Problems of coordination create diseconomies of scale for complex systems

PLATT. I should like to mention one aspect of this— the overlapping governmental units involved in big complexes of this sort. Richard Meir has made a study of this. He finds that there are some 465 semi-independent government organizations in the San Francisco Bay area for a population of about four million people. Roughly one governmental unit per 10,000; although, of course, some of them actually cover the whole area. This includes school districts, garbage units, councils of various sorts, economic units. The problem is to get these semi-independent government bodies interrelated so that initiating any new project does not require an almost infinite number of signatures, or so that one of these bodies isn’t doing something that another one is negating. This is a fantastic problem already at the four-million level; to extend this to the 100-million level is going to require new levels of organization and management.

WADDINGTON. At this ratio of governing bodies to people a megalopolis of 100-million would be run by something like 10,000 different agencies. The possibility of an administrative jam-up occurring, so that some essential service just doesn’t operate, would be enormous.

PLATT: The complexity probably goes up as the square of the number of units of organization or management.

WADDINGTON: Is anybody seriously studying this as a problem in organizing a management structure? How far do our universities deal with this? Presumably the legal profession, the management profession, and people of this kind have got to work out how it is to be done. This is going to happen within one generation. There is not much time.

From “Biology and the History of the Future” (an IUBS/UNESCO symposium, 1972)