I've long believed that the more rules you put around something, the more prolific the unintended and unforeseen consequences. Consequences which often result in more rules and yet more layers of complexity.
In systems theory (as in nature, science and art) the concept of Emergence refers to the way in which complex systems and patterns can emerge out of a series of relatively simple interactions. The flocking behaviour of birds is the classic example. A small number of simple rules ("don't run into each other") can create such complex behaviour and a spectacle of matchless grace and consummate beauty.
With Emergence, such involved behaviours are not specified directly by a set of rules, they arise as a dynamic result of the rest of the system. Just as simple rules can lead to complex behavior, complex rules (just look at tax law) can lead to stupid behavior. We love detail. And attention to detail can lead to success, but it can equally lead to morale-killing stagnation, meetings, and compromise. You can't plan, forecast, or predict everything, but you can cultivate an environment that facilitates the kind of emergent behaviour from which you can benefit: "Design broadly. Iterate locally. Finalize specifically."
Right before Christmas, I met Martin Thomas, author of Crowdsurfing. He told me about a case study that features in his new book (called 'Loose', out in March/April – look out for it) on an urban design concept that integrates use of public spaces for the benefit of all. Shared Space removes the traditional devices and road priority management systems that segregate cars, pedestrians and other road users (like kerbs, lines, barriers, signs and signals). It turns out that far from leading to more accidents, people's behaviour is more positively affected by the built environment and human interaction than it is through rigid controls and artificial regulation. Individuals reduce their speed, are more aware of their immediate surroundings, seek out eye contact with other road users. One of the advocates for Shared Space, Hans Monderman has said: "We're losing our capacity for socially responsible behaviour…The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people's sense of personal responsibility dwindles."
The more we tighten things down, the more expensive we make it to change direction, the more difficult it is for creative solutions to emerge, the less likely we are to make that change. The more we wrap up what we do in language that distances us from the very people we are reaching out to, the more division we introduce, the less humanistic in our approach we become. Writing this on the last day of 2010, my hope is that for the coming year and beyond, we learn better the value of letting go.