The sustainability of new skills in the world of work: the implications of complexity thinking in education

Massimo Conte
13 min readAug 28, 2022


Massimo Conte is the Editorial Coordinator of the Complexity Education Project. The Italian version of this article is available here.

This article is an extended version of the talk I gave in June 2022 at the Italian Complexity Festival.

1. Complexity or Sustainability?

In 1972, exactly 50 years ago, were published:

  • the paper “More is different” by Nobel laureate Philip Warren Anderson (one of the founders of the Santa Fe Institute), introduced the reflection on how when the system’s scale changes new complex properties appear, not inferred from previous levels. The whole is often more than the sum of its parts. Because it often has properties that are not the simple sum of the properties of its parts, but that are emerging properties;
  • the Report “The Limits to Growth” for the Club of Rome, edited among others by Donella and Dennis Meadows, forecasted the consequences of continuous population growth on the Earth's ecosystem and on the survival of humankind. Over the years, the simulation of the World3 model described in the original report has been updated several times. One of the most recent is by Brian Hayes, who in this article tells in detail how he made it.

Click here to try the simulation

Credits: Exploring the Limits to Growth with Python

Fifty years ago talking about Complexity and Sustainability seemed futuristic; today, with the future rapidly becoming present, and with new incoming crises (really unimaginable?), complex thinking and reflection on sustainability not only seem current, but we discover that we are terribly overdue.

Complexity education is like sustainability: we can no longer afford to do without it.

2. Complexity

Let’s start with “Complexity”. The increasingly emerging need, both for organizations and individuals, is the recognition of the complexity of the phenomena we are facing.

If we deal with a complex problem with unpredictable effects, we cannot approach it as if were simple and linear. Our strategies to manage that problem would risk being blunt and above all ineffective weapons. In other words: if the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail; the reference here is to the so-called “Maslow’s Hammer”, or more properly the bias of excessive dependence on a tool that you know well.

We are now in a context where “work is learning and learning is the work”, as Harold Jarche said. Contexts are hybrid and nuanced: formal and informal, office and home, and then again, the continuum of work groups — learning communities — social networks.

Credits: Harold Jarche

We continuously consume and exchange information with the outside world, looking for what we may define as an “informative homeostasis”, a balance that guides our choices and our actions. But we do it in an environment and context that change very quickly. So our evolutionary drive is, as Darwin would say, to adaptation. Who adapts best, survives and evolves.

Moreover, the way we keep up to date and the information we access online depend on our “filter bubble” (Pariser, 2011), that is to say on the personalized results that search engine algorithms and social networks show us, based on the websites we have visited and the preferences we have expressed online in the past (and which has been registered, creating a profile of each user).

I had already talked about filter bubbles in this episode of “Digital Acupunctures”, the column about interactive data visualizations, useful for understanding concepts and dynamics of complex systems.

Explore the interactive explanation “Filter Bubble”

So: on one side we are witnessing an increasing complexity of the world around us. The latest crises of these years have only made more evident the transitions already underway, regarding unsustainable economic models. Let’s think about Covid-19, war, economic crises, digital evolution and automation in the world of work; and now we are seeing the most impactful of all: the climate crisis.

Among the many interactive games, there is “Can you reach net zero by 2050?”, created by the Financial Times. The players have to put themselves in the role of public decision-makers, with the goal of keeping global warming within the threshold of 1.5 degrees by 2050.

Being a complex challenge, the interesting aspect of the gaming experience is that there isn’t a single right solution, but you have to decide among various possible balances and trade-offs. You can choose which advisor to decide the policy to follow: the environmental activist teenager, the entrepreneur developing new technologies, the businessman acting as an influencer on world leaders, and the politician who influences the change of public policies.

Every political choice has a cost, the initial budget is 100 points, and it has different effects on the amount of emitted CO2. So the player’s strategy is to find a balance between costs and effects. For example, in the short term (2022–25) you can decide whether to close all coal plants globally (you spend 10 points), whether phase out coal plants in wealthy countries within 20 years (cost 5 points), or let the market take its course hoping that the demand for coal will decrease by itself (cost 2 points).

Click here to play “Can you reach net zero by 2050?”


3. Sustainable Education

We can use complex thinking to explain and understand such large-scale biological and social collective phenomena. We need cognitive tools to read the complexity of the phenomena around us.

This is where sustainability comes into play: we are in a continuous and accelerated transition, as the title of the Italian Festival of Complexity 2022 reminds us, dedicated to “Transitions”. We act in a system that is changing not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively: it is making a change of state, exceeding its critical thresholds.

Which effects has all this on the world of work? We need complex skills for a complex world.

A reductionist approach for skills training is like Maslow’s hammer above mentioned: it’s a tool, but it cannot be the only tool in our toolbox. A training model based on the simple transfer of knowledge is not adequate and sustainable, because it is not effective.

Credits: Pixabay

Learning is valuable if it is based on our personal experience. If it helps us make sense of the world.

As individuals and workers, we need training that is:

  • meaningful: as adults, we perceive and retain information only if it is relevant to us and helps us to solve problems, if it has an emotional impact (Shackleton-Jones, 2019);
  • experiential: the subjective dimension returns to the center, that is the meaning we give to our experience of the world;
  • inspired by generosity and openness: just think of many of the experiences that most enrich us in our online life: resources available for free, events and experiences that people organize and share for free (such as the whole Festival of complexity);
  • based on the interconnection of knowledge, i.e. interdisciplinarity connecting different fields and disciplines oriented to a common vision in the explanation of emerging principles, and an interconnection of people, i.e. based on a learning community: the emotional dimension is essential, in which we give before we get (Danzi, Re, 2018).

An awareness of the ecology of action is also needed, as Edgar Morin defines it (in his “Ethics”, sixth volume of the Method): every action escapes more and more from the will of its author when it enters the game of inter-retro-actions of the environment in which it occurs. Every action we take in a system causes a series of effects that may go beyond what we can predict. We need a wise leadership that reflects on when to act and when not to act (Cravera, 2021).

In this context, knowing how to manage principles and complex thinking “with care” helps us to move in this changing context. That is, knowing how to see both a phenomenon as a whole (its behavior), such as it can be an organization, and the relationships among the individual agents that move in that system, that is the underlying network.

For example, a flock of birds has emergent behavior not coordinated by a leader, which is the systemic effect of applying three simple local rules:

  • Separation: when the birds get too close, they repel each other to avoid collisions; they essentially move away from individuals who enter their collision radius.
  • Alignment: birds align their direction with the average direction of other individuals within an alignment radius.
  • Cohesion: birds stay close by moving towards the center of the group, to avoid being easy prey.

The Nobel Prize winner Giorgio Parisi talked about the collective behavior of starlings, in his recent book “In un volo di storni. Le meraviglie dei sistemi complessi” (“In a flight of starlings. The wonders of complex systems”). See here the review made by the Complexity Education Project for the “Library of the classics of complexity”.

Try the interactive Flock’n Roll simulation, where you can change parameters to see how collective behavior changes

Credits:, Flock’n Roll — Collective behavior and swarming

More generally, to understand complexity we need to recognize concepts such as feedback, bottom-up emergence, self-organization, non-linearity, adaptation, hub, states of stability, path dependence, critical points, nested systems, open systems, unpredictability…

The Complexity Education Project edited the Italian translation of the “The visual representation of complexity” manifesto, developed by CECAN — Center for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus: it’s a useful resource helping people to understand connections among this network of interconnected concepts.

Click here to discover definitions and examples of the 16 concepts of complexity

Credits: J. Boehnert, The visual representation of complexity, 2018

A linear cause-and-effect approach, in science e in world comprehension, is no longer sufficient. We can identify some principles (Davis, Sumara, 2006) characterizing a complex phenomenon such as:

  • Self-organization: there are elements of a system (interconnected and interacting locally) causing the emergence of a bottom-up dynamic, from below, without centralized control, in which a new configuration is created with different properties compared to those of the components (to deepen the topic of self-organization, see Holland, 1998; De Toni, Comello, Ioan, 2011). We have already cited the example of flocks of birds.
  • Nested structures: complex units are at the same time composed and containing other units which can in turn be defined as complex; that is, we are talking about systems within systems. For example: from cells, to organs, to organisms, to ecosystems.
  • Blurred boundaries: complex systems are open, in the sense that they continuously exchange information and energy with the environment around them. But the definition of what is inside and what is outside a system becomes fundamental.
  • Adaptivity: these are structures adapting themselves to the context and learn. Learning, when dealing with a complex system, becomes try & learn, that is: I disrupt a system that I cannot predict, I see how it responds, I learn. This is also true within organizations and for individuals. We often deal with problems that are not well defined. Knowing how to formulate the right question becomes the core competence, before finding the answers.

The main focus is therefore no longer on the elements (on the atoms, on the nodes of a network), but on the relationships among the elements, on the dynamics, on the emerging behaviors, and on the qualities that are of the system without being of the single agents. For example, consciousness, understood as self-awareness, is an emergent property. Individual neurons are unaware, but the mind system as a whole makes us aware. More is different, as Anderson said. When the scale changes, new properties emerge.

4. Complexity and Sustainability

At a glance: complexity education and training in complex thinking go hand in hand with sustainability. The issue is no longer whether we need it, but rather whether we can still afford to do without it.

Point of arrival for the world of work: is the future already past? Are we planning and investing today in what will be present in a few years?

Jane McGonigal, game designer and expert on future scenarios, in her latest book tells of Superstruct simulation she created in 2008 imagining the future in 10 years, to map the economic, political, social, and emotional consequences of global threats. The simulation was set in 2019, and the nearly ten thousand people who participated in the game found themselves facing five different threats, including a global epidemic due to a hypothetical respiratory virus; players were asked to predict how they would feel and what they would do with their lives during this rapidly spreading epidemic: how would their habits change? What social interactions would they have avoided?

McGonigal also says that when Covid broke out in 2020, those who had participated in that simulation in 2008 said they felt emotionally more prepared, because they had already tried in the simulation for weeks to wear the mask or to limit interactions.

Click here to learn more about Superstruct, a multiplayer simulation that in 2008 tried to predict what would be needed after 10 years to respond to the new global crises

Credits: Institute for the future

In other words: the future scares us, only if we are not equipped. But even if we don’t know exactly what will happen (even though, as we have seen, the Club of Rome report on possible ecosystem disasters due to ungoverned growth dates back to 50 years ago), we can prepare ourselves knowing that we need complex thinking to change and be more effective in our way of seeing and acting with a complex approach. With greater systemic awareness of the effects of our actions.

And then we come to education: it can only be continuous, situated, based on this change of vision that passes from the ego-system to the ecosystem.

To know how to move in contexts that change so rapidly, a change of mentality will increasingly be needed (McGowan, 2020), focused on:

  • learning agility (i.e. knowing how to learn and unlearn),
  • adaptability, that is, knowing how to navigate ambiguity and unstructured problems,
  • relational skills, such as empathy and social intelligence,
  • agency, that is the motivation to act and self-awareness.

The speed of change requires a great ability to adapt. The time of learning, the lifelong learning, has expanded, because the obsolescence of our skills has increased. We become specialists in a certain discipline in our course of study in the first 20–30 years of our life, but at the same time it is necessary to be transversal, learning how to learn.

Automation (before of more physical functions, now and increasingly in the future more and more cognitive) will enhance our activities, and will move our work towards more creative activities. What can be automated will be automated.

The globotic upheaval (Baldwin, 2019), as a synthesis on the one hand of globalization (new opportunities given by remote working), therefore there is no longer the constraint of physicality to carry out a job, and on the other hand of robotics, understood as the automation of activities, it is a challenge, it may be a risk and an opportunity. It can reduce repetitive tasks, but shows us a world of new jobs.

The subject (of education sustainability) is twofold: on the one hand, continuing education must be increasingly widespread, modular, accessible, flexible (because we will study while we work, both for upskilling and reskilling); on the other hand, this continuous training cannot be just the responsibility of the individual (the reference is to changes in career paths and the risk of drop up out of the labour market).

Continuing education (and its planning in people’s lives) must itself be reticular and no longer linear. It may evolve with the context, needs and interests of individuals, organizations, and society. Looking for a new balance between life and work, because the identity of people is not exhausted in the perspective of the organization, but extends beyond. Let’s go back to those blurred borders already mentioned in this article. Work, learning, experience: an endless transition.


P. W. Anderson, More Is Different: Broken symmetry and the nature of the hierarchical structure of science, Science. 4 Aug 1972. Vol 177, Issue 4047.

R. Baldwin, Globotics Upheaval: Globalisation, Robotics and the Future of Work, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019.

M. Ceruti (a cura di), Cento Edgar Morin, 100 firme italiane per i 100 anni dell’umanista planetario, Mimesis Edizioni, 2021.

A. Cravera, Allenarsi alla complessità. Schemi cognitivi per decidere e agire in un mondo non ordinato, Egea editore, 2021.

O. Danzi, G. Re, Community manager. Dietro le reti ci sono le Persone, Franco Angeli, 2018.

B. Davis, D. Sumara, Complexity and Education: Inquiries Into Learning, Teaching, and Research, Routledge, 2006.

A. F. De Toni, L. Comello, L. Ioan, Auto-organizzazioni. Il mistero dell’emergenza dal basso nei sistemi fisici, biologici e sociali, Marsilio, 2011.

J. H. Holland, Emergence. From chaos to order, Oxford University Press, 1998.

A. Maslow, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance, 1966.

J. McGonigal, Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything―Even Things That Seem Impossible Today, Spiegel & Grau, 2022.

H. E. McGowan, C. Shipley, The Adaptation Advantage: Let Go, Learn Fast, and Thrive in the Future of Work, Wiley, 2020.

D. Meadows, D. Meadows, J. Randers, W. Behrens, The Limits to Growth: A report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind, 1972.

E. Morin, Il metodo 6. Etica, Raffaello Cortina, 2005.

E. Pariser, The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You, Penguin Books, 2012.

G. Parisi, In un volo di storni. Le meraviglie dei sistemi complessi, Rizzoli, 2021.

N. Shackleton-Jones, How People Learn. Designing Education and Training that Works to Improve Performance, Kogan, 2019.



Massimo Conte

Editorial Coordinator of Complexity Education Project; Digital Learning Manager. Explorer in complexity, data visualization, network science