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.