Fifteen characteristics of complex social systems

By Hamilton Carvalho

Author - Hamilton Carvalho
Hamilton Carvalho (biography)

What is it about complex social systems that keeps reproducing old problems, as well as adding new ones? How can public policy move away from what I call the Mencken Syndrome (in reference to a quotation from American journalist Henry Mencken) – that is, continually proposing clear and simple solutions to complex social problems – that are also wrong!

With this goal in mind, I have compiled a list of fifteen major characteristics of complex social systems based on the system dynamics and complexity sciences literatures, as well as my own research.

Read moreFifteen characteristics of complex social systems

Accountability and adapting to surprises

By Patricia Hirl Longstaff

Image of Patricia Hirl Longstaff
Patricia Hirl Longstaff (biography)

We have all been there: something bad happens and somebody (maybe an innocent somebody) has their career ruined in order to prove that the problem has been fixed. When is blame appropriate? When is the blame game not only the wrong response, but damaging for long-term decision making?

In a complex and adapting world, errors and failure are not avoidable. The challenges decision-makers and organizations face are sometimes predictable but sometimes brand new. Adapting to surprises requires more flexibility, fewer unbreakable rules, more improvisation and deductive tinkering, and a lot more information about what’s going right and going wrong. But getting there is not easy because this challenges some very closely held assumptions about how the world works and our desire to control things.

Read moreAccountability and adapting to surprises

Four patterns of thought for effective group decisions

By George P. Richardson and David F. Andersen

George Richardson
George P. Richardson (biography)

What can you do if you are in a group that is trying to deal with problems that are developing over time, where:

  • root causes of the dynamics aren’t clear;
  • different stakeholders have different perceptions;
  • past solutions haven’t worked;
  • solutions must take into account how the system will respond; and,
  • implementing change will require aligning powerful stakeholders around policies that they agree have the highest likelihood of long-term success?

Read moreFour patterns of thought for effective group decisions

Managing deep uncertainty: Exploratory modeling, adaptive plans and joint sense making

By Jan Kwakkel

jan-kwakkel
Jan Kwakkel (biography)

How can decision making on complex systems come to grips with irreducible, or deep, uncertainty? Such uncertainty has three sources:

  1. Intrinsic limits to predictability in complex systems.
  2. A variety of stakeholders with different perspectives on what the system is and what problem needs to be solved.
  3. Complex systems are generally subject to dynamic change, and can never be completely understood.

Deep uncertainty means that the various parties to a decision do not know or cannot agree on how the system works, how likely various possible future states of the world are, and how important the various outcomes of interest are.

Read moreManaging deep uncertainty: Exploratory modeling, adaptive plans and joint sense making

Scaling up amidst complexity

By Ann Larson

ann-larson
Ann Larson (biography)

How can new or under-utilized healthcare practices be expanded and institutionalized to achieve audacious and diverse global health outcomes, ranging from eliminating polio to reversing the rise in non-communicable diseases? How can complex adaptive systems with diverse components and actors interacting in multiple ways with each other and the external environment best be dealt with? What makes for an effective scale-up effort?

Four in-depth case studies of scale-up efforts were used to explore if there were different pathways to positively change a complex adaptive system.

Read moreScaling up amidst complexity

Complexity and agent-based modelling

By Richard Taylor and John Forrester

richard-taylor
Richard Taylor (biography)

Policy problems are complex and – while sometimes simple solutions can work – complexity tools and complexity thinking have a major part to play in planning effective policy responses. What is ‘complexity’ and what does ‘complexity science’ do? How can agent-based modelling help address the complexity of environment and development policy issues?

Complexity

At the most obvious level, one can take complexity to mean all systems that are not simple, by which we mean that they can be influenced but not controlled. Complexity can be examined through complexity science and complex system models.

Read moreComplexity and agent-based modelling

Model complexity – What is the right amount?

By Pete Loucks

p-loucks
Pete Loucks (biography)

How does a modeler know the ’optimal’ level of complexity needed in a model when those desiring to gain insights from the use of such a model aren’t sure what information they will eventually need? In other words, what level of model complexity is needed to do a job when the information needs of that job are uncertain and changing?

Read moreModel complexity – What is the right amount?