Non-linear what?

It is fashionable to concoct phrases to create neologisms to try and make other people think the neologisers are somehow just so much smarter. Sometimes the new terms created are actually meaningful and sometimes just Deepak Chopra-style nonsense B*S. Non-linearity is one of those sort of tag phrases that has been dragged kicking and screaming out of the world of mathematics and physics with mixed results.

Non-linearity has a sort of smart feel about it, linear = simple, straight-forward and actually only quite a small part of the universe; non-linear is quirky, eccentric, and a bit edgy, and pretty well most of the universe.

You can google for quite a few things that you might expect to be non-linear, like…

  • “non-linear algebra”
  • “non-linear dynamics”
  • “non-linear control theory”

…and a whole lot more things that you wouldn’t necessarily…

  • “non-linear thinking”
  • “non-linear innovation”
  • “non-linear people”
  • “non-linear social network”
  • “non-linear politics”
  • “non-linear justice”
  • “non-linear economy”
  • “non-linear clothes”

Apparently non-linearity is a thing in physical architecture now…

The so-called nonlinear architectural design is the thing that using the essence of architectural complex as a starting point we get multiple factors affecting buildings through analyzing, which we organize through the parametric model by reasonable logic in designing, and finally use the computer to create complex forms according with the requirement of architectural complexity.

The Realization of Nonlinear Architectural on the Parametric Model – MinWu, Zhiliang Ma, 2012

No, I don’t know what it means either: apparently part of the architectural process these days is to take photos of stuff or maybe existing artwork, stick that in Photoshop and trace out something that then looks like a Dali-esque bad dream or a bad acid trip.

You can see it in buildings like the Bella Sky Hotel in Copenhagen, which is quite dramatic

Bella Sky Hotel, Copenhagen
lglazier618, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Bella Sky, there is some distinct sacrifice of function subordinated to fashion in the large amount of steel that you have to walk around in the rooms. It is however very democratically configured in diagonal form, so anybody of any height can bash their brains out…

Bella Sky hotel room – with metal stanchions…
Just as an aside, the restaurant "Basalt" in the Bella Sky is a total hipster joint, offering "food from the bonfire", basically a small selection of hard nodular charred black vegetables, with a bit of sooty meat and some flavoured smoke đŸ¤¯

Back to something more like the real world of the supply chain, the old-world view is that of the linear supply chain like this…

Linear Supply Chain

However, that has been tagged by non-linearity, if you google “non-linear supply chain”, with the most obvious examples being current visualizations of the circular economy where the Worm Ouroboros eats its own tail with recycling.

Circular Supply Chain

Deloitte made a rather gruesome rendering of the future state in their “Supply Chains and Value Webs” story where the world ends up as an entropic collection of blobs in a bunch of value webs, which looks a bit like this…

Supply Chain Mesh
Consultants are often very good at come up with ideas that so hi'falutin' and analytically dense that they cannot be handled by mere mortals.  A world built of that value web complexity obviously needs a load of consultants to help make sense of it.  
Also on the topic of complexity, I recall seeing once an IT systems architectural concept of "white spaces" which manifested as a spreadsheet that mapped out the intersections between different systems, but was ultimately a very sparse matrix, of guess what, mostly interstitial white space, which didn't really do anything to simplify the situation
“White Spaces” – more gaps than glue…

From an engineering perspective and also for the sanity of us mere mortals, the sort of tangled mesh represented by “value webs” is not sustainable and a more rational structure is essential. So you have to draw the threads together and create some level of coordination and organising principle which supports the non-linear structure but glues it all together, thus…

Non-linear Supply Chain

These are the types of “non-linear supply chain” model that are currently tagged with “Digital Supply Chain” or “Industry 4.0” monikers to freshen them up and make them seem modern. However, there is nothing new under the sun, of course, and these are actually retreads of ideas from 2000 and behind (e.g., from the CPFR concept of the 90s). (I have a slide on this topic I used in 2001)

In software terms, and back to the start of this story, that structure with the central “digital eco-system” might be classed as a “non-linear software architecture”, oddly enough when I googled that term I came up with no results at all!

“Non-linear Software Architecture” was there none…

So maybe I can claim to have coined that term myself? Whichever way, when people start talking about “non-linear software architecture”, remember you heard it here first!

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