Connecting with complexity: Setting a foundation and raising questions

Suggesting the adoption of the complex systems perspective is a proposal often met with considerable resistance signaled by a reply often similar to: “If we think about it that way, then we will never do anything.” It is true that approaching the world as a collection of interrelated systems requires a nuanced sensitivity derived from a working literacy of what defines a complex system and how they behave. However, the understanding that the application of complex systems science to practice leads to inaction is false. Instead, theories of complex systems call for specific action resulting from practices capable of engaging with complexity. The direction complex systems provides for practice is widely applicable and has great relevance for the fields of disaster risk management and humanitarian aid.

A central assumption of the complex systems perspective is that the effects of change are difficult to anticipate, especially over longer periods of time. The effects of change refer to both intended and unintended consequences of a change intervention such as a policy, product, or service, though the latter two may not typically be regarded as such. From the perspective of an observer, what is viewed as system and environment depends on where the boundary is drawn. The external environment, which is also a system, and the system as defined by the setting of the analytical boundary, influence each other though they do not directly determine how one another behaves (Blaschke, 2008; Capra & Luisi, 2014).

Complex systems are comprised of continuously changing and nonlinear relationships between agents. Change is created among agents interacting within the system separate from and in connection with the processing of the surrounding environment. The nonlinear and plastic nature of the relationships among agents and between the system and its environment make infallible predictions regarding the effects of a change intervention unattainable. In other words, once change occurs it is impossible to predict what will follow (Axelrod & Cohen, 2000; Capra & Luisi, 2014; Cilliers, 2008; Holland, 2014).

Studying the present state of a system may seem like a sensible place to start reducing uncertainty surrounding the results of a change intervention. However, the state of the system as observed today will not be identical to its state in two days, months, or years. What is present now will not be what is present later. A more complete understanding of the system is attainable through questioning how the present state arrived as systems states viewed in the present are representative of the totality of previous ones. Through gaining an understanding of how the system’s present state has been produced it is possible to better understand what future states are probable. Studying a system’s history requires looking at what happened within the system while maintaining a keen awareness of influential external factors (Cilliers, 2008).

When changes are introduced exogenously by policies and other interventions, they are introduced into and often intended specifically for the system as it exists in its present state.  The changes rendered may be ideal for the system at present, though their fit for future states is unavoidably uncertain. Uncertainty also surrounds how the change created by the intervention will manifest itself overtime. The positive and negative effects of the intentional change desired by the intervention can never be completely known. Also evading forecasting are the positive and negative effects of the unintentional changes produced by the intervention. Unintentional effects include all outcomes associated with a change intervention that were not by design or otherwise anticipated (Axelrod & Cohen, 2000; Nelson & Stolterman, 2012).

Arising from the inability to completely forecast the future of a system and the quality and quantity of the intentional and unintentional changes caused by an intervention is the total influence it will have on the system over time. Regardless of its source, when change takes place within a system it influences the number and nature of the states it can occupy in the future and renders some states more probable than others. Thus, change affects what a system can and is likely to become. The responsibility accompanying the direction setting results of change cannot be ignored or overlooked.

The response “If we think about it that way, then we will never do anything,” presents itself as the corollary to the assumption that “the results of change cannot be predicted.” However, the corollary of the assumption that “the results of change cannot be predicted” is not that “we will never do anything,” it is that “we never know exactly what will happen when we cause change.”

As an aside, characterizing human activity inside or outside of the context of change interventions as “doing,” is to elude responsibility and accountability for the outcomes of the action that constitutes the “doing.” To mirror Fry (1999), Papanek (1984), and Simon (1996), humans are all designers. To say all humans are designers is to view the design process of purposefully establishing order that builds toward a desired end as fundamental to all human action. Coming to understand action as design is critical within change interventions. It is vitally important to recognize the developers of change interventions as designers who are beginning a process of purposefully establishing order that builds toward a desired end – they are intentionally bringing something into existence that will then act on the world in intended and unintended ways (Fry, 1999; Fry, 2012; Willis, 2006). Recognizing instigators of change as designers is to locate responsibility, reveal practice, and dissolve disciplinary boundaries.

Circling back, the applications of the assumption “the results of change are impossible to predict” and its corollary “we never know exactly what will happen when we cause change” are directional in and of themselves and best explored through the example of policy design and implementation. Policy implementation takes place within inherently complex human communities on national, regional, and local scales. As traditionally practiced policy is a process of developing a vision of what should exist and designing goals, services, programs, or incentives that will produce the vision when acted or moved towards through implementation. Simply put, policy is an ongoing design process taking place within a complex system (Christiansen & Bunt, 2014; Junginger, 2014).

From the perspective of complexity, traditional top-down policy is problematic. The problematic nature of traditional policy is largely owed to the amount of uncertainty that becomes absorbed during its design. As a vision for the future and a process for bringing into existence are designed, a considerable amount of uncertainty regarding how the policy will act on the system, its environment, and intertwined systems over the short- and long-term is absorbed within the policy itself. The uncertainty then becomes transmitted to the community it is being implemented within (March & Simon, 1993).

Due to the temporality of complex systems, positive outcomes may become negative over time as conditions within the system and environment change. What may be appropriate or present populations and environmental contingencies may be deleterious to those in the future. In respect to the nonlinearity of complex systems, the outcomes may be disproportionate to the changes made and take place at a distance from where they occurred both temporally and spatially. More to the point, the outcomes of policy are realized not by the designers but by the systems the designers were designing for. In sum, the central issues of traditional top-down policy include the absorption and transmission of uncertainty, the unavoidable influence of the policy on the system and its surrounding environment as they move into the future, and the causing of change by a party who may only indirectly experience the outcomes (Axelrod & Cohen, 2000; Scupelli, 2015).

Attempts to tunnel under the issues associated with top-down policy are plausible. For example, communicating the uncertainty absorbed by a policy to the community provides a certain level of transparency. However, still present is the role of a designer (as policymaker) determining what should exist within a population and developing a specific means to accomplish it that will inevitably change the system. Regardless of how transparent the process it entails the defining and directing of human action with uncertainty as to what will transpire – it is haphazard imperialism.

Practical solutions entail the recognition of complexity and the positioning of organizations and their processes in such a way that they can engage with it. Existing approaches including participatory design, human-centered design, and bottom-up policy provide frameworks for engaging with complexity through placing the involved community prominently within the policy design and implementation process. Depending on the level of involvement, the community becomes involved in determining what future should be pursued and the means for moving toward it. In doing so, the setting of direction and absorption of uncertainty become localized processes that the community is aware of and can make decisions about (Ehn, Nilsson, & Topgaard, 2014; Gaillard, 2010; Manzini, 2015).

Community-based strategies place practitioners in a supportive role where they act as guides or facilitators who provide assistance for the process. Through participatory processes, practitioners  introduce visions associated with alternative ways of being and allow for them to be tailored by the community. Required by practitioners is an understanding that the vision they began with may not be the same in the end. While working with community members,  practitioners mediate between the values of the policy and the community and form connections between the two where they align. Practitioners can work to reinforce and amplify the “pockets of alignment” within the community  in effort to help the policy scale.

Although introducing a vision for the future and means for creating it is softer than the imposing of them, both involve putting before a community a particular way of being that may never have been encountered or thought of otherwise. Whether introduced or imposed, the way of life brings with it an unknown amount of absorbed uncertainty that is then transferred to and assumed by the community that would otherwise not be. In the event it is discovered the policy is misdirected, harmful, or in any other way inappropriate for the community, it is important to recognize that there is no undesign – once something has been made and put out into the world it can never be fully taken out of it. While the materialization of the policy can be retracted, the influence on the system that it has already had is ineradicable.

Recognizing and working with complex systems provides an invaluable perspective for approaching policy and while it does not answer every question it offers a strong foundation. Looming in the background remains the ethical issue of being involved in the setting of direction for others. Plainly, it might be asked “who should be involved in creating visions for the future and for who?” Follow-up questions might include: “To what degree can someone who is not part of a community engage in the process of creating a vision for their future?” Raising questions regarding roles in the creation of future visions can stand firmly on the discussion of complex systems in the above and draw attention to the hazards of doing so. There is no easy answer here, though much can be gained by acknowledging what complex systems and design bring to light.

Organizations inside and outside of disaster risk management and humanitarian relief espouse missions focused on helping people around the world. To what degree and in what capacity can such organizations be involved in the setting of direction for communities is an important question that  draws attention to the role of design in the policy processes and the difficulty of working with complex systems. Escaping all issues associated with working with communities is impossible. Acknowledging the presence of complex systems is not to generate a bias for inaction, it is to emphasize the weight of action and the influence it has on the world. Practitioners who acknowledge the latter stand to gain a disposition fitting for the world they work within and a respect for their role in shaping it.


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