Complexity, Chaos, Catastrophes and Change: Is the New Physics much help to development wonks?

One of the unfinished tasks in From Poverty to Power is developing a better model for analysing processes of change, so I’ve been going back to my prehistoric roots as a physics undergraduate, and reading about complexity and chaos. Exploring the Science of Complexity is a newish (February 08) paper from the Overseas Development Institute that wrestles with the question posed by Robert Chambers back in 1997, does the new physics provide ‘a deep paradigmatic insight, an interesting parallel, or an insignificant coincidence’ for development practitioners?

Complexity science’s starting point is that Isaac Newton’s reductionist picture of a world in which change happens in a smooth and predictable fashion, is a mirage: in real life, change is almost always hard to predict and happens in fits and starts (think of the weather, stock markets, traffic, love or crowds): as one thinker memorably observed ‘calling a situation non-linear is like going to the zoo and talking about all the interesting non-elephant animals you can see there.’

The first challenge for the authors of the ODI paper is to describe complexity science for non-scientists. It turns out to be more of a broad current of thinking than a single, well defined discipline. They narrow it down to three sets of concepts:

1. Complex systems are characterised by interdependence and high levels of feedback, which means that in practice behaviours emerge unpredictably from the interactions between the parts. Example: climate change or weather systems, which are full of feedback loops between atmosphere, water and land.

2. Change within such systems is non-linear (i.e. not described by ‘X is proportional to Y’), discontinuous and highly sensitive to initial conditions. Example: the infamous ‘butterfly’s wing’ that triggers a series of changes leading to a hurricane half way across the world, or the sand in an egg timer: a steady stream of sand falls onto the pile, but the avalanches of sand that fall down the side of the pile vary in size and are entirely unpredictable.

3. ‘Adaptive agents’ in a system both react to and shape the system. Out of numerous individual processes of ‘self organization’ by adaptive agents, an overall pattern emerges that is impossible to predict in advance. Example: the movements of flocks of birds or schools of fish. In development terms, the parallel would be seeing poor people as adaptive agents, generating their own politics and processes – the job of development agencies is to accompany and support such processes, but not to try and steer, still less control, them.

How is all this relevant to development? Reading the paper, a lot of the concepts resonate with thinking in the development field: trying to grasp the complexity and uniqueness of different change processes; scepticism of grand plans; the NGOs’ preference for getting processes right rather than emphasizing particular outcomes or targets. Some of the points that grabbed my attention:

Planners v Searchers (to steal William Easterly’s shorthand): in an unpredictable world it is futile to devise elaborate plans to reach specific outcomes. The authors cite the anti-globalization movement and the US marines as examples of an alternative approach: establish a simple set of principles (in the case of the marines, capture the high ground, stay in touch, and keep moving), but then accept that where this leads is context-specific and unpredictable. This is the antithesis of the kind of planning set out in the ‘logical frameworks’ of organizations like DFID (the UK Development Ministry) – ‘smart’ (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound) planning may actually be quite dumb. What would NGO campaigning look like modelled on the US marine corps?!

More History, less Maths: Separating out causes and effects is central to most economic modelling – but if causes and effects are multiple and intertwined through feedback loops, they cannot be disaggregated: if cause A leads to effect A* and cause B leads to B*, the effect of A + B combined will not necessarily be A* + B*. Instead, we may be better advised to rely on broader lessons from history and ‘soft’ social science, rather than pursue the seductive certainties of ‘hard’ predictive science. Even with the soft stuff, though, the path dependence of most processes means that we have to be careful in applying the lessons of one historical experience to another context. The paper argues that the search for ‘best practice’ should be replaced by a search for ‘good principles’.

Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning: The paper argues that MEL, a growth industry across the development sector, should respond to complexity not by giving up and going home, but by ‘shifting to value learning from unexpected outcomes’, as well as using drivers of change and scenario planning. I think it may be even worse than that – if every situation is specific, what ‘learning’ would actually help design or improve work in other places and times? It’s not at all clear from the paper.

Leadership: another vogue word in development NGOs. The paper argues that in a world of complexity and chaos, leaders should be more Che Guevara than Stalin, acting as subversives, disrupting and challenging existing taboos, patterns of thought, and practice, encouraging novelty, and ‘interpreting rather than creating change’.

Finally, the ‘edge of chaos’ – sounds like a nightmare, but it turns out that edge of chaos situations, poised between anarchy or social breakdown on one side, and paralysis and inertia on the other, are ‘the place of maximum innovation within human systems’. There, either side of a discontinuity, small inputs can trigger a big jump – the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. But managers and planners beware – they are not places where you can control events. ‘Change agents’ be they NGOs, grassroots organization or political parties, should therefore seek out such edge of chaos situations, work out suitable US marine style basic principles, and then work with energy and imagination, seeing where it leads. Sounds like fun. This has obvious resonances with the previous blog discussion on shocks and change.

Overall, I go with the ‘useful metaphor’ category in Robert Chambers’ list of options – anyone disagree?


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6 Responses to “Complexity, Chaos, Catastrophes and Change: Is the New Physics much help to development wonks?”
  1. Chris

    Duncan good to see you addressing this issue. Having dabbled with the implications of chaos and complexity theory for development and emergencies work for a number of years, I think it provides more than a useful metaphor.
    Alternative development policies have to be based on alternative thinking. Current policies of International Aid Agencies are the product of an existing way of looking at the world which is seriously limited. The failures of development agencies, multilaterals, and often NGOs is not only one of political will but also a conceptual one.
    Social science in the West has always been dependent to some degree on ideas emanating from the physical sciences. The thinking on which much development work (and its management) is still largely based has stemmed from the mechanical and linear models of Newtonian science. This thinking views the world as certain, singular and stable and the processes which guide it are as predictable as a machine. Individuals in this model are like billiards balls on a table, clashing, pushing each other away and pursuing their own self-interest according to clear laws of force; they are clearly separate from each other. This approach looks at problems by breaking them down and fragmenting them rather than looking at the whole and the relationships between the pieces. Such an approach leads to the impression that the world is made up of separate and unrelated forces.
    A quantum view of the world is uncertain, multiple and a mix of stability and instability and the processes which guide it are the myriad relationships which exist between individuals and the structures they create, as well as between them and the physical world. Individuals in this model are more like dancers in a free-form dance company or musicians at a jam session, evolving together as soloists and as a group; they are both separate and part of something larger. Quantum science recognises that there are different perspectives and different potentials in any given situation.
    All of which invites aid agencies to be much more open to the perspectives of others, be more aware of their own power in excluding other world views, and more open to feedback and learning, rather than egocentric processes of planning, monitoring and evaluation.
    I think thinking in this way opens up important new possibilities to trigger change embedded in the logic of existing relationships, rather than being trapped in the stultifying straight-jackets of problem trees and log-frames.

  2. Duncan

    One PS, following conversations on this theme with Chris Roche and others in Australia. What are the implications of complexity for NGOs and others trying to do influencing work? We discussed three options:
    – Accompaniment and bearing witness (eg MSF). NGOs do not try to steer events, but stick to supporting partners through thick and thin. A slightly disingenuous approach, as NGOs select their partners (they can’t fund everybody), and so still make some efforts to backseat drive.
    – Venture capitalist model – set hares running but drop failures. The key to success becomes getting quicker at identifying and dropping failures. This is not usually something NGOs are good at, both because they are too nice, and because the ‘hares’ often involve long term relationships with partners, so dropping them is a difficult issue.
    – Iterate constantly. The heart sinks, but the answer may be to give up on the cycle of ‘spend ages writing a big strategy, then beaver away for years, then stand back and see what you’ve achieved’ to a more flexible and reflective process of constant review and amendment.

  3. supriya akerkar

    Hi Duncan and Chris
    well, my undergraduate roots are also with physics… Chaos theory also resonates with the current post structuralist thinking which suggests that we do not look at the social structure as a closed unit but as an continued open process of change. This means that there cant be one revolution – but series of multiplicity of change processes and change agents as well. Instead of one overarching change, several localised and locally led innovations and subversive politics. Yet the challenge for us is also to be able to influence macro policies which affect ordinary people’s lives. And much of it can only come through rich politics of alliance building – which we all know is very complex…. but i agree that the challenge is about building more reflexive rather than predetermined politics…

  4. Hi Chris Roche, long time no hear. Hi Duncan: we haven’t met.
    For what it’s worth I posted a critique of the ODI paper up on the Complexity in Aid Google Group site where ODI host complexity discussions. As a further contribution to the discussion, and at the risk of blowing my own trumpet, I also have an article published in this quarter’s Journal of International Development (J. Int. Dev. 20, 804–820 (2008)about what contributions complexity theories can make to the practice of development management.
    In brief I think Ben and Harry find it difficult to locate themselves between broadly three schools of thought on complexity theories.
    In the first camp are writers who are still trying to bend complexity to a predictive scientific model: the idea, then, is that it might be possible to develop a framework or a tool to apply to social phenomena such as organisations to achieve predictable, ie better, results. Authors like Meg Wheately, Peter Senge, and the recent ODI paper have all taken up complexity in this way. I recently came across an article by Alan Fowler on The Broker where he is also taking up complexity theory (although I would argue there are theories rather than ‘a’ theory) in this way.. These authors sometimes imply that is possible for managers to ‘unleash complexity’ in the organisation, or after Wheatley, to follow a few simple rules and ‘utilise’ complexity.
    In many ways this way of understanding insights from the complexity sciences as tools which can somehow be ‘applied’ directly to organisations never really escapes from the way that scientific method is commonly understood.
    In the second camp are academics who have tried to analyse complex social phenomena by using sophisticated computer models. In this group I would include Peter Allen at Cranfield and Peter Hedstrom at Oxford University. Neither would claim that there models are in any way predictive, or in the latter’s case, even of necessarily being an accurate picture of reality. Rather they claim that their models offer us a better way of understanding how social phenomena may arise. Hedstrom concludes the following:
    1 there is no necessary proportionality between the size of the cause and
    the effect
    2 the structure of social interaction is of considerable explanatory
    importance in its own right for the social outcomes that emerge
    3 the effect a given action has on the social can be highly contingent upon
    the structural configuration in which the actor is embedded.
    4 Aggregate patterns say very little about the micro-level processes that
    brought them about.
    To a certain extent, then, Allen and Hedstrom are partially leaving behind the notion that science is only science if it can produce causal, predictive results which are universally applicable. However, they still believe that reality still needs to be modelled using the universal language of mathematics before we can be properly sure that we understand what is going on. The linear equations used in these computer models have no mathematical solution, they only have retrospective explanatory power.
    In the third camp you will find authors like Ralph Stacey, Robert Chia and Hari Tsoukas, who understand complexity in interpretive terms and would deny that it is directly applicable to social phenomena. Nonetheless they would argue that insights from theories of complexity offer similar explanations to those forged by a generation of philosophers and sociologists such as Norbert Elias, Pierre Bourdieu and the American pragmatists to name the most prominent. Stacey, Chia and Tsoukas, whom Fowler does not call on, suggest that insights from the complexity theories and from these prominent sociologists and thinkers, pose a radical challenge to the way we understand social phenomena. So, for example, Stacey calls on Elias to show how he has a theory of social emergence very close to the central insight from complex adaptive systems theory (CAS), that complex social patterning arises purely from the interactions of agents organising locally. There is no overall plan and no single agent is in charge. This is how Elias describes it:
    “As the moves of interdependent players intertwine, no single player nor any
    group of players acting alone can determine the course of the game no matter
    how powerful they may be. … It involves a partly self-regulating change in
    a partly self-organizing and self-reproducing figuration of interdependent
    people, whole processes tending in a certain direction.”
    You can see how this understanding of insights from the complexity sciences implies a fundamental challenge to writers in the first group, who still think that complexity is something they can harness or control. As managers and workers in organisations we can never ‘use complexity’ because we ourselves are part of the patterning that we presume to change. We may, through our greater power, be able to have greater influence events, but our influence will always be modified and affected by the power of everyone else we seek to influence. In effect social patterning arises from the interplay of power relations.
    Thinking from the second and third groups have big consequences for aid practice, both because it suggests that planning needs to be much more provisional, but also it puts power relations much more at the heart of discussion about what is going on.
    From my own perspective rehabilitating power and politics in development can only be a good thing.
    Chris Mowles

  5. John

    “does the new physics provide ‘a deep paradigmatic insight, an interesting parallel, or an insignificant coincidence’ for development practitioners?”
    “New physics?” Really? Have to spoken to any legitimate scientists (ie. biologists, physicists, chemists) about what evidential laws underpin actual science? A scientific theory needs to be (1) falsifiable (2) logical (3) reproducible (4) comprehensive (5) sufficiency and (6) honest. This vague, New-Ageist “New Physics” rhetoric is complete nonsense, is not falsifiabe, logical, or reproducible, and either recapitulates things that are already known (feedback and nonlinearity are well known phenomenon) or veers into complete nonsense (butterfly wings).
    Honestly, I hope this is not a trend in NGOs and the development industry. If it is, international development will be doomed.
    Duncan: that seems too reductionist and Popperian to me. Works in some scientific contexts, but not in others. Are you saying that science has no role when these conditions don’t apply?