Escaping the complexity dilemma

Barry Newell, Katrina Proust

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


    The characteristic behaviour of a social-ecological system (SES) emerges from feedback interactions between its parts. This means that its response to human activities cannot be predicted on the basis of studies of its individual parts taken separately. As expressed by Ackoff (1986), A system is more than the sum of its parts; it is the product of their interactions. If taken apart, it simply disappears. But anyone who tries to look at an SES as a whole will be overwhelmed by its complexity such a system has too many parts, interacting in too many different ways, at too many different scales, for it to be understood as a whole. This is the complexity dilemma. On the one hand, practical approaches to policy development require the identification of relatively simple, understandable sub-systems. On the other hand, the reductive process of isolating a sub-system draws a boundary around a limited set of state variables and breaks causal links with key variables in other sub-systems. This process runs the risk of leading to unsustainable policies that sooner or later are besieged by unexpected outcomes often outcomes that the new policies themselves have triggered.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationSustainability Science: Key issues
    EditorsAriane Konig and Jerome Ravetz
    Place of PublicationLondon
    PublisherRoutledge Taylor & Francis Group
    ISBN (Print)9781315620329
    Publication statusPublished - 2018


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