I’ve spent the better part of this last week participating in a conference on Complex Systems, hosted by the Wessex Institute located in the New Forest in the UK. A beautiful part of the world, especially in summer (but as regards the weather lets just say I’m heading home to the Cape Town winter for a little sun and an end to the rain).
It was a truly transdisciplinary conference. The papers presented complexity from the perspectives of software development, neurological function, built environment, sustainability, dental development, robotics, fire response, management and more. And the complexity thinking on display was equally varied.
What exercised me throughout the three days though was the tension between what the French philosopher Edgar Morin articulates as being ‘restricted’ vs ‘generalised’ complexity evident in the discussions. Morin, and the South African philosopher Paul Cilliers in his ‘critical complexity’, perform an emerging complexity worldview (generalised complexity) when they maintain that complexity is irreducible and observable only through singular perspectives grounded in time and place; any attempt to model a complex system is necessarily wrong, incomplete, subjective and valid only within its context. The important questions to ask are what is missing, who’s perspective is being demonstrated, where and when, and what are the implications for the analysis at hand.
Restricted complexity, in contrast, operates largely through a deterministic worldview, despite being anti-deterministic in approach. Complex systems can be modeled utilising the observed features of natural complex systems (thresholds, non-linearity, self-organisation, unpredictability, fractals).
To an extent perhaps, these two positions can be loosely compared to the distinction between constructivist and positivist ontological positions in the social sciences. The STEPS centre at Sussex University (whom I’m looking forward to visiting next week) propose in their ‘pathways’ approach to sustainability that both objective structures and subjective framings operate in relation to complex systems. At the Sustainability Institute’s complexity course run in March this year I heard that the different worldviews of modernism and complexity can co-exist, that modernist tools have applicability with a complexity paradigm.
If this is the case, then I’m now grappling with the ‘how’ for domestic climate mitigation policy in a development context. And does this assist in addressing the challenge of taking action within complexity? I’m also wondering whether this particular ‘how’ is important to the positioning of certain aspects of climate mitigation policy such as emissions limits, energy sector options, and built infrastructure in a complexity frame. Unlike ‘development’, climate mitigation is associated with emissions thresholds in the natural climate system which are clearly irreversible, and these are fast-approaching. Does this therefore require adopting aspects of a deterministic approach? And if so, how can this be adequately accounted for within a complexity paradigm?