Complexity Science

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking
we used when we created them."
- Albert Einstein


We need a new problem-solving approach to the many complex and unprecedented problems of today, namely the threat to the planetary systems that provide life on earth for human and more-than-human species, to help humans envision a more just and equitable future for people and the planet.

Complexity Science (the principles it offers to understand the world), is the appropriate tool to address the wicked problems all species on planet earth face right now. 

What is Complexity Science?

It is the study of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), defined as any system with many different components that interact with each other and evolve over time. A good way to characterize this idea is to understand that in a CAS “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

A Few Examples of Complex Systems Include:​​​​​​


How our bodies, made up of many different components from cells to organs to hormones to our emotions, interact with each other


How government, citizens, legislatures, etc. in countries or cities or towns interact with each other


How a system in which there are many different employees, managers, and departments interact with each other  


Because money and power now drive the most important decision-makers and their solutions to our problems, economic markets are one of the most studied examples of complex systems, where many different players interact with each other.


How epidemics spiral into pandemics as a result of planetary connectivity and global interactions


Global climate patterns, termite mounds, highway traffic patterns, the internet, and... a collaborative, participatory workshop where thinking together becomes itself a system. 

As the connectivity of the world increases, past experience and trend analysis is not a good problem-solving method to meet the challenge of future risks. For example, strategic solutions to manage the twin risks coming from biodiversity loss and global warming are often formulated separately, even though they are dependent on one another and risk failure if pursued in isolation. 


When we say that the world is increasingly networked or connected, we are implicitly saying that it is complex. A basic understanding of complex systems can help us go from feeling paralyzed by the unraveling of our ability to control what’s happening from the world outside.  It provides a new way of understanding the problem of the invisible or unknowable that we can’t control and helps us begin to solve the challenges that lie ahead. We're all familiar with the idea of using the right tool for the job.  When your job is to understand a Complex Adaptive System, we believe that Complexity Science is that tool.  

Here's why:

  • Complex Adaptive Systems usually involve living organisms.  They feature many connected and interdependent elements that have the capacity to change, and the ability to learn from experience.

  • Linear scientific methods seek to fully understand each individual element of the system, and the cause and effect relationship between the elements.  If you're trying to understand a more mechanical, non-living system, these methods work nicely.  For example, if you want to understand how and why a clock works, you would go with the linear scientific method.

  • Non-linear scientific methods also seek to understand the individual elements of a system, but in addition, they examine patterns of relationships, how they are sustained, how they self-organize, and how outcomes emerge.  If you're trying to understand how and why societies, financial markets, or biological systems function, the non-linear approach is necessary.

Properties of Complex Adaptive Systems Relevant to Social Systems

This new science is a science of collective behavior that is full of surprising dynamics, as human and natural systems co-evolve in a mutual search for renewal and balance. 

Below are a few examples of some of the properties that underlie the theory of Complex Adaptive Systems science that are especially helpful in problem-solving in complex adaptive social systems.

Radical Uncertainty

The Buddhist principle of not-knowing, the beginners mind, and a tolerance for the unknowable and even the inconceivable captures the excitement for researchers and practitioners who adopt CAS thinking. The paradigm shift toward planetary balance begins here with the individual.


Much of the reason for embracing radical uncertainty is that most of the universe is nonlinear, meaning inputs to the system are not additive.  In linear systems, the whole is the sum of the parts, a straight line of cause and effect that becomes predictive when applied to similar conditions.  This is what most people understand.  However, we cannot predict the weather or the stock market as two examples, because the nonlinear conditions and dynamics are changing too fast to intervene. This is harder to understand since we are taught the fatal illusion that we can control these systems.


Resistance movements like the recent Black Lives Matter protests happen spontaneously when initial conditions change.  One small action, like the killing of a black man by police that is filmed and goes viral on the internet, initiates a spontaneous and leaderless mobilization that can self-organize into a critical mass. A large protest is a nonlinear system that adapts rapidly to the changing conditions inside the march and to the conditions outside from law enforcement deployment.

Tipping Points

Complex Adaptive systems can quite often become chaotic.  When we feel that we are standing on the edge of chaos we may be watching a system cross a critical threshold called a tipping point.  When a careless camper leaves a small campfire unattended, that small condition may quickly become the tipping point that explodes into a raging and uncontrollable wildfire.


Complexity science is the science of surprise, the surprises that happen when conditions change suddenly and something completely new and unexpected emerges--sometimes from our best efforts to intervene without specifying an outcome. When we bring to the work of assuring a more balanced and sustainable planet the knowledge that our imagined control is just a distraction, we open our hearts and minds to the spontaneous, the unpredictable, and the surprise of new strategies for renewal.  This is a paradigm shift in the way we’ve been taught to solve unprecedented systemic problems.

The Adjacent Possible (TAP) 

The Adjacent Possible is a term that Complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman coined to describe his dramatic insight (and resulting equation), about the historic process of technological innovation and its consequences for human well-being in the near future. He found that fossil-fuel based technology has grown exponentially since the industrial revolution, pushing our living systems to “the edge of chaos” and climate catastrophe.  The Center for Emergent Diplomacy has borrowed the term as a metaphor to describe the global search for a paradigmatic shift to planetary balance and sustainability.  A tool box and methodology based on Complexity science principles that inspire generative dialogue is being co-created by the Center and its partners, in order to aide local community-based sustainability and social justice mavericks in their journey into an adjacent possible future full of surprise and emergent solutions waiting to be discovered.