‘The future is a dance between patterns and events’ Embracing Complexity
‘We will cross the river by feeling the stones under our feet, one by one’ Deng Xiaoping’s recipe for China’s take off
Political and economic earthquakes are often sudden and unforeseeable, despite the false pundits who pop up later to claim they predicted them all along. Take the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis or the Arab Spring (and ensuing winter). Even at a personal level, change is largely unpredictable: How many of us can say our lives have gone according to the plans we had as 16-year-olds?
The essential mystery of the future poses a huge challenge to activists. If change is only explicable in the rear-view mirror, how can we accurately envision the future changes we seek, let alone achieve them? How can we be sure our proposals will make things better, and not fall victim to unintended consequences? People employ many concepts to grapple with such questions. I find ‘systems’ and ‘complexity’ two of the most helpful.
A ‘system’ is an interconnected set of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.
A defining property of human systems is complexity: because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets..
In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse and apparently unrelated factors. Those of us engaged in seeking change need to identify which elements are
 Jean Boulton, Peter Allen and Cliff Bowman, Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 29.
 Arthur Sweetman and Jun Zhang, Economic transitions with Chinese characteristics, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009), p. 1
 D. Meadows and D.H. Wright, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)
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