday though, i was triumphant.

As i swept up the stairs, heading for the light, an elderly gentleman approached and asked me how to get to Northwood. Clutching the unfolded acres of the Tube map, we gestured faintly at the North West quadrant with an imploring look in his eyes.

My moment had come.

Regular London travellers and inhabitants have an almost magical ability to navigate and share directions. I don’t. But i do have an App.

Fifteen seconds later, “Northern line, down there, don’t change, you’ll be there in twenty minutes” i confidently asserted.

Could i trace the route on the map? No.

Was any skill involved? No.

It’s agility in the Social Age: facilitated by technology, i have the ability to create meaning, not just share knowledge. The knowledge is incidental: it’s the meaning that counts.

This is how mobile technology should be used, how learning should be designed: fast, effortless, founded upon knowledge, creating meaning. And sharing it.

About julianstodd

Author and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the Social Age. I’ve written ten books, and over 2,000 articles, and still learning...
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3 Responses to Mastering Complexity: The London Underground

  1. Pingback: Mastering Complexity: The London Underground Ju...

  2. Hi Julian,
    I totally agree that this is agility in the social age and a wonderful example of collaboration with both technology and humans.
    I’d argue though that it’s more about complicatedness than complexity. The Cynefin model of differing domains is probably the clearest – and interestingly for conversations about complexity most concrete – explanation of the difference. When the domain is complicated as it is in the London underground – having navigated it yet again this summer I felt that pain! – the answer exists but it isn’t immediately apparent. It likely requires some kind of expertise (in the form of your app), collaboration and a step back to look at the larger system. There are often multiple ways to arrive at the same destination. Cause and effect can be traced.
    In complexity meanwhile, no single agent or group of agents holds the solution because cause and effect cannot be traced and are apparent only in hindsight. Instructive patterns can emerge that indicate where people might safely experiment and learn. Experimentation is key to determining what can shift the system.
    I agree that complexity can come out of complicatedness but the London Underground system itself I’d argue is highly complicated, not complex.

    • julianstodd says:

      Thanks for sharing these thoughts Elizabeth: i like your explanation – also i like how this space can be a reflective one. My initial post (like all initial posts) was fairly rapid: now, with the support of the community, i can reflect more deeply. Your exploration of ‘complicatedness’ vs complexity is relevant and interesting and i’m sure will inform my next iterations of these ideas!

      Best wishes, Julian

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