2. Why bother with how complex systems tick? One word: agency

I took a plunge into understanding what makes complex systems tick in 2008, while helping develop Sustain Northern Rivers, a regional collaboration to address climate change in northern NSW. My friend Ken McLeod suggested I kick off a Learning Circle in Health Promotion where I was working. So we did. Our question was “Complexity theory is being used in many knowledge domains, how could it help us understand whole population change?” Thus began a journey in which I’ve experienced the usefulness of these concepts in population health, organisations, social movements and campaigns.

The real world of human interaction is characterised by self-organisation and emergence. With these qualities, human systems are adaptive and complex, very different from linear, predictable machines. Yet the machine-metaphor has entrained our thinking, reinforced through 20th century managerialism.

Some might ask…does it matter? After all, effective people have always instinctively worked with these dynamics. I’ve reached the conclusion that it does matter. It matters if you want to empower a community to take charge of their health. It matters if you want a social movement of sufficient turbulence and power to effect change. It matters if your organisation wants to maximise outcomes for every dollar accepted in donations. All of these ambitions require us to liberate agency. To do this it helps to become fluent in the language of human systems that are networked, self-organising and emergent.

When I first took the plunge into complexity concepts via a learning circle, we worked our way through videos, articles and books in a highly mutual and beneficial process of collective learning. At first I found some concepts elusive, and took this as a good sign that complexity was a new paradigm. I had to re-read some material before I developed conceptual anchor points and was able to apply these concepts in practice.

I’m not an expert in complex adaptive systems, but I am passionate about our ability to work together to sustain healthy communities and healthy ecologies. In these blog posts I’ll share some of the resources and AHA moments that, along the way, helped me work with others to liberate agency.

I hope it’s useful.