Which of these three books on complexity and development is right for you? Review/user’s guide

March 16, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Dave Algoso (@dalgoso ) with a handy guide to what to read for those wondering what all this complexity stuff is about

In the last few years, complexity thinking has found its way into general development discourse. Anyone reading this blog or others has likely encountered some of the terminology, even if the technical pieces remain elusive to you. Ready to go deeper than the blogs? Time to read a book.

Fortunately, the last few years have also given the development sector three relevant books: Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos; Jean Boulton, Peter Allen, and Cliff Bowman’s Embracing Complexity; and Danny Burns and Stuart Worsley’s Navigating Complexity in International Development.

It would take a committed development nerd to read the approximately 800 pages (not counting endnotes and indexes) of these three books. Since I am that nerd, let me help guide your reading.

First, the briefest possible explanation of complexity, for those who are new to the subject: Complexity thinking is a way of understanding how elements of systems interact and change over time, often leading to the emergence of unpredictable outcomes.

As a field, complexity lies somewhere between a philosophy and a science; Boulton et al call it a “worldview”. Don’t be misled by this hedging: complexity as a science (complete with computational tools and academic institutes) has found applications in ecology, meteorology, biology, physics, economics, and beyond. Yet there is great variety and even disagreement, so some find it more useful to talk about complexity sciences (plural). The popular intellectual landscape is also littered with concepts drawn from complexity thinking, such as tipping points, self-organization, power laws, adaptation, and wicked problems.

This all seems potentially relevant to the development sector. After all, what could be more complex than promoting development, sustainability, human rights, peace, and governance? Even in humanitarian aid, where the objectives may be more straightforward, the fragile contexts themselves are highly complex.

Each of these books tackles two questions—what complexity is and what it means for development/aid—in slightly different ways. Which you should read depends on what level of depth you want on either of those questions.

Embracing Complexity (Boulton et al) goes deepest on the technical aspects of complexity. The authors are complexity scientists themselves, expert users of the tools across disciplines and comfortable with terms like “equifinality” and “hysteresis”. However, their intended audience is non-specialists, and the result is authoritative yet easily followed.

As for aid and development, the book only devotes a single chapter (though other examples are scattered throughout the book). Boulton et al are actually writing about embracing complexity across many sectors. That said, the development chapter is worthwhile for its greater connection to the technical aspects of complexity described elsewhere in the book. In addition, separate chapters on the implications of complexity for management, strategy, and economics are highly relevant to development work.

Aid on the Edge of Chaos (Ramalingam) starts with a well articulated (if familiar) critique of the aid and development sectors. That occupies a full third of the (360-page) book. The middle third then covers complexity thinking. Unlike Boulton et al, Ramalingam’s description of complexity is more conceptual and narrative. A reader leaves with a broad understanding of concepts like emergence and nonlinearity—certainly more than you get from blogs, but without exposure to the more fine-grained details that Boulton et al discuss.

Ramalingam devotes the final third of the book to the implications of complexity for aid and development, covering adaptive strategies like positive deviance and PDIA, as well as analytical tools like social network analysis.

Navigating Complexity (Burns and Worsley) starts similarly to Ramalingam, with a critique of development and a review of complexity thinking, but both are much briefer. Burns/Worsley admit upfront that complexity theorists would find their treatment light while practitioners would find it heavy. In a single chapter, they cover just enough of the conceptual and technical side to then move readers on to the practical implications for development.

In particular, they cover three concrete approaches: participatory systemic inquiry, systemic action research, and nurtured emergent development. They tie each back to complexity concepts, with detailed case studies. Participatory approaches, learning, and network-building feature heavily.

Which should you read?

You’re busy (aren’t we all?), so let’s break it down in simpler terms. While each book is good and deserves a broad audience, each should find its key audiences based on its strengths:

  • Boulton et al’s Embracing Complexity provides the best detailed introduction to complexity, in both its thinking and practical applications. Key audiences: Strategists, managers, and anyone who wants to use complexity thinking in a detailed way.
  • Burns/Worsley’s Navigating Complexity is the most practical guide to complexity in development that I’ve seen. It also does a great job of putting participatory methods in a new light. Key audiences: Direct managers, designers, and evaluators of projects.
  • Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos gives the best insight into complexity’s implications for the sector at large. Key audiences: Donor staff, researchers, and think tankers.

This three-part review is hardly a summary of each book, but hopefully guides your further reading. Was this enough to whet your appetite, but you’re not yet sold? Duncan has previously reviewed both Embracing Complexity and Aid on the Edge.

Closing thoughts

All three books are selective in which aspects of complexity thinking they apply to aid and development: Boulton et al are selective because they spend relatively little time discussing development, Ramalingam and Burns/Worsley because they have not introduced the more technical components of complexity. But it leaves you with the sense that there may be a richer way to apply the tools and practices.

Relatedly, few of the development approaches described actually stem from the discipline of complexity thinking. Rather, the authors have worked backwards from various approaches to explain their success in terms of complexity. It suggests the possibility for developing entirely new practices with complexity applied more deliberately. To say updated on those, you’ll have to turn back to the blogs.

[Alternatively you could just cheat and read Oxfam’s handy intro to systems thinking in programmes]

March 16, 2016
Duncan Green