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The law of unintended consequences illustration: with someone trying to regulate a complex system with a simple system

The law of unintended consequences

People are complicated. Life is complicated. Ecosystems are complicated. And despite our best efforts or intentions, we have a remarkable history of messing things up in unexpected ways.

One simple theory for why this may be is that unintended consequences are likely to happen whenever we try to regulate a complex system by using a simple system. This so often happens in any kind of large-scale or government attempt to control something within a complex system using relatively simple programs, regulations, laws, policies or other actions. Things will happen that we didn’t anticipate.

Examples abound:

  • A policy of suppressing forest fires that goes on to cause even greater fires.
  • An attempt to reduce traffic in Bogotá by restricting who could drive each day based on licence plates that led people to simply buy more cars.
  • More open workplaces that cause people to behave more privately.
  • Elimination of predators that leads to the proliferation of grazing animals and a reduction in diversity.
  • The effects of literally any dam built anywhere.
  • What happens when you change software.
  • Desire paths
  • The Streisand effect
  • The Diderot effect
  • Or social distancing policies that results in outdoor natural spaces being crammed with people at weekends.
  • And on, and on.

Often, as with some of these, the outcome can be the opposite of what you intended, known as the cobra effect. Controlling complex systems is difficult.

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