Following on from the recent UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS) workshop on complexity science and international development, I shared some thoughts on the day and the ways forward. This is a cross-post from the UKCDS website.

Last month the UK Collaborative for Development Sciences held a workshop to explore the potential of complexity science for international development. ‘Complexity science’, an area of growing interest for the aid sector, is an umbrella term for a range of tools and methods that focuses on a systemic understanding of interconnected problems, on the dynamic and nonlinear nature of change, and on the adaptive, self-organising behaviours of individuals and groups.

One of the key goals of the UKCDS workshop was to identify areas where such ideas may be of concrete value for the development research agenda. This area is of growing relevance as policymakers and practitioners seek out new ways of making sense of a turbulent world. Although there have been some useful theoretical and conceptual advances, and a steadily growing number of studies, there has been a lack of resources for sustained efforts to bring these ideas to bear on specific development and humanitarian issues.

Speakers came from a range of different disciplinary backgrounds, and focused on different issues:

  • Eric Beinhocker of Mckinsey talked about the evolutionary nature of economies, and how growth can be better explained through ‘complexity economic’ than traditional neoclassical economics. (click here for presentation)
  • Yasmin Merali and James Porter of Warwick University Complexity Centre discussed methodological approaches to complexity, and some of the challenges of bringing these ideas to bear in situations of cultural diversity. (click here for presentation)
  • Melissa Leach talked about the work she and her colleagues led at the STEPS Centre at the UoS, and in particular how different conceptions of risk can be established through a complexity lens. (click here for presentation)
  • Danny Burns of IDS talked about the use of systemic action research to explore interconnections between social, ecological and economic systems in different parts of Africa – in particular how health and education – need to be understood through a systemic lens in order to be able to develop appropriate interventions.

There were some common threads through all of the presentations, namely that the ideas and concepts of complexity science do have considerable potential relevance for development work. Areas highlighted as worthy of further exploration included economic growth, innovation, institutional change, sustainability, implementation and networks.

There were also some common caveats. Complexity sciences should not be seen as a new ‘flashy’ technical approach to developing the right answer – instead, it should be seen as vital that this agenda is taken forward in a way that acknowledges and respects diversity of perspectives, cultures and opinions, especially across the so-called ‘North-South divide’.

Intriguing suggestions came up from the group discussions about a future research agenda. Key points included:

  • the need to use clear and jargon-free language and not drown audiences in complexity jargon
  • the need to identify some clear case studies of how complexity science ideas have been applied in practice
  • the need for resources for basic research in this area, especially in those areas where there is sufficient data
  • the need to analyse the institutional resistance to systemic approaches.

The key will be to ensure that this work moves ahead in a concerted fashion, and with due regard for the principles at the heart of this work. While this won’t be a ‘quick win’, the meeting closed with a real sense of energy and enthusiasm. Watch this space for more developments.”

For further information on the workshop, download the Workshop Note (PDF 206KB).

Join the conversation! 2 Comments


    1 “the need to use clear and jargon-free language and not drown audiences in complexity jargon”

    To this, please add “stop using terms from the field of mathematical complexity in a sloppy and imprecise way.” For instance, because the MENA politics is “turbulent” in newspaper headlines does not mean it is “complex” as defined by the mathematics of complexity.

    2 “the need to identify some clear case studies of how complexity science ideas have been applied in practice”

    To this, please add “stop making claims for the importance and relevance of complexity science to development, when so far the proponents have not provided a smidgen of evidence or case study that this is so.

    3 “the need for resources for basic research in this area, especially in those areas where there is sufficient data”

    And examine whether — given the huge disparity in data possibilities between physical, economic and life sciences on the one side, and development realities on the other — there will ever be sufficient and precise-enough data to show that complexity is at work in development, at all.

    4 “the need to analyse the institutional resistance to systemic approaches”

    And examine whether this resistance might NOT be a resistance to systemic approaches (“systemic” and “complex” are not the same), but rather a general antipathy to 1, 2 and 3 above, which we might relabel:

    1 Hand-waving and generalisations
    2 Theories without empirical evidence, and yet another development nostrum
    3 Approaches to development that are historically blind (i.e. if “complexity science” is not what drives development in our own countries: why are we foisting it on the poor?)

  2. […] researches and writes on the implications of complexity science for  climate change and international development. He quotes approvingly from – and summarises – a piercing analysis by  Philip […]


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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.


Knowledge and learning, Meetings, Reports and Studies