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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 secondsIn this activity, we study complexity in history. Strictly speaking, history never repeats. All historical events are unique, but this does not mean that history is necessarily chaotic. It is not. Each event in history emerges from a set of other relate events. This means that while historical events are unique, their occurrence is far from random. As such, historical events can be perceived as an emergent property of interacting circumstances. The challenge is to identify, depending on circumstances, that prove just right for a particular event to emerge. To improve our understanding of complexity in history, it is best to look at an example. And for this, we draw on research conducted in the field of economic history on the first Industrial Revolution.

Skip to 1 minute and 1 secondAt the end of the 18th century, starting in Britain, a wave of innovation irreversibly changed the face of European societies. New technologies, symbolised by steam engine, raised the efficiency of production. As a result, income levels increased rapidly and have been growing ever since, as can be seen in the graph. The historical importance of the first Industrial Revolution is apparent. Whereas before 1800, income fluctuated around a roughly stable level, afterwards, Britain set out on a path of sustained growth. This sudden transition was arguably one of the biggest, if not the biggest, event in history. Never in the entire history of mankind people have been as wealthy as since the 1800s.

Skip to 1 minute and 48 secondsIn time, this rapid increase of wealth improved the quality of life through increased consumption, better health care, more pleasure, and so on and so forth. But why did this is monumental transformation of everyday life take place from the late 18th century onwards? Why not earlier? Why not later? And why did it happen first in UK, and not elsewhere? Such counter-factual scenarios do not stretch the imagination. At least until the late Middle Ages, and perhaps for even longer than that, several Asian countries were as rich and technologically advanced as the UK. Looking at the graph, it is clear that income levels between India and Britain did not diverge substantially until the late 18th century.

Skip to 2 minutes and 36 secondsIf I had included China in the graph as well, a very similar picture would emerge. So why did the Industrial Revolution not take place in Asia? Were the British just lucky to successfully explore steam technology before others did? And could it have happened anywhere randomly? The answer to that last question is no. The first Industrial Revolution did not materialise out of the blue. Even though, as the term revolution implies, the sharp rise in income levels around 1800s occurred quite suddenly and evolved a highly non-linear process, the circumstances that led to the stepping points in history had been building up steadily, already since the late 17th century. So what were these related events, resulting in the first Industrial Revolution?

Skip to 3 minutes and 24 secondsResearch has pointed out three important factors that determined both the timing and the location of the Industrial Revolution. First, wages were high in 18th century Britain, due to a period of successful mercantilism. Through a succession of worsened trade agreements, the British empire had expanded rapidly, making it quite literally the empire on which the sun never sets. Both through extortion and trades, Britain profited financially from its colonies, raising wages at home, which in turn increased the demand for luxury and industrially-manufactured goods. Second, Britain enjoyed geographical advantages in the form of rich coal resources, which made it relatively cheap to operate machinery as compared to hiring manual labour that demand high wages.

Skip to 4 minutes and 18 secondsSo producers were incentivised to replace expensive labour with less expensive machinery. Yet to some extent, these conditions were present also in other countries. Britain was neither the first large empire in history that was based on trade relations, nor was it the only country to enjoy a rich supply of natural resources. Clearly, any of these two conditions by itself prove insufficient for the emergence of a sudden transition. The crucial third ingredient that set Britain apart from other countries was a cultural turn toward a more scientific attitude that encouraged research on new technology and the exchange of ideas. This process has been referred to as the scientific revolution, during which Britain adopted an institutional framework that proved conducive to innovation and modernisation.

Skip to 5 minutes and 11 secondsThis was the linchpin of mechanised industry.

Skip to 5 minutes and 15 secondsThe unique interplay between these three factors provide conditions that are both necessary and sufficient for an Industrial Revolution to take place. Historical events grip together in such a way that they form a complex system of interrelated factors that paved the way for an entirely new development path. So we know now why Britain was the first country to successfully industrialise. This begs the question why many other countries remained in the pre-industrial age for much longer. Once the sufficient conditions for the process of industrialisation had been reached in Britain, why did other countries fail to reap the benefits there off by simply copying British technology to improve production efficiency and income levels at home?

Skip to 6 minutes and 3 secondsIn our next lecture, we will discuss this issue.

Complexity in history

This video talks about history as an emergent property of interacting circumstances.

If you want to understand complex systems, then studying history is important. Namely, the present is the path that happened to emerge out of the all these elements interacting in a complex system. By realizing this, you can see that complex system properties today might not be optimal but a result of the history of the system, which influences decision today. We will use the example of the industrial revolution taking place in Britain in the 18th century to illustrate this principle.

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Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World

University of Groningen

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