Taking action from complexity within a classical thinking world

On Monday last week I joined with a group from Sustainable Energy Africa, a non-profit promoting equitable, low carbon, clean energy development in urban South Africa and Africa, for a lunchtime seminar to explore complex systems thinking for climate mitigation endeavors at the municipal level.

Having presented what I hoped was relevant and accessible aspects of complex systems theory, I sat back to encounter what emerged – as theory met the experience of practitioners deeply engaged with sustainable energy issues at the local level in a development context.

The first input, which came the form of a question, was reiterated throughout the remainder of the discussion: So what do we do?? How can we act if nothing is certain, if there is no way of predicting the outcomes of our action?  How can there be no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to use as a guide? For example, what would complexity thinking say about the City of Cape Town acting to take the National Department of Energy to court over the right to purchase renewable energy?

‘I find this depressing’, commented a participant.

Another responded with a poem, “Gift”, by Leonard Cohen:

leonard cohen

“You tell me that silence is nearer to peace than poems

But if for my gift I brought you silence  (for I know silence) 

you would say 

this is not silence 

this is another poem 

and you would hand it back to me.”

For me, complexity thinking speaks of action literally from another world(view). And as such, the extent to which we are able to receive and embrace a complexity understanding of action mirrors the extent to which we inhabit the currently dominant worldview: the rational, linear, reductionist worldview of classical science. The worldview that aims to predict and control.

From complexity, we act whether we ‘do something’ or not. How we act, or perhaps how we ‘be’ may be the more pertinent consideration. Should the City take the DOE to court? Who knows? Many have particular perspectives and opinions on this. Whatever the City does do, a complexity view would advise checking in with a full range of knowledges and perspectives to complexify its understanding of the possible systemic responses first, and then consider these against the City’s objectives: low carbon electricity, independence, security of supply and also equality, poverty alleviation, social justice. After taking action (or acting by not acting) the City can, and should, then immediately reassess: What happened? Where are we now? Do we continue? Do we change course? This is done by checking in again against a complex systemic understanding, complex objectives and the response of the complex system. And then the City acts, or non-acts, again. And on it goes.  The system does the changing. We can, possibly, nudge it in a particular direction.

Thereby the acting and the being become one and the same in a complexity view. And the smallest action (or non-action) can, again ‘possibly’, tip the entire system.

From the SEA interaction, I came away with a deeper sense of action in complexity, and also of how hard it is for all of us schooled in the dominant worldview of classical science to accept the form of action complexity offers.


One thought on “Taking action from complexity within a classical thinking world

  1. Leaving the safety of trust in what we know is scary. Staying in our place of false confidence is dangerous and delusional! Thank you for raising these conversations so we can start the journey.

    Liked by 1 person

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