Complex Adaptive Systems

Wendell Jones

Ombudsman, Sandia National Lab

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: Complex adaptive systems.


It is the notion that systems as a whole produce outcomes, results, and behaviors that don't originate in any one person. I mean that is a powerful way of looking at collaboration. It turns out those kinds of systems, the ones that thrive and adapt successfully, use both cooperative and collaborative strategies, as well as some competitive strategies. We learn how to intimately mix those two types of strategies to some shared beneficial outcome for the whole system.


Q: Can you paint me a single picture, or provide me with an analogy so that I can understand how a biological system, where there is cooperation and competition to come up with an output, can be analogous to a social situation involving human beings?

A: The comparison I'll make is to an ant colony. The good thing is that humans aren't ants. We have much cognitive conscious powers to make choices. The couple of points I'll make by looking at an ant colony as a complex adaptive system is the notion that any individual ant is really not very smart at all. They respond very simply and very directly to chemical signals. They are tightly pre-programmed. They don't make a lot of free-will kinds of decisions. Yet, the colony is an incredibly sophisticated thing in which there are complex strategies in which there is cooperation among the ants. There is even cooperation among adjoining colonies some of the time. Other times, it is pretty brutal survival of the fittest sort of strategy, and this was deployed in certain parts as well as strategies to grow and take over other ant colonies. So if you watch an ant colony, many things are collaborative. Many of us who have watched ant colonies work can see a lot of collaboration there, and there is some fairly brutal competition that is mixed with that.

Eventually, you end up with this larger system, which is much smarter than any individual ant. There is no smart ant that knows tactics, strategy to combat with other ant colonies. There is no smart ant that knows how to build consensus and collaboration among the ants, yet the whole system is able to do that. The gap between that sort of behavior and humans is huge. There is an example of where in that kind of a system you see competition and collaboration.

The other place you'll see it is that if you were to interview jazz musicians. A jazz ensemble is a nice example of a complex adaptive system in the sense that the players have certain basic rules, chromatic progressions that they all agree to before hand. In the midst of those simple rules they co-create something that's not predictable, that has a whole system, an ensemble sort of sound, history, and flavor to it that no one person has thought of and then instructed the others in. If you talk to a jazz musician, they'll tell you that in the midst of playing jazz that some of the time they are collaborating with their cohorts in the ensemble and some of the time they are competing. They move fluidly from cooperative and collaborative strategies in the moment to some competitive strategies. The best of that, in terms of competition, is that they are not destructive, damaging competitions. There isn't a jazz musician that wouldn't tell you that, "oh no, I get caught in competition with one of my ensemble partners." This doesn't do damage to the ensemble, but they are certainly competitive.

Q: Will understanding these types of relationships, and understanding the systems help us to deal with and manage conflict?

A: I think one of the most powerful shifts when looking at human systems as truly complex and adaptive systems is that it calls for us to let go of our traditional, our thoroughly embedded, educational notions that come around the words like analysis. All of us educated in the 400 years since the Enlightenment in the early 1600's have been trained, and believe in the power of what is known as reductionist-analytical thinking. That is, if I've got a big complicated thing, the way I better understand it is that I break it down into its pieces. I study the pieces. Then I hook the pieces back up, and that way I understand the whole.

Q: You take the engine apart of the car, put it back together and now you know how it works.

A: That is the analytical-reductionist approach. It is incredibly powerful. Virtually everything around us in the West is a result of that. The dilemma is that if you listen to the notion of what a complex adaptive system is you find out that it is a system in which individual parts are making their own local decisions, producing outcomes that are characteristic of the whole. You cannot take that apart. If you look at an ant colony, you can't take that apart. There are no headquarters' ants and supply ants. You can't take apart ant resources. You can't take it apart, study the parts and put it back together. The whole responds in a particular way that is characteristic of the whole. That is all you can do.

So our tendency to take any complicated conflict and want to break it apart and help the people involved solve it by solving it piece by piece has some utility. It has clearly worked, but it is really an approximation to the whole. In what's called intractable conflict, people end up frustrated because in the end what is clear to them in those kinds of conflicts is that everything is intimately connected to everything else. Everyone's effort to break it apart in pieces and work on the pieces separately and then to put it back together is the analytical approach. What we find is we started a discussion on a piece part and discovered that we could not discuss this separate from this other thing. Everything is hooked to everything when we have to work on it. Realizing that at best breaking something down into parts and working on parts is an approximation, sometimes a useful approximation, but it is always an approximation.

Sometimes the system is so tightly coupled that it will not yield to break it apart into pieces. We've got to develop a whole new set of tools on how to impact whole systems using a basic philosophical approach that is more holistic and integrative than the traditional one which is reductionist and analytical. I think that at looking at conflict through the lens of them being complex-adaptive systems as opposed to complicated systems requires us to make a major shift away from most all the tools we've developed.

Most all the tools we've developed are ones to help us in that analysis, conflict analysis, setting priorities, building a smaller simpler table. I mean you can look through the literature and tell that we really do want our old analytical tools to work, and they have. We shouldn't fail to use them when they work, but I think that the notions of complexity science give us a whole new way to look at conflict in these kinds of systems that will open up the use of new interventions, and new tools that we wouldn't come to without taking a really radically different look at these kinds of conflicts.


Q: It sounds like quite a formidable task to come up with social science, conflict management tools that can deal with a whole conflict system at the same time without breaking it apart. Is that feasible?

A: Sure it is. The fact that you and I are so deeply embedded in believing that the only way to get our arms around a complicated thing is to break it apart, to imagine giving up the hope that we won't be able to even break a problem apart is pretty daunting. We don't have another way to look at the problem. Folks are working hard right now, and will over the next twenty or thirty years to develop the ways of intersecting these sorts of systems.

Thirty years from now people will say, "Well of course we know how to do that."


Q: I sort of understand the ideas. I'm looking for a picture, an example that I can sink my teeth into so I can say, okay I'm getting it. Do you have something like that for me?

A: It may not be as focused as you'd like. I'll give you two. One that is human and one that is not. The one that is not human is the visual impact that a school of fish or a flock of birds has. You sit and you watch a flock of birds fly. They produce these incredibly ornate, never repeating motions in the air. To our eyes they look incredibly coordinated. I mean think of the work you would have to do to humans to behave with such coordinated action. The fact is there is no coordinating bird. There is no drum major bird that directs them. Instead what you have are individual birds with very simple programming. This programming says don't hit your neighbor, don't hit an obstacle, and fly in a certain range. Not too close and not too far from the birds around you. Out of those simple rules used by hundreds of birds you get incredibly complicated and never repeatable behavior. That is so hard for us to comprehend based on our education. Those simple rules, used by thousands of individuals, produce a system that does incredibly complex, complicated and unpredictable behavior. That is a great example of a complex adaptive system.

On the other side, lets look at the cell phone phenomenon. The people who introduce the first cell phone, never in their wildest dreams predicted that there would be cameras and the web. The web didn't even exist when they started with cell phones, and that is an example of the fact that you can have a small change in the cell phone. The people who envisioned it saw it as a limited substitute for hard-wired, land-line phone. What has happened is as tens of thousands, millions of people have taken that and adjusted their own lives around it. Cell phone technology has taken on a life that no one could have possibly predicted.

The other characteristic of these kinds of systems is that you get responses that can be explosively huge that no one could have possibly predicted. Those are two examples of how these systems work. The exciting thing for us, as dispute resolvers, is that we are a third party that enters a complicated system that might have millions of disputants. How in the world can a few people impact an outcome of millions? The truth is, in these kinds of systems small inputs can create or stimulate huge changes. That is something we should celebrate and leave open. Now, not all small changes or small inputs create large outputs, but some can. The exciting thing is that this is the nature of these systems that a few people can make a huge difference beyond their small numbers.

Q: The butterfly effect?

A: Give up the hope of predicting it. If you want to use the butterfly effect you have to know that the notion is we don't know which flap of the wings of which butterfly might create the hurricane. What we should do is release hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of butterflies and see what happens. As dispute resolvers, we shouldn't worry about what the one intervention is that will make a difference. We should try hundreds of smallish sorts of things that are thought out and we hope have a chance of having a positive impact. We are not looking for the one small intervention that will work, we want to have a lot of interventions that we hope might work and then we will see what happens.