The argument that modern organisations have to deal with complexity on a daily basis is fast becoming one of the least controversial statements any analyst, policy maker or practitioner can make. But what this actually means in practice is up for debate.

Some suggest that there is little or no rigour in statements such as ‘the world is increasingly complex’, and that beneath such arguments there is little but smoke and mirrors. See for example a recent blog which rips into the 2010 IBM CEO survey (highlighted here last month) for being based solely on perceptions rather than ‘anything real’.

Others say that we live in a qualitatively different world to previous eras, one marked by increasing interconnectedness and interdependence – economically, socially, politically, environmentally and technologically. In such an interdependent world, the argument goes, there is greater unpredictability and uncertainty. In the extreme, standard operating procedures, best practices and grand designs can be irrelevant, counterproductive or downright damaging.

Among this second group there is growing attention being paid to the the ideas of the complexity sciences,  to tap into their apparent potential to help think about an increasingly challenging world, and maybe even  better deal with its problems.

The last few weeks have seen some interesting blogs and articles that look at different crisis contexts – from global crises to humanitarian disasters and fragile states.

First, on global crises. Of special interest is the role of complexity sciences to help understand and navigate recent interwoven global crises – notably the so-called ‘Triple F’ crises of food, fuel and finance ( a previous Aid on the Edge of Chaos post highlights how Andy Haldane, a Bank of England director, used complexity science for exactly this purpose).

Lord Julian Hunt, former CEO of the UK Met Office, argues in a Reuters Blog that the rapid growth of global inter-connected problems have led to new kinds of collaborations between scientists, policymakers and the private sector. He sees “particular emphasis is being paid to global system dynamics” to inform policy making, research and practice.

Recent applications include using the ideas of complexity to understand how such crises emerge and are propagated; how individuals and organisations adapt to such crises; the resource implications of such crises; and the implications for sustainable development efforts.

Elsewhere, in an excellent post that is highly relevant to the ongoing Pakistan appeal and response, Wanderlust draws on Dave Snowden’s work on the Cynefin framework to illustrate how aid responses to humanitarian disasters are poorly matched to crises contexts:

When aid gets talked about in the public sphere, it’s generally messaged very simply in the media. Children are starving. They need food. An X-Y relationship. Ditto following an earthquake: houses are destroyed and people are in the rain: Give them tents. A Simple paradigm… When aid agencies manage their response programs, they create complicated management systems that involve careful analysis of all the factors, putting them into project documents with LogFrame Analysis that looks at cause and effect and all the possible links along the way that need to be managed. An X—Y relationship. A Complicated paradigm- certainly not Simple. However the realities of aid responses are neither Simple nor Complicated. At best, if you take a stable long-term chronic emergency like the situation in Darfur, it is fraught with feedback loops and vague inter-relations where cause and effect are highly flexible and interdependant. In Darfur there are more than two dozen armed groups operating, with their areas of control shifting on a weekly basis. When one gains strength, others weaken. They have their foundations in specific community and ethnic groups with long historical relationships. The drivers for the conflict are primarily natural resources, but there are also ethnic, political and other economic implications as well. By providing aid to one group you inadvertantly exclude or depower another, and emotions such as resentment or loyalty then shift that landscape. I could go on for pages describing the Complexity of Darfur. We can understand bits and pieces about it, and trace some of the loops and mechanisms in the systems, but we’ll probably never manage to map it in its entirety, and there will always be things outside our control – from human behaviour to the climate.

Last but not least, Foreign Policy in Focus draws on complexity principles to suggest what might really be done about Somalia, perhaps the archetypal ‘fragile state’. As is eloquently argued there:

Now that the violence of Somalia has spilled over into Uganda, western policymakers and pundits are suddenly all aflutter with the urge to ‘do something’. Exactly what that something might be is uncertain. Drone attacks, special forces, a Gaza-like blockade and even a full scale invasion have been suggested.

All of those are truly terrible ideas – and exactly the kind of legacy thinking that caused the US to hug the tar baby of IrAfPak. At best, they will generate yet another failure / quagmire, and expand the ever growing pool of pissed off people who want to car bomb Times Square. At worst, they could invite a ‘fifth column’ type of resistance on the part of the Somali diaspora and sympathizers, spreading conflict across the region and beyond. (Somewhere between 40% and 50% of ethnic Somalis live outside the country.)

Instead of pursuing the same old failed policies, the way to resolve intractable problems is to expand the ‘solution space’ – the range of available options. Solution space is determined by the perspectives – which we might also call beliefs, paradigms or ‘mental models’ – of the players involved. Because we can only act on ideas that get through our political / cultural / personal filters, the way to achieve breakthrough is to broaden our perspectives in order to see a wider range of possibilities…”

Each of these articles is challenging, thought-provoking and well worth a read. Each presents the limitations of existing approaches to analysis, policy and the subsequent actions taken by international organisations. Each attempts to present alternatives to what they view as outmoded ways of working, drawing on complexity principles.

Take Hunt’s argument that complexity science approaches can help us develop appropriate regulation of computerised financial markets. Or Wanderlust’s suggestions that a field managers’ gut instinct can prove as useful in chaotic disaster settings as a 3 week research study conducted by experts. Or the FPIF notion that imposing government structures in Somalia will be far less effective than acknowledging and working with existing governance processes, even if the government in place is disagreeable to Western sensibilities.

Perhaps the biggest challenges to the wider take-up of such complexity-inspired suggestions is that, if they stay both sensible and true to the principles of complexity, they tend not to provide recipes which can be followed. Rather, complexity theory

  • provides a set of lenses with which to look at the world,
  • helps pose questions which can help better understand the dynamics of real world systems, and
  • helps generate insights as to how these dynamics can be ‘sensed’ and ‘navigated’

Despite this, complexity sciences are all too often judged by the same set of values and mindsets inherent to existing mechanistic and top-down ways of working. All too often people seem to want to get something for nothing from the ideas of complexity – they in effect want to see complexity applied in ways that ‘tell us what to do’. For those looking to replace mechanistic recipes with complexity-inspired recipes, disappointment is inevitable.

As Cynthia Kurtz, one of the co-developers of Cynefin, recently wrote in a wonderful essay:

Emergence requires presence. It requires awareness, negotiation, the building and verification of trust, the mending of fences when they need to be mended and the removal of barriers when they obstruct. Most people do emergence well, but rarely without effort. If it is without effort, it is more likely to involve following instructions, not participating in emergence.

Perhaps this imposition of old attitudes onto new approaches is inevitable. But it is not irredeemable. As Albert Einstein has suggested: “we can’t solve problems by applying the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Where to start then? However huge the political and institutional challenges may seem, there may be as many blockages and biases at the level of individual personal preferences. To close on another classic quote, this time from Tolstoy: “everyone seeks to change the world, no-one seeks to change themselves”.

Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. […] second and more recent posting, “Complexity, crises and moving beyond recipes“, is about complexity in development. To quote from the posting directly “The argument […]

  2. Thanks for a very interesting post.

    I’ve been working on a discussion paper recently that draws on complexity, adaptive leadership and social network theory. Jeff Goldstein and Rodrigo Zeidan have a great chapter in “Complexity Science and Social Entrepreneurship” that explores how such insights might yield more effective urban poverty reduction thinking and practice.

    Using social network approaches as another aspect of how complexity research can be applied appears rather fruitful.

    In short, they argue that the social networks of poverty stricken areas are mostly curved inward with few weak links to external possibilities. With insufficient bridging institutions that can foster greater connection with the rest of the city, it becomes very difficult for people to move away from their status quo even if money is poured into the problem area – it can’t be absorbed or used in ways that improve their long-term conditions.

    Social networks that reflect a core/periphery network shape are much more robust, vital and effective. When everyone in your network knows everyone else and few outside of it, you become more vulnerable and much less able to adjust to change.

    Foreign aid has similar dynamics where help doesn’t really help, possibly because other structural aspects of the problems faced aren’t always in view.

    Thanks for fueling further reflection.

  3. […] Cynefin, aid, development. I first heard about Cynefin when reading @morealtitude’s post ’Embracing the chaotic: Cynefin and humanitarian response‘. Cynefin draws the world’s systems into four paradigms:  Simple, Complicated, Complex or Chaotic. Each paradigm has its own characteristics, and systems can shift from one paradigm to another. Not new, as the concept is at least 10 years old… but I love the connection between these paradigms, development/humanitarian aid work, and the way that organizations market themselves. Another good resource on complexity theories in aid and development is Aid on the Edge. […]

  4. […] theory as providing “a set of lenses with which to look at the world” (in the words of Ben Ramalingam at Aid on the Edge of Chaos). The world hasn’t changed. We […]

  5. […] argued in a previous aid on the edge of chaos post, the biggest challenges to the wider take-up of such complexity-inspired suggestions is that, if […]


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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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

About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Chaos, Conflict and peace building, Financial crisis, Innovation, Institutions, Leadership, Natural disasters, Networks, Organisations, Public Policy, Self organisation