Understanding complexity: A prerequisite for sustainable design

From ‘Design for Human & Planetary Health’, D.C. Wahl 2006

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… (Goodwin et al., 2001, p.27).

Natural Complexity (Image — all images are not in the PhD Thesis)
David F. Peat (Image)

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).

Frederick Vester (image)

As difficult as it may be for us to engage in a trans-disciplinary approach to the whole system, and as little we may be used to dealing with complex occurrences — it will not pay off if we try to make our decision- making easier on ourselves by simply ignoring the complexity of the world we live in. It is just as impossible to escape from this complexity than it is to escape from the complexity of our own being.

Most importantly, we need to accept that we are much more entangled with the complex systems of our environment and the biosphere, than our conventional mode of linear cause and effect thinking with its method of dividing the world into categories tries to make us believe. It is simply not a case of here humanity and there nature. We, ourselves are Nature, our billions of biological cells are a part of her — and all the technology we have ever created is included in nature (trans. Vester, 2004, p.30).

Complexity refers to the condition of the universe which is integrated and yet too rich and varied for us to understand in simple common mechanistic or linear ways. We can understand many parts of the universe in these ways but the larger more intricately related phenomena can only be understood by principles and patterns — not in detail. Complexity deals with the nature of emergence, innovation, learning and adaptation (in Battram, 1998, p.v).

Six Common Mistakes In Dealing With Complex Systems

In traditional science, if you can predict and control the behaviour of a system you have defined it and therefore have understood and explained it. This can’t be done with living things, nor can it be done with the economy or the weather: all of which are complex systems.

Instead, complexity science uses simulation: an approach which can be defined as synthetic, because it is about creating rather than analysing (as in the traditional analytic approach). This lack of traditional prediction and control is not a crucial concern, because in practice we can get a sufficient ‘handle’ on complexity and complex systems to enable us to use the concept in a practical way (Battram, 1998, p.15).

Murray Gell-Mann (image)

Complex adaptive systems are constantly revising and rearranging their components in response to feedback from the environment. Examples are to be found in the evolution of organisms, the brain changing connections between neurons, firms reshuffling their departmental structure, countries realigning their alliances.

At some deep, fundamental level, all these processes of learning, evolution and adaptation are the same. And one of the fundamental mechanisms of adaptation in any given system is the revision and recombination of the building blocks. … New opportunities are always being created by the system. It is therefore essentially meaningless to talk about a complex adaptive system being ‘in equilibrium’: the system can never achieve balance. It is always moving on. …

Agents in the system can never ‘optimise’ their ‘fitness’ or their utility. The space of possibilities is too vast; they have no practical way of finding the optimum. The most they can ever do is to change and improve themselves relative to what the other agents are doing. In short, a complex adaptive system is characterized by perpetual novelty (Battram, 1998, p.36).

Six Principles of Complexity

Jeffrey Goldstein (image)

Emergence … refers to the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems. Emergent phenomena are conceptualised as occurring on the macro level, in contrast to the micro-level components and processes out of which they arise (J. Goldstein, 1999, p.49).

Peter Reason (image)
Stuart Kaufman (image)

Thus, the aim of holism is to make the emergence of novel phenomena out of iterated interactions among richly interconnected components in a complex system more intelligible by relating their emergent properties to the dynamic process of a perpetually transforming whole.

Emergence occurs in a dynamic region, called the edge of chaos that is characterized by a change in the distinctive patterns of fluctuation in the system’s variables. The emergence of order out of chaos is not due to a deterministic, previously existing blueprint, but due to the intrinsic dynamics or repeated interactions among the diverse components [participants] of a complex whole (Wahl, 2001, p.5).

Brian Goodwin (image)

The sciences of complexity suggest why we cannot control the processes that underlie the health of organisms, eco-systems, organizations, and communities. They are governed by subtle principles in which causality is not linear but cyclic, cause and effect are not separable and therefore manipulable.

Those systems are the cause and effect of themselves, involving ever increasing loops of mutual dependence … there is dependent co-arising between human action and the context within which it is entangled … (Goodwin, 1999a).

Gerry Marten (image)

The core of ecosystems organization resides in an ecosystem’s biological community — all the plants, animals, and microorganisms living in an ecosystem. The particular species in the biological community at a particular place are drawn from a larger pool of species living in the surrounding area. Selection of those species, and their organization into a food web, happens by a process known as community assembly. … The community assembly process is an emergent property of the ecosystem (Marten, 2001, p.47).

John T. Lyle (image)

Even though the possibilities are infinite, we need to be willing to explore them. The exploring involves both halves of the brain: imagining future landscapes and analysing their behaviour. I believe it is one of the promising achievements of our times that so many people are taking part in the imagining and predicting. Genuinely participatory processes are beginning to take place, in design if not in government, but these do not simplify or clarify design process. Rather they add layer upon layer of varied values and perceptions.

It is important to recognize that, however sophisticated our tools and techniques, the unexpected can always occur. With prediction goes uncertainty. Recognizing the inevitability of uncertainty and having done all we can to shape a system that will behave as predicted, we need to minimize the possibility of catastrophe when it does not. We need to be as sure as humanly possible that when the unexpected does occur, it does not bring about disaster. This means checks, balances, feedback, complexity, sometimes a conservative stance. In ecosystem design, the whole stake should never ride on the role of the dice (Lyle, 1985, p.264).

Margaret Wheatley (Image)

The new science keeps reminding us that in this participative universe, nothing lives alone. Everything comes into form because of relationship. We are constantly called into relationship — to information, people, events, ideas, life. Even reality is created through our participation in relationships. We chose what we notice; we relate to certain things and ignore others. Through these chosen relationships we co- create our world. If we are interested in affecting change, it is crucial to remember that we are working within webs of relations, not with machines (Wheatley, 1999, p.145).

Thich Nhat Hanh (Image)


If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be.

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. Without sunshine, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in the sheet of paper. The logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

Looking even more deeply, we can see ourselves in this sheet of paper too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, it is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can see that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. We cannot point out one thing that is not here — time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to inter-be- we cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.

Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper would be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to its mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of “non-paper” elements. And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without non-paper elements, like mind, logger, sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it (Thich Naht Hanh, 1991, pp.95–96).


A computer image of “Self Reflected,” an etching of a human brain created by artists Greg Dunn and Brian Edwards. Source

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Daniel Christian Wahl

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Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system