Many of the grand challenges that confront humanity—problems as diverse as climate change, the stability of markets, the availability of energy and resources, poverty and conflict—often seem to entail impenetrable webs of cause and effect.But these problems are not necessarily impenetrable. Powerful new tools have given scientists a better understanding of complexity. Instead of looking at a system in isolation, complexity scientists step back and look at how the many parts interact to form a coherent whole.

Rather than looking at a particular species of fish, for example, they look at how fish interact with other species in its ecosystem. Rather than looking at a financial instrument, they look at how the instrument interacts in the larger scheme of global markets. Rather than think about poverty, they might look at how income relates to conflict, politics and the availability of water. Whatever the object of study happens to be, complexity scientists assemble data, search for patterns and regularities, and build models to understand the dynamics and organization of the system. They step back from the parts and look at the whole.

This kind of thinking is a major departure from traditional science. For centuries, scientists have worked by reducing the object of study down to its constituent components. Complexity science, by contrast, provides a complementary perspective by seeking to understand systems as interacting elements that form, change, and evolve over time.The multiplicity of ideas, concepts, techniques and approaches embodied by the science of complexity can be applied to people, organizations and society as a whole, from economies and companies to epidemics and the environment.

The aim of this paper is to raise awareness about this new science and its ability to bring clarity and insight to many of the complex problems the world faces today.

This is from a new short (8 page) paper from the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Complex Systems.

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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.


Communications, Conflict and peace building, Economics, Evolution, Financial crisis, Innovation, Networks, Public Policy, Reports and Studies, Research