A piece in yesterday’s New Scientist titled ‘Can Complexity Theory Explain Egypt’s Crisis?’ explores ideas of complexity in the context of the ongoing events in Egypt. It draws on the insights of two noted complexity thinkers – Yaneer Bar-Yam and Thomas Homer-Dixon. Excerpts are reproduced below with permission:

Egyptians are the world’s biggest wheat importers and consumers, and most are poor. As a result, the government maintains order with heavy subsidies for bread. It also runs the ports where imported wheat arrives, the trucks that haul it, the flour mills and bakeries…

[Such systems] are fine so long as the top of the hierarchy is in place, and can recover quickly. But take the top away – as is happening in Egypt – and the entire system risks collapse.

The early signs of this are showing. Bread is getting scarce in Egypt’s capital, Cairo. Bakeries are closing for lack of flour… Imported wheat is sitting in ports as cranes and lorries stand idle. The interlocking dependencies that tie modern economies together spread dislocation further. Even where there is food,  Egyptians have little money to buy it, as businesses and banks close, cash machines empty and wages dry up…

…The stresses of decades of dictatorship might have turned the entire Middle East into a “self-organised critical system”… The build-up of stresses makes such systems vulnerable to cascades of change triggered by relatively small disruptions…

The key argument of the article is that a hierarchical system (like the Egyptian government) facing a dynamic and interconnected problem is – in the extreme – prone to catastrophic collapse.

Regular Aid on the Edge of Chaos readers will know that this resonates strongly with previous reflections on this blog. The growing interconnectedness between finance, fuel and food systems was the focus of a recent piece exploring the ‘Globalisation of Vulnerability’. The maladaptive nature of organisational and governance systems in the face of change have also been covered on numerous occasions, including in a piece on ‘History on the Edge of Chaos’.

However, there is another vital dimension to complex adaptive systems that does not get sufficient coverage in the New Scientist piece. The author does briefly acknowledge that there are two sides to complex interdependencies: as well as collapse, they can also generate cascading change. (For an example, see the lessons from the Obama Presidential Campaign as recounted by veteran civil rights activist Marshall Ganz.) But the article misses out on the opportunity to reflect on the remarkable efforts of the anti-government protestors across Egypt through a complexity lens.

Without a doubt the most astonishing feature of the unfolding events in Egypt has been the leaderless, self-organised, networked movement that emerged and managed to maintain a peaceful and resilient presence – despite the efforts of the pro-Mubarak contingents.

As well as insights into collapse, complexity science can tell us something about how such movements happen, and give insights into the dynamic social processes that play out. It can tell us something about resilience in the face of oppression. It gives insights into the information and communication networks that feed and shape a movement. The ideas of complex adaptive systems can help us learn more about emergent collective action, and – through this – about how beliefs are reinforced, about how passion is shared and about how courage builds.

And – as we have seen repeatedly since January 25th – cascading, unpredictable change can have a profoundly human face.

Complexity science does more just than provide new ways to theorise descent, freefall and collapse. It can also help further our understanding of what human beings are capable of achieving. As Thomas Homer-Dixon, mentioned above, put it in the title of his book: there is an Upside to Down.

Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. The up side that Homer-Dixon talks about in the book (The Upside of Down) has a limited range. If the collapse is only partial, disrupting what is currently (if ineffectively) in place, than catagenesis can occur – creative destruction leading to overall gains.

    The system comes partly unraveled, just enough so that the historic regime cannot exist as it has in the past but not so much that all of the resources (people, money, infrastructure) are fully dissipated. If they are reduced too far, it evolves into a collapse where the new settling point is far below what was there prior (Easter Island, Mayans, cod stocks, etc.).

    I like to think of it like this: A plow breaks up the soil, disrupts it enough to allow seeds, oxygen, water, nutrients to find new spaces and places. But if the plowing is a precursor to drought, then that act of plowing may begin a loosening of the soil leading to further loosening by drying winds that result in the soil being blown away by the wind. When that happens, there can be an actual loss of farmland.

    The new equilibrium in Egypt’s situation remains unclear, though you very rightly point out that there is real hopefulness in the self-organization of an alternative that appears to be happening. Perhaps a question to entertain further discussion around is this: Has Egypt’s regime unraveled to the point where it cannot be resumed, where an exchange of tyrannies will not be the final outcome of the current deep turbulence?

    Catagenesis is a process which existing powers fight with the energy of desperation. I sincerely hope that Egypt has passed that dangerous threshold but if it hasn’t, the ravages of the current storm may deepen somewhere ahead.

    That’s a great photo. Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

  2. Dear Milton,

    Thank you for the fantastic reply – a really good addition to the post, and a great metaphor too.


  3. Exciting to see the complexity theory applied to the situation in Egypt.

    Adding on what Ben has said about the self-organizing character of the movement. The strength of the movement is its self-organising character which has also been possible through new social media like facebook and twitter. The fact, however, that no leadership or representation structure is actually in place in the movement also makes it very vulnerable itself. In the end what counts are the rules of the game that are used at the negotiation table. And, currently there seems to be an increasing discrepancy between the core anti-gov movement at the Tahrir square and the opposition parties talking in the presidential palace. I would not be surprised if the movement would be played out against itself and more hierarchy-oriented elements in the movement gain prominence.

    A remark on social media, stressing the down side, which I heard yesterday on the radio. Facebook and twitter are a fabulous archive for dictatorial reqimes to map out the social networks that form potential threats.

    Looking forward to new posts on this extremely relevant topic.


  4. There is an article in Slate Magazine that may also be of interest. Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam is also quoted there. It focuses on the problem of centralized control in the cluster system of aid used in Haiti.

    Here is the link:

    Warm wishes,

  5. I couldn’t agree more! In fact, I came to the same conclusion as you did, on pretty much the same day. Wrote a blog post on Feb 4 (see below for link) that makes the same point you make here: that what we seem to be seeing in Egypt is self-organization on a population-wide scale. Will be very interesting to see what the future holds for this area of the world…not to mention for the rest of us.



Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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.


Campaigns, Financial crisis, Leadership, Networks, Resilience, Self organisation