If Complexity was a person, she would be a Socialist. Jean Boulton on the politics of systems thinking.

May 15, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Jean Boulton (physicist, management consultant and social scientist, right) responds to Owen Barder’s Wednesday post on thinking of Jean-Boulton-pic-199x300development as a property of a complex adaptive system.

I’d like to go a bit further than Owen on the implications of complexity for how we understand power and politics. It is generally the case that the powerful get more powerful and the big get bigger. We know this through bitter experience, captured in complexity language by the notion of ‘positive feedback loops’ which equate to the economists’ ‘increasing returns’. In general there is no reason to expect that economies will self-regulate and find a ‘natural’ balance. Even forests, if left to themselves for long enough, reduce in diversity, increase in efficiency and become ‘locked in’ to ecological patterns that are hard to invade and change and can easily collapse (see below, left). Despite the popularity of the phrase ‘complex adaptive systems’, complex systems do not always adapt.

Instead, complexity suggests that  if we want economic development that equalizes power, reduces inequality and incorporates longer-term environmental goals, there is a need for some sort of regulatory processes to counter the seemingly inevitable coalescing of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Otherwise the rise out of poverty is linked more to growth than to development (development meaning a qualitative change in shape and form of the economy rather than a quantitative change – you can obviously have both). And an economy that is growing can in fact take our attention away from underlying structural exacerbations of inequality. Growth cannot go on forever, as land, water and minerals are consumed – not to mention the impact on climate change – but growth can mask just who captures the bulk of resources and can exert control over governments, markets and societies.


This move away from a balanced self-regulating system is different, I would argue, to the behaviour of ant colonies and flocks of birds. Their self-organising processes are specific to the task. They can merely rearrange the deck chairs, so to speak; they can fly around buildings or build ants’ nests that adapt to local conditions, but they don’t in general change their nature and adopt new behaviours. Nothing new emerges, nothing co-evolves.

Sometimes, something more drastic and disruptive is needed. In situations which have very locked-in political and social factors, the focus needs to be on how to break the deadlock, perhaps with high level political interventions and sanctions rather than more gentle adaptation. No use approaching economic development in Palestine with an adaptive mindset. Equally, if the situation is chaotic, like say in South Sudan, then finding ways to build on (any) emerging shoots of political stability is likely to be a first priority.

So, I think the ways to intervene are not necessarily about improving the ‘capacity to adapt’. Sometimes it is also about opposing the powerful who want to reduce diversity. Sometimes it is about slow systemic change, but sometimes it is about seizing opportunities, building on success or on pockets of best practice. And sometimes it is about pushing all the levers in the same direction; or influencing the one key person or focusing on a key underlying issue without which all else well fail; or doing all of these at different times.

I’m also more keen on analysis than Owen. I think you have to start with the historical background (which sets a sort of complex baseline and identifies the strength and form of current social and political and economic patterns), understand the wider contextual features and, indeed, identify ‘missing ingredients’ and ‘binding constraints’ together with opportunities and future possible ‘critical junctures’. Analysis has to have a time dynamic, and be systemic, but I think it is vital. Then, true, you have to move into action and try things out without expecting to prove exactly what is the best strategy or what it will achieve.

We’ve covered power, but, with last week’s elections in the UK fresh in mind, what about the politics of Complexity? At least if she was interested in social and economic justice, Complexity would never stand for election for a party based on a ‘free market’ ideology because, as discussed above, positive feedback loops lead, almost inexorably, to the big getting bigger and the powerful increasing in power. The reduction in numbers of small banks, the constant pushing of legal boundaries, the size of bankers’ bonuses show what can happen in a deregulated market. Power and money give the means to dominate, to win the advertising campaign, to push governments, to squeeze supply chains. There is no such thing as a free market.

Instead, I would argue that Complexity is more of a socialist than anything else (a very Green one though – she

Red, green and complex

Red, green and complex

understands the need to consider long-term consequences to the system of which we are a part). Complexity understands market failure. She does not take the naïve view that self-organizing processes are shaped by some sort of ‘natural law’ and can be trusted to provide the ‘best’ outcome; she understands the importance of governance and ways of upholding the needs of the less powerful, the poor, the longer-term and the environment. This is not to suggest that she would impose a top-down model of governance dreamed up on a plane by consultants and lawyers and plopped fully formed onto a developing country. Rather she sees the need to facilitate the emergence of socially-owned processes of governance and civic empowerment, and to build on those practices that already exist.

There’s more. Complexity is community-minded (would balance freedom with responsibility), keen to work at the appropriate scale, keen not to impose solutions, but to work with enhancing and protecting what is already there. She is passionate about embracing diversity and brave enough to wander well outside any narrow remit to identify blockages, join things up and say the unsayable. She understands that you have to work from the smallest household to the biggest government or corporation – and back again -to enhance the conditions for economic development in a way that leads to equality and sustainability.

Jean’s book, ‘Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence’ (written together with Peter Allen and Cliff Bowman) will be out this summer, published by Oxford University Press. 


May 15, 2015
Duncan Green