Embracing Complexity: towards fairness, sustainability and happiness

Complexity suggests a different approach to engaging with the world – a middle ground between control and laissez-faire.

Jean Boulton
27 July 2016

Flickr/taufuuu. Some rights reserved.

We’ve chosen the wrong science to understand the social world.

On the one hand, there is an increasing focus for public sector organizations on defining detailed rules, standardizing methods, evidencing and measuring outcomes. The intention is to make the hospital or school work as an efficient, optimized, well-oiled machine. The belief is that if we tell people exactly what to do and check they do it exactly, then standards and efficiency will improve.

On the other hand, when it comes to commerce and the private sector, there is almost the opposite – increasing deregulation and laissez-faire driven by a strong belief in the invisible hand of the market and in the power of competition to lead to optimal outcomes. The economic world is still largely modelled as if it worked predictably and controllably, moving inexorably towards equilibrium.

What is remarkable is that these beliefs seem to harden and become ever-more entrenched despite the repeating crises facing our economies, ecologies, and societies. They persist in spite of the stark and often completely unexpected social eruptions and political crises that dominate the news. They persist even in the light of increasing evidence that policies are failing. For example, the UK - despite continuing focus on ‘machine thinking’ (defining detailed teaching methods and lesson plans, detailed measuring of performance of schools, teachers and pupils) – is near the bottom of 24 countries in relation to literacy and numeracy. And, despite neo-liberal free market policies and the promise of ‘trickle down’, inequality continues to rise; the UK is 28th out of 34 OECD countries in relation to income inequality and bottom of 37 countries in relation to difference in healthy eating between rich and poor children. If ever there was a need for fresh thinking, we are seeing it now. Yet most of the solutions that are attempted consist in propping up the status quo, doing more of the same, rather than thinking afresh and questioning underlying assumptions.

What is less obvious perhaps, is that each policy stance gains its legitimacy from theories of physics – Newtonian, machine thinking for the management of the public sector and equilibrium thermodynamics for economists. The question of the validity of attributing such scientific theories to the social world has long been questioned. In a world that is increasingly complex, turbulent and global, we need to seek new paradigms and perspectives.

Complexity science is the science of open systems; open systems, such as organizations or economies, interact and are affected by the wider world. Indeed, their essential qualities emerge as a result of interacting with the world around them. Traditional physics theories, in contrast, gain their traction through acting as if systems are closed and self-contained. The physics of open systems shows how, like in evolution, new forms can emerge. Complex systems display the following behaviours:

Systemic: the different aspects of the system interact systemically and synergistically – that is, we cannot understand outcomes by reducing things to independent building blocks as we could in analysing a machine. It is the mutually reinforcing or antagonistic interactions between differing aspects that contribute to outcomes.

Path dependent: the detail matters; each situation is unique and depends on history and on the particular nature of the context – its geography, the importance of particular people and events, and the order in which things happen.

Episodic: change is not smooth and linear, but happens in ‘fits and starts’; sometimes there is little to see for our efforts, at other times, things change rapidly and/or radically.

Emergent: when things ‘tip’ into new eras new features emerge which could not have been predicted.

Complexity suggests a different approach to engaging with the world – a middle ground between control and laissez-faire. It is interesting to note that one thing in which the UK scores highly is its hospices, which are the most highly rated hospices out of 80 countries. Hospices, generally, are held strongly within communities; they can respond to the particularities of the local context – its particular social and cultural make up – and provide customised services and approaches that harmonise with local needs and take account of the wishes and needs of individuals and their families. Such an approach – contextualised, adaptive, connected to the wider context and yet held within principles and intentions of care – is very in tune with the implications of ‘embracing’ the implications of complexity theory. If we see the world as ‘complex’ – that is systemic, path dependent, episodic and emergent – how does this challenge economic policy?

First, the emphasis on the essential interdependence of what is there puts paid to any notion of Economic Man or to an economics independent of political, social and environmental concerns. It points to the need for both-and rather than either-or thinking. In either-or thinking, it seems that short-term economic arguments almost invariably win. Tousling explicitly with the long-term view together with more immediate concerns, thinking through social and environmental outcomes together with economic and political concerns, can lead to more effective ‘win-win’ solutions. The ‘method’ mirrors the systemic nature of the ‘medium’.

Second, complexity theory, with its recognition of positive feedback loops (increasing returns) and its rejection of assumptions of equilibrium, shows that ‘free markets’ almost inevitably widen inequality, and ‘lock in’ power in the hands of the winners. The powerless, the environment and the longer term are doomed to be ‘market failures’. As many are pointing out, free markets are only ‘free’ for the elite.

Complexity theory underlines that there needs to be a counter to this inevitable slide into inequality – forms of regulation, governance and protection. How to do this on an increasingly global stage with an increasingly globalised private sector is not a straightforward question. How can social movements and pro-citizen institutions such as NGOs and labour and human rights organisations play a stronger pro-citizen role? How can the state provide a legal and fiscal and regulatory framework that emphasises fairness and equality? Should essential services – education, public transport, utilities, health and social care – be strengthened and protected? If the rich ceased to get so much richer, if ‘rents’ from essential public services remained in public hands, would we need to subject the poor to policies of austerity? 

If our society is a complex system, then the ‘ingredients’ we put into it are the raw materials from which the future is shaped. Each unique wave on the ocean is created by the coming together of the swell (resulting sometimes from storms that happened days before and thousands of miles away), the tide, and the smaller waves and ripples resulting from by the wind and by passing ships. In the same way, in the social world, each action and intention and decision plays its part in co-creating what emerges and what becomes embedded. If the future is not predictable, then we can never be certain where our actions and decisions will lead. To quote Aldous Huxley: ‘But the nature of the universe is such that the ends never justify the means. On the contrary, the means always determine the end.’ So, if we wish to create the conditions for equality, fairness and sustainability, then we will need to act in accordance with such values – both as socio-political economists and as citizens.

Complexity theory supports subsidiarity. Be as small as you can... but not smaller. Being able to respond to local situations systemically, within shared (and woven) values and intentions, can often take advantage of local resources, and local enthusiasms and achieve more with less and in a way that is sensitive to the particularities of context. It can allow customisation, adaptation, and direct response to what emerges, and support systemic, joined up actions and decision-making. It can restore social meaning and belonging and happiness. But, such empowerment of local communities and local government cannot plan national transport infrastructure or negotiate human rights laws or trade agreements. This notion of ‘appropriate scale’ of ‘nested systems’ is very much part of complexity thinking.

What is easy to miss is that ‘embracing complexity’ can actually make things easier, simpler, and more straightforward. If the world is complex, then acting congruently with that complexity can be simpler and more effective than trying to control a machine that does not exist.


This contribution was part of the Beyond the Zombie Economy conference hosted by the Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London, and funded by the ESRC, for more details visit

Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series with Goldsmiths.

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