Brexit – a complexity take

Like the world at large I’m still reeling from the Brexit result. As I’ve listened and watched and read the flurry of commentary I find myself wondering what insights complexity thinking can offer on how Brexit occurred, how to evaluate the result and its implications.

The Brexit vote could be characterised as a non-linear, largely unexpected event, perhaps even by the Leave campaign itself and some of its supporters. Certainly the UK’s political leadership seems to have been caught by surprise. Would paying closer attention to the emergent patterning of voter sentiment and the political system itself have given them pause to consider more carefully what they unleashed?   Complexity thinking warns against simple actions as ‘solutions’ to complex problems. This, of everything, should have acted as a red flag for politicians… yet a binary referendum, in or out? Its not clear that anything has been ‘solved’ or even ‘resolved’ through this.

I was in the UK a few weeks before the referendum, and heard from colleagues, family and friends of their difficulty in navigating the relentless onslaught of information and analysis from both campaigns. There was a surreal sense of time gliding forward to a critical point, and yet it was very difficult for anyone to get a real handle on the implications.   Why was this information not getting through to the voters? Was this a communication issue? Or deliberate misinformation? Or perhaps the issue was sufficiently complex to render analysis and information insufficient grounds on which to base decisions?


Complex issues certainly require analysis and expertise, but not only this. The future of complex systems cannot be predicted, complexity means inherent unknowability. Many of the Brexit implications together with their magnitude are not yet known – all the complex systemic properties of non-linearity, feedbacks and unpredictability come into play. So what then could have aided voter decision making? Complexity thinking emphasises the importance of connectivity, of generating and articulating collective values and the tools of ethics to guide action.  How could UK’s leaders have supported the voters in this?

From the perspective of working on one of the many ‘super-wicked’ global problems we have to engage with this century – climate change – I’m quite frightened by what has occurred. The support that the Brexit gives to both extremes in the political spectrum across Europe and beyond seems unlikely to contribute to growing our collective abilities to take these complex problems on.  Humanity needs to up the ante on work to build connections, to foster a sense of the collective and of collective responsibility, to increase tolerance and respect for difference. My vote would have been based on remaining connected and in conversation despite the imperfections of this, above isolation.

I had been grappling for a long time prior to the Brexit whether there was a specificity to undertaking national climate mitigation policy in development contexts, as compared to ‘developed’ ones. There is certainly a historical and equity difference at the international policy level.   I thought perhaps that developing country politics were a little more chaotic… but the Brexit experience shows just how close chaos is in developed and developing systems alike.

Climate mitigation requires systemic transformation towards a collectively desired future. This requires connection, tolerance, respect and careful political leadership. Its not clear that the developed world is any further ahead on this than the ‘developing’. Societies like South Africa where we are extraordinarily sensitive to the former – connection, tolerance and respect – may have a lot to offer the rest of the world.  Pity though about the ‘careful political leadership’! But then this seems to be lacking everywhere…


5 thoughts on “Brexit – a complexity take

  1. Interesting, makes me wonder why participatory democracy has not evolved as quickly as the technology that could allow it. Would enable politicians to ask more of these questions and hopefully allow bigger differentiation between political parties.

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  2. Thank you for your clear and caring thinking. I am fast coming to the conclusion that the politicians of the world operate only out of hubris and, oh boy, does that get us into trouble.


  3. Yes, ‘careful political leadership’! indeed is lacking everywhere irrespective of developed or developing because that relates to the deeper human psyche that artificial marking. I believe that transformative change does occur though in a non-linear fashion as stated by complexity theory and therefore uncertainty and not-knowing are integral part of this process that can be a quite scary thing to the human mind:-(


  4. Thank you Mukesh. Yes, it does seem that one of the main areas of resistance to our appreciating and accepting complexity is the way our minds are wired, particularly those of us steeped in a Western perspective.

    The (seemingly accelerating) trend towards meditative practice seems to be one way in which we are experimenting with ways of being ‘despite’ our minds!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Emily. With my little understanding, I see complexity theory with only scientific explanation will hit a wall if it does not include ‘ways of being ‘despite’ our minds’ as you aptly put i.e. experiential ways of learning. A framework would certainly help but generalization would not work as starting point for everyone (& organizations) is different where each conscious moments are changing the course of personal and society at large with active feedback loops.

      Liked by 1 person

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