Complex problems and systems

1.1 Complex problems—complexity or clockware

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Transcript for Complex problems - complexity or clockware (PDF)

This video will give you an introductory overview of complexity theory to lay a foundation for understanding how to transform systems in our world. Think about a current issue that you are trying to navigate. Do you experience it as a series of linear elements, thoughts, and/or questions? Or are there constantly new things surfacing that change what you know and how you need to act? Complexity theory encourages us to welcome these many moving parts and accept that they may be important for shifting the systems in which we are working.

If you’re interested in going further, here are some resources that will help you:

1.2 Complex problems—seeing complexity

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Transcript for "Complex problems - seeing complexity" video (PDF)

Here you'll explore ways in which we view complexity in the world. Much like using a camera lens, with choice about what we focus on, putting on the lens of complexity means that we choose to see the increasing interconnections in our world and the effects of this on all kinds of systems, including social, environmental, political, and economic. As you watch this segment, think about the various lenses through which you view your world on a daily basis.

1.3 Complex problems—connectedness and feedback

1.4 Complex problems—simple, complicated, complex

1.5 Complex problems—the certainty/agreement matrix

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This video introduces you to a tool called the certainty/agreement matrix which you can use to categorize problems. As you watch, pay attention to where you think the problems you're interested in would be placed. Are they spread out across the matrix, or are they clustered in one area? Have you considered the most complex problems related to your area of interest? Also, start to think about what kind of problems you are best placed to work on. We'll return to this idea later in the course.

You can find out more about this matrix at liberating structures - agreement-certainty matrix.

1.6 Complex problems—what is your complex problem and how do you categorize it?

1.7 What is a system? All is connected

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 Transcript for "Complex problems - What is a system? All is connected" video (PDF)

What do we mean when we say "system”? This video digs into this question and defines the term for the purposes of this course. A system is your body, your family, your neighbourhood; and also the health care system, education system, economic system, and many others. Pay attention to your own perspective and purpose while looking at systems and try to think of the many systems in your own life. What boundaries do you put around those systems? What perspective do you bring when you think about them? How are they interconnected? Do you notice that there are systems within systems and within other systems? Beware: this experience can cause dizziness! But, you'll begin to gain new, important insights.

1.8 What is a system? Greenpeace video

Hold onto your new understanding of systems as you view the video: Angry kid - Greenpeace -- created in 2007 as part of Greenpeace's ongoing awareness and advocacy efforts around climate change. In the following segment, you'll dig into the video with your new system thinking.

1.9 What is a system? Recognizing yourself in the system

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Using the example of the Greenpeace resource, this segment examines the degree to which, as individuals, we see ourselves as part of the system and and as part of the problems that we're attempting to change. Ask yourself some of the questions brought up by this video and try to be honest about how some of the perspectives you hold may, in fact, be part of the systems that you are attempting to change.

1.10 What is a system? Discerning rules—starling video

The next segment gets at how to begin to navigate these messy, complex problems! It encourages finding the simple rules within the complexity to discern the best ways forward. To prepare, first view the video Amazing Starling murmuration. Then, continue reading, below.

1.11 What is a system? Discerning rules—boids

Another interesting insight in complexity theory is that, even though systems may be complex, underneath there are simple rules that are governing the patterns you observe. One example that illustrates this is the birds flocking in the starling video you've just watched. The birds form a pattern, move about in unison, and then suddenly the pattern shifts and a new one emerges. If you were to zero in and look closely, you would see that no birds are colliding with others and no bird is leading the rest (if this were the case, if the leader flew into a window, the entire flock would do so--but this doesn't happen!). How do they do it?

An artificial life and computer designer called Craig Reynolds worked on the hypothesis that there must be other rules that are governing this amazing complex pattern that is found in nature and he tried to find the simplest possible rules to duplicate the pattern. He called his little computerized agents boids and you can see the original results of his experiment here: Craig Reynolds Boids experiment. A quick online search will bring you to many updated examples.

The simulation worked based on three simple rules:

  1. Steer to avoid crowding local flockmates (separation);
  2. Steer towards the average heading of local flockmates (alignment);
  3. Steer to move towards the average position of local flockmates (cohesion).

It's fascinating, and it seems to work--three very simple rules create the very complex, beautiful pattern. What's encouraging is the fact that, in these very complex situations, you can get close to some simple, underlying drivers that create the patterns and either keep them in place or change them.

Now, go back to some of those system problems you are working on and see if you can start to identify patterns or simple rules which may govern them. What stands out for you?

Find out more about Craig Reynolds.

1.12 What is a system? Discerning rules—Eric Berlow TED talk

Let's get some further clarity on understanding complex systems. To prepare, watch this short TED talk from ecologist, Eric Berlow.

1.13 What is a system? Discerning rules—summing up

This is only a very brief introduction to the idea of system mapping. We will return to this later, in greater detail. A system map is a visual representation of a system and can help you to understand the complexities in order to see some of the simple rules which may be governing the system. In another course, we'll introduce you to a number of mapping tools to describe your complex problem system and to identify what factors are affecting it. What are the most relevant elements within the complex system? What might be some strategies for intervention to change the patterns? We'll come to all this later; but for now, keep reflecting on any patterns you think you can discern in the system within which your problem is embedded.

You can find out more about system mapping (PDF) and Casual Loop Diagrams. If you want to try it out, you can use the freely available at Cmap or XMind.

1.14 What is a system? Summary of complex adaptive systems

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This segment is a summary of the fundamentals of complex adaptive systems. It relates some of what we see in social systems to what we see in physical and biological systems. As you view the summary, watch for these key concepts:

  • Perspective/perceiver
  • Relationships
  • Emergence vs. control
  • Standing still
  • Guiding rules
  • Interconnected systems and sub-systems
  • Agency and the active role of the observer
  • Being part of the system

Take some time at this point to stand still and reflect on what you've learned about the systems in which you're working to create change, and your role within them.

1.15 Describing systems—interconnectedness

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This segment looks at the dynamics that cause the problems of underdevelopment and overdevelopment in order to illustrate the interconnectedness of large-scale systems. As you watch, think about common perspectives that may exist in the system(s) in which you're working. Try to see how they may connect with other systems and how trying to pull a system apart (e.g. looking at only one part of it) diminishes rather than enhances understanding.

1.16 Scale—theory of emergence

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Often it's difficult to see how things that happen on an individual level (conversations or daily routines, for example) can change things at an organizational or broad system level. Similarly, the larger system has an influence on what happens within organizations and amongst individuals. These are examples of the inter-relatedness of different levels or scales. So, to create a change, you need to understand this concept of scale and how scales inter-relate. As you view the video, try to think of examples in your own work of how different levels connect to each other. You might also begin to reflect upon the scale at which the problem originates and at what scale an intervention would have the best chance of achieving impact.

To learn more about Steven Johnson, please visit his book, or TED talk.

1.17 Scale—structuration—from local to global

Scale—structuration—from local to global (PDF)

We are embedded in, embody, and act out structures of beliefs, power, and rules and norms at micro, meso, and macro scales. Here, we continue to explore the idea of scale, beginning with a framework used to understand social structures. In the lecture segment which follows, Frances will help us to see how this applies to change-making.

To learn more about structuration theory, see Anthony Giddens' work on the topic or, if you want to go further, you can find many papers on structuration on the web.

1.18 Scale—micro, meso, macro

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 Transcript for "Complex systems - scale-micro-meso-macro" video (PDF)

Let’s go deeper into these ideas of structuration and scale. What do they actually look like at micro, meso, and macro levels? And what do they mean for us as social innovators? Keep in mind the Giddens framework you learned about as you listen to this lecture. With respect to the problem or domain that you’re interested in, reflect on the question Frances poses—at which level is it most fruitful to intervene?

1.19 Scale—a case: structuration

Scale—a case: structuration (PDF)

Read the document attached here for a couple of very brief case studies illustrating the concepts of scale and structuration--and introducing a case that will set the scene for the following exercise, the journey tool.

1.20 Scale—the journey tool

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Here we introduce a resource called the journey tool, which will help you to understand and analyze the experience of the individuals you feel are negatively affected by the problem(s) within your system of interest. With this tool, you'll be able to identify more precisely where problems are encountered and where those problems are coming from, by understanding more about what is happening at different scales.

Scale—the journey tool (PDF)

We have also provided a PDF of the journey tool example so that you can download it and study it in more detail.

1.21 Complex systems—review

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 Transcript for "Complex problems - systems review from the beginning" (PDF)

This segment is a review of units 1—4. As you watch this summary, reflect on what you've learned about the types of problems you're focused upon and the approaches you're taking to positively change those problems areas. How do tools like systems mapping and the journey tool, and concepts like complexity and scale deepen your understanding? Are you beginning to get a clearer understanding of where the problem originates? Can you create a system map that could help you to understand and make sense of these dynamics? Are you able to use different lenses to view your problems? If you know others who are also thinking about systems and complexity, discuss what has stood out for each of you.

If you're interested in learning more about complex adaptive systems, see Complexity by John H. Holland.