Articulating complexity

I had the opportunity of presenting to members of the WWF Policy and Futures unit recently on complexity thinking and sustainability transitions. Our discussion afterwards was fascinating, as their questions challenged my articulation of the complexity thinking soup that is simmering in me.

It seems that my problems in articulation centre around a few issues. I’ll only tackle a couple here.

First, complexity has an informal meaning, which is a shadow of its technical, academic meaning(s). The boundary between these meanings is, appropriately, contested and indistinct.

Informally, ‘complex’ is used to describe something that is technically just complicated. Or it can be used to imply something that is truly (in the full technical meanings) complex. This is confusing, as the distinction between complex and complicated is a cornerstone of formal complexity.

Often too, informal complexity is associated with an inability to act, or a reluctance to act, as in: ‘Its complex!’


Whilst this too is confusing for formal, technical complexity inquiry, it is also a very useful and acknowledged criticism of the field.  Which leads to a second articulation challenge: What does complexity imply for action?

Taking action within complexity is possible – thankfully, as most of the world is technically complex.  But it seldom relies on ‘knowing the right answer’. The social sciences, on departing from a positivist paradigm of science, battled with this same issue of action, within the muddy waters of post-modernism and constructionism. Some authors argue that generalised complexity, perhaps aligned with a critical realist philosophy of science provides a way through for these disciplines (for example Byrne, 1998). But this is an aside.

How then does an understanding of complexity support action? I would argue that this happens through two iterative aspects. First, humans are components of complex systems, and we have the ability to develop consciousness, to learn, and to reflect on our positions and practices.   By making a choice regarding how to act, we have the ability to influence the system of which we are a part in a particular way.

Secondly, if we understand the mechanisms of complex systems (feedback, non-linearity, networks etc), and the principles of complexity (such as unanticipated consequences, incompressibility, unknowability), we can learn how we can leverage our actions given their complex context.  For example, understanding the role of a highly connected hub in a complex system will mean we can focus on how change can be transmitted through this hub, rather than focusing our efforts on the whole system more generally. The implications of the complexity principles are more nuanced, but return us to ‘how’ we do what we do (Ison, 2010), as opposed to the ‘what’ we do that we have been mesmerised with for so long.

The ‘what’ is not unimportant. It is critically important, and this is an aspect of my complexity that also requires a lot more articulation work. But we have neglected the ‘how’ aspect of action which generalised complexity emphasises. To work smart in contexts of urgency such as climate mtigation, we need to catch up.

5 thoughts on “Articulating complexity

  1. Fascinating Emily.

    What I find particularly interesting at the moment is how being experimental can work in complex systems. Our positivist paradigm has lulled us into believing the possibility of predictability. And while this may be possible in general terms for whole systems (where the errors may offset each other), it’s less possible in the particular contexts where action takes place.

    So what to do? Acting experimentally, and allowing the complex systems to talk back, to give us real-time feedback, strikes me as a pragmatic response to this problem.

    The critique of this is that it doesn’t work for big investments but then other possibilities open up. Gaming instead of modelling? Broad scenarios instead of specific futures?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The concept of acting experimentally has another advantage of which I was made aware recently, that of compassion.

    Someone close to me was recently faced with a highly complex and ethically charged decision relating to how we as wealthy, white South Africans can ‘be’ towards those different to us given this country’s fraught context of inequality, poverty and racialisation.

    Given the complexity there was no clear right or wrong decision either on the specific issue she faced, as there aren’t more generally the issues we face as a society relating to how we engage each other to move forward together. There is no recourse to tried and tested ‘predictable’ courses of action from elsewhere, although there are histories which provide insights.

    So each action on a societal or personal level is an experiment, albeit experiments that can and should be guided by ethics, by knowledge of the complex system, by consciousness. Viewed as such perhaps enables us to be more compassionate towards ourselves and others if the action results in unintended (negative) consequences? Failure (of experiments) is a characteristic of a resilient complex system. Compassion stemming from an appreciation of complexity might then enable more experimentation, more action? And an abundance of experimentation and innovation and failure builds resilience in complex systems.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very helpful elucidating of your working notions, Emily. I’d like to know more about resilience in complex systems. Is resilience desirable? Are we passing a value judgement on the complex system if we say its resilience is desirable? Which leads us to…do all complex systems have an inherently positive value?


      1. ‘Resilience’, I discover, is a field all of its own, with some concepts overlapping the (itself ill-defined) complexity field. So suffice to say, my response to your questions is partial and from my complexity view. But, what I’ve come to thus far, is that yes resilience is desirable for the endurance of a complex system. Therefore are we passing a value judgement by saying the resilience of a system is desirable… I think so.
        Do all complex systems have an inherently positive value? Well, according to whom? Who determines ‘inherent’? These are questions of ontology… a particular complex system exists uniquely for the observer at a particular point in time. So I guess that means it depends who is observing, and when.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s