Master Hugh Segal on ‘Confronting Complexity’

The Walter Gordon Symposium is an annual conference co-hosted by the School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College. In the lead up to the 2015 Walter Gordon Symposium, students, speakers, faculty, and community members are invited to share their reflections on the theme of ‘Confronting Complexity’ in Canadian society. ​This year’s conference will take place on March 25 and 26, 2015.

Hugh Segal, Master

The success of modern democratic societies as measured in social, economic or strategic outcomes depends very much on how our private and public institutions deal with complexity. From managing an international space station, to calibrating diabetic therapies; from securing the privacy of digital communication to the administration of justice, complexity becomes‎ a daily challenge for professionals and leaders as well as those who work with or report to these professionals and leaders.

Reflecting on how the dimensions of complexity have expanded, how new technologies and delivery nuances have impacted the way our instruments of governance work and gain effect is of vital importance. From policing to education, health care to financial regulation, taxation to marketing, the customization of available analytics to enhance impact and efficiency have increased the complexity of the task faced by competent and conscientious practitioners. This has profound impacts on certification, mid-career professional development, time allocation and the differing mixes of expertise required. Think about how today’s military, intelligence, pedagogic and transportation sectors differ in requirements and necessary skills from just two decades ago.

There are two challenges in how we consider these changes and the exigencies they suggest: frankness about the challenge and clarity about the nature of the adaptive tasks now required.

Today’s clinical nurse in a modern teaching hospital needs a far larger suite of technical skills than were required a decade ago.‎ The police officer of today needs a range of technical skill sets that differ in many respects from his predecessors. A car sales person, a stockbroker, a Deputy Minister all require levels of technical acuity that exceed requirements a generation ago.

Are governments able to cope? Do Ministers and their staff have the requisite technical expertise to ask the right questions of their departments or suppliers‎? It is all very well to advocate for evidence-based decision making. But sorting through a hierarchy of evidentiary sources as to salience and relevance is also important. Essential concerns around process, around human rights, gender equity or research ethics, and in Canada specifically, the intersection of different federal and provincial programmes and jurisdictions all feature prominently in the complexities to be addressed and constructively managed.

Ignoring the dynamic nature of complexity in manufacturing, agriculture, education or medical delivery systems, health administration or national security is really setting aside drill-down competence for wishful thinking – something we cannot afford to do.

A conference that seeks to unpack some of these challenges with a mix of Massey College Junior Fellows and distinguished academics and practitioners who can share perspective, insight, research and emergent questions‎ and benefit from the experience of Senior Fellows, Quadranglers and others with different and broad experience, is a credit to the partnership of Massey College, the Gordon Foundation and the School of Public Policy at the University of Toronto and the hard-working Massey College Junior Fellows Gordon Foundation Committee planning the engagement. A compelling issue, in all its complexity, is not unmanageable simply because the implicit intellectual challenge is difficult. That very difficulty is the reason it should be engaged and embraced. The way societies manage complexity says a lot about their inherent intellectual curiosity and the due diligence of its business, labour, academic and intellectual leadership, including the openness and honesty of that leadership.

Admitting to the uncertainties produced in activities like environmental initiative, medical research, regulating financial industries or managing one’s own borders is the beginning of wisdom.

Exploring, via a symposium, how these areas of complexity can be unravelled and better understood is another beginning of wisdom and is to be applauded here at Massey College.

Hugh Segal is currently the Master of Massey College and keynote speaker for the 2015 Walter Gordon Symposium. He formerly served as an Ontario Senator in Canada’s Upper House and Chief of Staff to Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2003.

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