The Tide-Wave Model

IFSR Newsletter 1989 No. 3 (23) Summer
Enrique G. Herrscher
San Martin 551, Piso 4°0fic. 44,1004 Buenos Aires, Argentina
Is change something that just “happens” or can we produce it? Should we concern ourselves with the “great trends” or the “small steps”? Does this perhaps depend on whether we are pursuing a change within a system or a change of a system? Why must we so often move “three steps forward, then two (or even more) backward? Is it because we are promoting “the right change at the wrong moment”? And what can we achieve anyway if we are “just a small part of a complex system that is to be changed”? The tide-wave model might help us find answers to these intriguing questions.
When we go to the beach we see the waves repeatedly trying to sweep up over the sand. Each is succeeded by the next one, which may advance further landwards if high tide is approaching. On the contrary the waves tend to get weaker during the advent of low tide and the area of dry sand increases.
For our present purposes, we will call the combination of tide and waves, i.e. the factors affecting the advancing or receding of the sea over the coast, the Tide-Wave System. Now, this is a very peculiar system. You would think, by looking at the waves and the tide, that the waves are the parts and the tide is the whole. Butthis is not so, for one important reason: the waves are not cumulative! In other words: the aggregate of waves does not cause the tide; the tide is not the sum (or the sum plus x) of the waves.
On the contrary: each wave, once it has reached its maximum height and exhausted its force, recedes back into the sea. In fact, this backward flow is the main obstacle the next wave must overcome in order to reach its own summit. We will call this backward flow the “Counter Wave”.
The strength of this counter wave is a function of three factors:
1) the configuration of the coast, i.e. how steep the beach is at the edge of the sea; 2) the force and direction of the tide, i.e. whether it is growing or diminishing; and 3) the strength
of the wave that originated it.
On the other hand, even if the tide and the waves are not linked in the manner of a whole and its parts, they are nevertheless closely interrelated. First of all, the waves are the manifestation of the tide; and secondly the waves help the tide advance.
With the first statement, we mean that we don’t “see” the tide: the only movement we perceive is that of the waves. When the tide is advancing our perception of it is derived from the waves, which are of different strengths. When the tide is receding the only thing we observe is that the waves are becoming weaker, but just watching one wave or another, we may wrongly believe a forward movement is still taking place, when in reality the net change is in the other direction.
The second aspect mayor may not correspond to actual fact in the realm of physics or hydraulics, but for the sake of our argument we will assume that it does. When the tide is growing, we contend that its advance is being enhanced by the waves: in still waters, i.e. without waves, the high tide would take longer to reach its top level. During the recession of the tide, however, we will assume that this factor is no longer relevant; as the waves get weaker, the low tide will arrive irrespective of whether there are waves or not.
Now we can apply this model to our inquiry about change. We propose, that the process of change in complex societies – such as the process of development in a developing country (2) – is very similar to a “Tide-Wave System”.
1 – The great trends are the “tides”. Their origins often elude our power of observation, the contributing factors are beyond our individual influence.
2 -We do not “see” the trends, we can only reach some conclusions about them “ex post facto”. What we do see are the “waves”: the specific actions, intents, movements, by which the great trends materialize.
3 – Those actions, the “waves”, are within our reach: We can “produce” them, or fail to do so.
4 -If they are intended to cause changes “within” a system, such actions may achieve their purpose by themselves. If their intent is a change “of” the system, the purpose will not be achieved by one single wave, and not even by a set of waves: only a “tide” will accomplish this.
5 – In other words, the type of change we are speaking about (3) is a “tide”, and not just a succession of “waves”, valuable as these may be.
6 – Our actions – the “waves” – are not useless, however: they significantly enhance the “tide”. Without them, the great trend might still come about, but possibly later, with more sorrow or cost, or perhaps it would materialize after it was already too late.
7 – In other words, when the trend comes (the “high tide”), our actions should coincide with it, lest it pass by without being perceived, Le. without materializing, and the opportunity is lost. Let us refer to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their lives is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
8 – Against the trend (the “low tide”) our actions will have little effect, except (and this may be important) that the “waves” keep the movement up. But the objective will not be achieved until “the tide changes”. This is the typical “intent of change in the wrong moment”.
9- Unless our actions are trivial, they will cause a reaction, a “counterwave”, that will negatively affect not only the “wave” that provoked it, but also the subsequent “waves”, especially the next one.
10 – The stronger our action (the “wave”) the stronger the reaction (the “counterwave”). Moreover, two other factors will influence the force of this “counterwave” and finally determine whether it will cancel out the “wave” or just make the action more difficult: the strength of the context or situation to be changed (the “configuration of the coast”), and the general trend (the “tide”).
The “Tide-Wave Model” has helped us to understand the nature of change in complex societies. Particularly, it has shown that concrete actions (the only “visible” events in the process) are important in that, even if they do not “form” the trends, they do enhance them, give them momentum, open the way for their materialization. Above all, we hope the model will help us to avoid infantilism – thinking that we can change everything by ourselves – as much as fatalism thinking that nothing we can do will really influence change.
We begin the simulation with a drawing of a plant or animal, and the computer is programmed to randomly introduce minor alterations. Then selection criteria are provided; the computer eradicates the least well-adapted “mutants”, and the survivors undergo further rounds of mutation and selection. If the patterns of change conform to those observed in the fossil record, our hypothesis as to the nature of the selection criteria can be regarded as plausible; a strict proof cannot be obtained with this method, however.
Of course the computer is only capable of dealing with the evolution of relatively simple systems. For this reason, primitive leafless land plants were chosen for study. These were the first species which had water-transporting vessels.
The following assumptions were made: 1) More branch endings enable a wider dissemination of spores and therefore a larger number of offspring. 2) More sunlight results in better growth, and therefore an improved chance of surviving. The amount of sunlight received is directly proportional to the exposed area, since the photosynthetic structures are spread over the entire surface of the plant. Shading either by parts of the same plant or by others reduces the photosynthetic activity.
The simulated plants “evolved” from low-growing, infrequently branched types to forms with vertical axes and many flattened lateral branches. The same pattern of changes can be found in the fossils of the primitive land plants which existed between 410 and 350 million years ago.
Computers thus enable us to simulate and roughly visualize natural evolution; they help us determine its driving forces.
Literature: Niklas, Karl J., Computer-Simulated Plant Evolution, Scientific American, March 1986.
1) Herrscher, E.G. et al: Strategies for Change in Developing Countries – to be presented at the 1989 ISSS Meeting in Edinburgh
2) Herrscher, E.G.: Cause – effects loops as explanation of underdevelopment, Human Systems Management (1988), and: Mutual Causality in Developing Countries, Systems Practice, Vol. 1 Nr. 3 (1988)
3) Strategic Change in R. Ackoff’s terms, Change 2 as per Systems Design per J.P. van Gigch.

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