Complexity Shock, Finding Patterns, and Adapting

Natalie MuyresArticles

by Laura Kennett and Eleanor Finger


What a year! Full of disruption and adaptation, over and over again. If this sounds like a pattern, then you are correct. Although life is full of patterns, the emergence of COVID-19 has given us an excellent opportunity to hone our pattern recognition skills. 

Large-scale, sustained and rapidly spreading global “shocks” like the pandemic trigger a cascade of reactions by individuals and groups at all levels as they begin to assess and respond to new threats and opportunities. Human Learning Ecology refers to this process as adaptive positioning. Being able to sense and detect patterns in these responses is key to understanding how individuals, organizations and societies are making sense of challenges and opportunities. 

We wrote this article to share our learning and point out examples of significant patterns we have identified this past year and how the responses were limited in ways that caused harm in other societal systems. We drew on the Human Learning Ecology metaframework concepts of adaptive positioning and frames of action to make sense of what we were observing. We also point out how the frames of action in which people are embedded shape how they define “success” and thus how they respond to threats.

Even as we all grapple with stress, mental health impacts, and the critical disruption of everyday structures and resources, we hope this article encourages you to find even small ways to practice thought processes–like pattern searching and recognition–that help move beyond narrow frames of “re-action” and towards a more adaptive response to the world around us.

In June 2020, the Australian Prime Minister announced that the country would prepare for a “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly” post-COVID-19 world by investing $270 billion over ten years to increase military capability. In March 2021 the UK government moved away from 30 years of gradual nuclear disarmament by increasing the cap on its reserve of nuclear warheads, citing “an evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats”. And of course, the US under Trump and Biden has taken a much more clearly aggressive stance in relation to China.

These nations are detecting patterns in political dynamics arising from the pandemic and are adjusting their “capacities, resources, priorities and responsibilities to successfully [emphasis added] meet the changing field of threats and opportunities”–i.e. to adaptively position (Ref). National governments and military forces can bring vast resources of intelligence and power to the detection and assessment of emerging threats and opportunities. But they also draw on meaning-making and frames of caring which inform and impact the effectiveness of their response. 

For military leaders, the concept of the nation-state, which is so deeply embedded into human cultural systems that it can seem to be naturally occurring, is a reality frame that can constrain their capacity to align decision-making to the life systems upon which we all depend. In other words, they are trying to position their nation-state to “win” against other nation-states, not for the human species to win against existential threats such as a global pandemic. 

The result is a focus on increased military strength and aggressiveness, which has the potential to constrain the world’s ability to cooperate on future health crises. In comparison, the WHO (March 2021) is calling for a new global treaty on pandemic preparedness, with its main goal “to foster an all-of-government and all-of-society approach …[that] would also include recognition of a “One Health” approach that connects the health of humans, animals and our planet”. 

The COVID-19 pandemic also created very fertile ground for cybercriminals who saw the opportunity to take advantage of people’s shock, disorientation and vulnerability to mis-information. What a juicy opportunity for cybercriminals to prey on the financial resources of so many people on an unprecedented scale!

Cybercriminals adaptively position themselves by aggressively launching spear phishing campaigns (targeted cyber luring) aimed at people frantically searching online for comforting information. Emails pretending to be government announcements and fake news about the origins and effects of COVID-19 aimed to entice emotionally vulnerable people to click on malicious links that would gather personal information or allow ransomware into their computers. Cybercriminals can then sell the personal information on the dark web, use the personal information to extract money from bank accounts, or impede a person’s access to their own files until a ransom is paid. Cybercriminals are trying to position their nefarious businesses to win, not for the benefit of the human species or life to survive a pandemic.What is interesting is the way corporations and governments have detected and responded to this surge in activity focusing on COVID-19 misinformation. Through corporate and public service campaigns, people are being taught to spot cyber threats and how to respond appropriately. The use of malicious COVID-19 URLs is declining as this approach to exploitation is losing its effectiveness as people adapt to become better at spotting malicious online content.

Any life form engaged in adaptive positioning will draw on the skill of pattern recognition, which is the ability to sense and assess what is significant in the world. But this is only one of the ingredients for creating a more adaptive response to a threat or opportunity. 

Another is having the capacity to detect patterns in an accurate and timely manner and to assess and verify whether they indicate something worth paying attention to. It is also important to understand the different frames in which responses can be mounted such as within your family, your community or organization, your nation, or within the global community of humanity. In smaller frames of action (e.g. family, organization), what is seen as successful adaptation may be detrimental when considered within the larger frame of all humanity and life. It’s about the standards you’re using to assess the quality of those patterns and recognizing the frames of action that people are acting within.

The quality of pattern detection and frames of responses can mean the difference between surviving, thriving, or dying. More importantly, because we are living within interlocking societal systems, we need to recognize the pattern detection skills and frames of action of others. What others consider as being adaptive positioning can affect your own ability to respond. 

What patterns have you been paying attention to that you feel are significant, from the local to the global stage? We encourage alumni of the Human Venture programs to engage in further conversations on the Human Venture Portal. Together, we are contributing to an ongoing collective process of meaning-making.

References and Further Reading:

Laura is a Human Venture Leadership alumnus, Associate, and Human Venture Leadership Board Member. Laura is currently Director, Liquids Pipelines Modernization and Change at Enbridge.

Eleanor is a Human Venture Leadership alumnus, Associate, and currently the Director of Alumni Relations at Mount Royal University.