Economic Complexity Theory in the Time of Coronavirus

Originally created for Medium

These vintage prototypes by Weston Neil Andersen, presented in the images throughout this story, tell of a love for the work process which evolved into our company, Andersen Design


I grew up in a business in a home that designs and handcrafts ceramics. For a while the business also had a production employing about 25 people in a separate location. It was found that our type of production is better suited to a smaller more intimate setting, such as a business attached to a home.

However, over the course of 67 years, the size of the of the line grew too wide and large to be produced in a small studio and I envisioned that the future of production should be a network of small independently owned ceramic production studios, which could function as an interactive network.

Last month my idea was an anomaly as if existing in an alternate reality, but as the world turned toward social distancing and sheltering in place, the world order inverted, and now my idea, offbeat in the old order, is perfectly suited to the business model in the new order, especially if the new emergent order organizes by complexity theory, countering the current trending to greater central management by government. 

A delightfully simple and sumptuous mid century ceramic serving bowl and glazes by Weston Neil Andersen

Andersen Design was established in 1952 during an era of innovation in home design that was not just for the elite but also for the middle classes. It was the age of plastics in which Weston and Brenda Andersen left urban environs and set up their own slip cast production on the coast of Maine with a mission to create a handcrafted product affordable to the middle classes. It was production as an art form, a humble and humanistic response to factory working conditions that moved Karl Marx to come up with a social re-ordering plot for the whole world

Weston and Brenda Andersen did not set out to remake the entire world, just to make the part of it that they touch, a better place, and that is the type of response called for now as the global world order is collapsing under an event so all encompassing that all that most of us can do is to make that part of the world within our social distance, within our human touch, a better place. 

Two early prototypes hand crafted by Weston when he was exploring ideas for a line of function forms which would launch Andersen Design, circa late forties to early fifties

Coronavirus reorders the world

The Boothbay Peninsula on the Coast of Maine, where we are, has a tourism economy, closed by the virus. Congress is working on legislation to provide full pay for workers left unemployed by the coronavirus. This is as a short term temporary solution while projections for the coronavirus effect are up to a year or whatever it takes to develop a vaccine, and reintroduce a sense of certainty. Between now and then, people may need to find ways to generate an income from their homes. The economy that can generate wealth instead of merely redistributing it will be leading in its time.

Report from the Home Front

Shortly before the onset of coronavirus alert in the USA, Boothbay, Maine finalized town ordinances designed to restrict the growth and development of businesses in the home by arbitrarily limiting job creation capacity and restricting retailing creativity.

If the ordinances had been in place when Andersen Design had started out, our company would have been forced to relocate in order to continue developing. I am fortunate to have lived at a time when entrepreneurial growth at the roots of the economy was not restricted as it has been progressively so in Maine since the centrally managed economy was instituted in 1976. Central management organizes the economy from the top down.
Original Prototype design hand crafted by Weston Neil Andersen in the early fifties.. Simple forms with elegant geometry and hand crafted glazes are the signature style of Andersen Design

The free enterprise economy provided the conditions that made Andersen Design possible. Free enterprise, is the economic system emergent from the political ideology that founded the USA, an ideology premised on individual liberty. Free enterprise organizes the economy from the roots up, using what is called complexity theory in modern lingo.

In days of yore, the hero of American mythology was the immigrant arriving on the shores of America with nothing but the shirt on his back who pulls himself up by his bootstraps. It is archetypal imagery of an economy that grows from the roots up, through individualism as opposed to central management. What is more individually rooted than a business in the home? What is more diametrical to central management than individuality, and vise versa?

In Philip K Dick’s fictionalized biography, Valis, the fish is an ancient symbol of Christianity.

Interesting times are a curse and a blessing.

There is nothing in this world that is not political, which we are already seeing in coronavirus. Coronavirus talking points debate about the superiority of authoritarian governments versus governments premised on individual liberty. While authoritarian governments have a the ability to mandate that people coordinate with sheltering in place,sheltering in place leads the agents and their working environments to become more individualized.

Complexity Theory to the Rescue ?

Over the next year or so, all values of contemporary society may undergo radical transformations . Each person has a perspective on part of it, but none of us has a knowledge of all of it. Whatever we can do or contribute has to be generated by what we know and can conceptualize from our own perspectives. Compounded uncertainty leaves little choice between acting on faith and freezing into paralysis, In a world where outcomes were calculated by data-based predictions, the world is now a realm of interacting unknowns, with data models calling out for a rewrite.

Millions of individuals are operating from within their own perspective like multitudes of butterflies flapping their wings, each one producing an unpredictable effect in the hour of expanding uncertainty. The dance of chance and transformations is both dangerous and liberating. Our own choices in interacting with it can be powerful as the organizing system, forced through circumstance, adapts to the agents within it.

Complexity Theory is a way of ordering the world as a constantly evolving relationship between self organizing parts. 

CAS are contrasted with ordered and chaotic systems by the relationship that exists between the system and the agents which act within it. In an ordered system the level of constraint means that all agent behaviour is limited to the rules of the system. In a chaotic system the agents are unconstrained and susceptible to statistical and other analysis. In a CAS, the system and the agents co-evolve; the system lightly constrains agent behaviour, but the agents modify the system by their interaction with it. This self-organizing nature is an important characteristic of CAS; and its ability to learn to adapt, differentiate it from other self organizing systems.[3] Wikipedia Complexity theory and organizations

Top Down or Roots Up?

Rooted by four feet, the stoneware wine glass is secure and holds its own space. Weston Neil Andersen One of a kind prototype, circa late forties, early fifties

Suddenly, businesses that can operate from the home are community economic development assets. That was true before coronavirus but in those days top down management of economies had reached global proportions and local roots-up growth was increasingly regulated and marginalized.

So much confidence was handed over to management at the top, that many people likely still visualize that this order will be immediately restored after a few weeks of social distancing. No one knows. Perhaps it will, but even if so, there is no telling if there is a second wave of the coronavirus coming. The alternative to the restoration of the global world order is that businesses in the home will become a new norm and growth will be generated from the roots up, in a more diverse combination of globalism and localism.
The Rocketship by Weston Neil Andersen, One of a Kind prototype, circa late forties, early 1950’s

Back on Location

In Boothbay, in all fairness, our dear leaders threw home businesses a bone, permitting the display of a four by four foot sign indicating that the business exists, but it must be unlit. The stipulation that it must be unlit indicates how difficult it was for the leaders of the new Maine to give an inch to a pre-existing populous (not to suggest that Boothbay’s ordinances are actually directed by Boothbay residents).

Country roads are very dark at night. Most do not have street lights. They could use a few lighted signs so that residents do not so easily drive by their own driveways at night as I have done a number of times. It appears that restricting the home business economy is more important to our community leaders than providing, cost free to the town, light landmarks in the darkness of the night on a rural road.

This typifies the difference in how large corporations and the micro economy are treated by central management. What would be a public benefit if manifested by a large corporation is a blight on the community if emergent from the micro-economy, including job creation.
Very early prototype by Weston Neil Andersen, likely done when he was exploring ideas for a new line of ceramic functional forms in the late 1940’s. One of a Kind

The present point of focus is a globally shared moment for reconsideration of how we live and what we value, and how well each aligns with the other. Whether the time span of self isolation lasts a few weeks or longer, it remains a rare moment of global introspection, such as we have never seen before.

DECREASE combined with sincerity
Brings about supreme good fortune
Without blame.
One may be persevering in this.
It furthers one to undertake something.
How is this to be carried out?
One may use two small bowls for the sacrifice. The IChing

Very early prototype by Weston Neil Andersen, likely done when he was exploring ideas for a new line of ceramic functional forms in the late 1940’s. One of a Kind

A Long Held Vision for the Future Unexpectedly Finds its Moment

At Andersen Design our lifestyle changes less than that of most people since we have long had a business in the home, very much like the family farm, integrating work, family, and living as an inseparable process.

A culture premised on the intent to serve the interests of all, should be as diversified as possible to serve the diversity in humanity. When options are limited, when there are no alternatives to the mainstream culture, social discontent increases and a culture of misfit arises.

Over the years Andersen Design has provided a place for more than a few misfits. They are only misfits because they do not fit anywhere until they fit somewhere. Businesses are cultural environments. There should be many diverse business environments to accommodate the diversity among humanity.

Andersen Design offers one such alternative, to engage in a work process and lifestyle that has attracted humanity since the dawn of civilization, connecting the future with the past. The crafting tradition is one of discipline, discovery. mastery, innovation and creativity. Every great culture has contributed to the evolution of ceramics.
Weston designed the form, Brenda decorated it a in an off beat note with a single golden globe flower with leaves of blue. circa 1950’s

Andersen Design’s Economic Development Assets

  • Our unusually large inventory of classic and market proven slip cast designs, is a rare and distinctive business asset. The size and depth of the line is capable of providing consistent work to a network of small independent slip casting studios suitable to be attached to the home.
  • We have a brand, built on a long history of taking the path less traveled, highlighted by remaining an American made product during the eighties when most western ceramic companies were moving production to global low cost labor markets. Our brand can be developed as a distinctive web portal for American designer craftsmen.
  • Today when many companies are faced with problems arising from the globalization of production and materials sourcing, Andersen Design is an American made product. Our body and glazes are of original design, made on the premises from raw materials. sourced in the USA.
Early Wine Decanters by Weston Neil Andersen circa late forties, early fifties

Engaging the Parts in an Interactive Whole
What does it mean to design a ceramic slip body and glazes from the raw materials? It involves an understanding of molecular relationships not visible to the human eye. In designing a body or a glaze one must have a systemic understanding of the relationship of the parts to the whole interactive environment which is changing in motion as the kiln temperature rises and cools, not unlike complexity theory.

Ceramics is a fine craft that is itself a metaphor for the skills needed in managing a business process as complex as Andersen Design, a process which begins with the soil of the earth in raw form and includes business management of a design, production, marketing, wholesale and retail enterprise, and all the sub-divisions,

Complexity theory describes the ceramic making process. and the entire experience of running a small ceramic design and production. Think of complexity theory as as a meditation toward an intuitive centering process needed for the complex organizational skills of the craft and management.

Complexity economics is the application of complexity science to the problems of economics. It sees the economy not as a system in equilibrium, but as one in motion, perpetually constructing itself anew.[1][2] It uses computational rather than mathematical analysis to explore how economic structure is formed and reformed, in continuous interaction with the adaptive behavior of the ‘agents’ in the economy [3]

Vintage one of a kind Wine Decanter. by Weston Neil Andersen circa late forties

Andersen Design and our unique assets are a fit to an emerging 21st Century order

While our brand is built on individuality, every aspect of the production process depends upon teamwork and an understanding of how the part interacts with the whole. The unusual size and depth of our large product line can be segregated by specific skill sets to support a network of independent studios composing a free enterprise, micro economy counter culture of interesting and engaging work. easily set up as home based businesses. (the part that eludes me is the legal structure between the parts and the whole but that is an area where outside expertise can be employed ).

As I read about businesses that are forced to close because of coronavirus, we have a business with the capacity to continue but lacking the funding to do so, the same as we did before the pandemic. Our funding strategy remains the same as it was before the pandemic set in. The only difference is that there is an additional reason to support our objectives because we offer a work at home alternative to computer based work, and an interactive decentralized organization, consistent with the self-organizing free enterprise economic development model. 
Vintage One of a Kind Prototype by Weston Neil Andersen. Pitcher in Yellow Glaze

The Complexity Theory Funding Alternative 

The Strategy

We are looking toward the sales of our vintage work and a KickStarter campaign to raise our funding.
This business can proceed, with a little help from our friends, as the song lyrics go. In crowdfunding, its called ones circle of friends and family, which according the AN ARTIST’S GUIDE TO CROWDFUNDING DOMINATION, is the backbone of a crowdfunding project, and used to calculate the amount of funding which one should target during a campaign.

If you are interested in being in our circle of friends and family, our supporting backbone, which means you are willinging to be contacted personally during our campaign, please contact us by email, regular mail, or phone and let us know and make sure to check Kickstarter support group when you sign up for our mailing list

A word about a AN ARTIST’S GUIDE TO CROWDFUNDING DOMINATION. For years I have been searching for guidance on how to run a crowdfunder. None of the local economic development resources offer this kind of support. Finally I have found the next best thing to having an experienced personal coach. This manual is a must read for any artist interested in trying this route. It is a step by step guide, written by a musician, Ian Anderson, who has run many successful crowdfunding projects. He covers every detail of each and every step in the process and answers all questions that I can think of.

In the 1960’s the wild life sculpture took off. This is an early prototype of the Antarctic Seal, done in a rare natural brown finish. The natural brown decorating slip was designed by Weston. In recent years a commercial version has been made available on the market,

We are all the agents of change. Now is always the time when the future is being constructed. Especially now. in this time of unusually large and numerous transformations 

The Melon Vase.Form by Weston. Glaze design by Weston. Glaze application by Mackenzie

Take the ball and run with it! AKA Keep on keeping on!

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