A Brief History of Systems Science, Chaos and Complexity

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By Daniel Wahl

Since the beginning in the 1950s, when people like Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Kenneth Boulding developed the field of ‘General Systems Theory’ and Norbert Wiener, Gregory Bateson and others developed the field of ‘Cybernetics’, and Jay Forrester developed ‘systems dynamics’ there have been many attempts to break free from the reductionist paradigm and develop a more holistic and systemic understanding of the complexity of the world we live in.

Early systems thinkers were still ultimately aiming to improve their ability to better predict and control the system in question. The introduction of insights from chaos theory and non-liner mathematics into systems science sparked the development of complexity theory.

Interconnectedness, unpredictability, and uncontrolability are key characteristics of all complex dynamic systems. In dealing with complexity rather than mechanisms, the aim of science shifts from improving our ability to predict and control to aiming to better understand the dynamics and relationships of the systems we participate in so that our participation can be more appropriate.

“Complexity theory is becoming a science that recognizes and celebrates the creativity of nature. Now that’s pretty extraordinary, because it opens the door to a new way of seeing the world, recognizing that these complex dynamic systems are sensitive to initial conditions and have emergent properties. We have to learn to walk carefully in relation to these complex systems on which the quality of our lives depends, from microbial ecosystems to the biosphere, because we influence them although we cannot control them. This knowledge is new to our western scientific mentality…”.

Brian Goodwin (et al., 2001, p.27).

The sciences of complexity are a variety of process-oriented areas of research exploring non-linear dynamics within complex systems. The simplest definition for a complex system is any system with more than three interacting variables. Complexity is thus a common feature of the world we inhabit.

When we speak about chaos theory it is important to understand that chaos does not refer to a state of absolutely incoherent disorder, rather “the scientific term chaos refers to an underlying interconnectedness that exists in apparently random events.” Briggs and Peat explain: “Chaos science focuses on hidden patterns, nuance, the sensitivity of things, and the rules for how the unpredictable leads to the new”(Briggs & Peat, 1999, p.2).

Chaos theory provides a radically different framework for studying complex dynamics. It highlights the limitations that are inherent in a reductionistic and mechanistic — linear cause and effect based — analysis of complex systems.

“Chaos theory teaches us that we are always a part of the problem and that particular tension and dislocation always unfold from the entire system rather than from some defective “part.” Envisioning an issue as a purely mechanical problem to be solved may bring temporary relief of symptoms, but chaos suggests that in the long run it could be more effective to look at the overall context in which a particular problems manifest itself.”

— Briggs & Peat (1999, pp.160–161)

In Seven Life Lessons of CHAOS, John Briggs and F. David Peat unfold seven lessons for embracing some of the deeper insights of chaos theory in our daily lives:

 

  • Be Creative: engage with chaos to find imaginative new solutions and live more dynamically.
  • Use Butterfly Power: let chaos grow local efforts into global results
  • Go with the Flow: use chaos to work collectively with others
  • Explore What’s Between: discover life’s rich subtleties and avoid the traps of stereotypes
  • See the Art of the World: appreciate the beauty of life’s chaos
  • Live Within Time: utilize time’s hidden depths
  • Rejoin the Whole: realize our fractal connectedness to each other and the world.

 

In my 2006 PhD thesis I wrote a chapter on ‘Understanding Complexity: A Prerequisite for Sustainable Design’. The work seems to be gaining in significance and interest with the years. I am grateful that back then the lack of post-doctoral funding for the kind of trans-disciplinary work I was doing on ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’ invited me to leave mainstream academia and work in the fruitful and fertile intersections of the disciplines and the sectors. It has helped me hone my neo-generalist skills in education, facilitation, whole systems design, consultancy, research, communication and weaving complex alliances and partnerships for transformative innovation and change.

The for me most significant insights I gained from systems science, chaos and complexity are summarized in these articles:

Facing complexity means befriending uncertainty and ambiguity

Why do we need to think and act more systemically?

Donella Meadows recommendations for how to dance with and intervene in systems

Avoiding extinction: participation in the nested complexity of life

In preparation for a recent keynote I gave at the 6th International Conference of Reporting 3.0 I summarised some of the lessons I learned in my by now 20 year exploration of how to embrace the paradox of emergence and design. On the one hand I believe it is vital to accepts uncertainty, not-knowing, and unpredictability fully to the point of deep humility. On the other hand, I also believe that we need to choose to act from the conviction that we can design for positive emergence in complex systems even if it is not an exact science and we cannot know with certainty how our efforts will turn out to affect transformative change.

 

How do we design for positive emergence in complex dynamic systems?

I believe we can live partially into the answer to this questions by charting pathways based on constant feedback generated by asking ourselves the following guiding questions. They might inform a deeper understanding of how to participate appropriately in these complex systems:

Who are the participants in the systems and what is meaningful to them?

Who is connected to whom & what are the qualities of their connections?

What information flows in the system & what is the quality of the information?

Which actors/agents/participants need to be engaged more/better?

What kind of qualitative and quantitative information needs to flow between participants?

What connections in the system need to be woven and nurtured?

Are we paying enough attention to context, relationships, patterns, qualities, uniqueness of place and health/wholeness?

This is not a complete nor definitive list, simply reflections on the way. Asking such questions can — I believe — contribute to the emergence of diverse regenerative cultures carefully adapted to the bio-cultural uniqueness of place. It can do so everywhere, but differently and appropriately.

 

This post was previously published on p2pfoundation.net and is republished here under a Creative Commons license

 

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