The 3 C's tragedy

Card's author : Jean-Michel Cornu
Card's type of licence : Creative Commons BY-SA
Description : A complete and coherent regulation in a complex world ?

Our world is complex. That does not mean it is complicated but rather that it is made of interacting elements. Wether the latter are citizens, consumers, corporations, governments or any other organism, the whole constituting a complex network of people and groups which are exchanging.
Laws of complexity are peculiar because they can be applied to all domains. Wether the system is made of people, of machines or of molecules, some rules apply similarly. Sciences of complexity are young, but they can grow richer with works in other scientific fields: economics, sociology, biology or physics for example. One of the rules was discovered in 1931 by the mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel. He wanted to know if mathematics (a complex system where basic premises interact) were complete and coherent, apparently the best thing. Yet he came to the exact opposite !

We could vulgarize the two theorems of limited incompleteness and coherence by Gödel as follow: when a system exceeds a certain threshold of complexity, it can't be both complete and coherent. This result caused a schock wave. But to take its measure, we must admit that it applies to any kind of complex system, including human networks used in economics, sociology, politics...

It is not possible to have simultaneously complexity, coherence and completeness. The systems that we implement will lack of at least one of these three aims. If we are not aware, we will not be able to choose the system we are ready to give up. We will even be able to fail on two or all of them.

  • And we risk to turn a complex sytem into a « simplistic » one. A regulation would only need to link the central power to each concerned person without taking into account the links BETWEEN the persons. But in the meantime we loose one of the most important characterisitcs of complex systems: its ability for self-adaptation. The adaptation, and therefore survival of the system, only depend on the person or the organism placed in the center of this star shaped system. Such a system is no longer complex because all exchanges only occur between the central point and one of the participant. Such an organization can only operate correctly if all possibilities of exchange between members are eliminated. Suppressing complexity in our network society is however less easy than in any other former period.
  • We also risk to implement an incomplete regulation. How are applied rules decided by a decision-making committee to its own members ? Can representatives represent themselves ? Nevertheless they belong to « people » they represent. To be complete, if we wish that the proposed regulation applies to the one who implements it, we come to an incoherence: his individual interest can be in conflict with the general interest even though we delegated him the capacity to protect this general interest. To solve this difficulty, we presuppose that the decision-maker will choose the general interest. To be safer, we will implement a kind of supervision on the system's operation that we hope will be... complete.

Shutting eyes on the incoherence of interests, on the incompleteness of our supervision of the system or on the trend to eliminate exchanges between members to reduce complexity does not solve our problem. We must accept that the laws of complexity forbids the system that we implement to be simultaneously complex, complete and coherent.

In all our reflections on governance and on different modes of regulation, we must take into account that the world in which we are living is intrinsically complex. We can attempt to simplify it in order to make it understandable by a few number of its members. We can also choose to take advantage of this complexity and this ability of self-adaptation. In this case, it belongs to us to opt in good conscience for what notions, coherence or completeness, we are ready to make concessions.

Initial text : CORNU, Jean-Michel. Annexe 5 du rapport Vox Internet 2005 : Une régulation complète et cohérente : la théorie des 3 C. Vox Internet [online]. [Accessed 30 January 2014]. Available from:

Photo credits: jean-louis Zimmermann on Flickr - CC-BY