Department of Social & Policy Sciences

Book launch: Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence

Wed Sep 30 15:35:00 BST 2015

Embracing Complexity book cover

Embracing Complexity book.


Centre for Development Studies Visiting Fellow, Dr Jean Boulton has launched her new book entitled: Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence.

The book has been co-authored with Peter M. Allan and Cliff Bowman. It was launched at a seminar held in the Department of Social & Policy Sciences on Thursday 24 September 2015. 

Creating fresh thinking across society

Complexity theory is now much discussed in the social sciences. In the context of the repeating crises facing our economies, ecologies and societies, there is a need for fresh thinking.

In the book, Dr Boulton explains that organisations and policy makers still want to define detailed rules, standardise methods, and evidence and measure outcomes. In the field of economics, there is almost the opposite – increasing deregulation and laissez-faire driven by a strong belief in the invisible hand of the market and in the power of competition to lead to optimal outcomes.

She points out that what is remarkable is that belief in both of these approaches seems to harden and persist in spite of the stark and sometimes completely unexpected social eruptions and political crises that dominate the news.

Most of the solutions, she says, consist in propping up the status quo, doing more of the same, just trying harder - rather than thinking afresh and questioning underlying assumptions.

In contrast, complexity theory is the theory of open systems, like organisations or economies, and how they interact and are affected by the wider world. It gives a different approach to engaging with the world – a middle ground between control and chaos. It advocates more tentativeness and less hubris. It suggests ‘try it and see’ or ‘try several things and see’ rather than ‘the analysis of the situation shows this is the right way to tackle it’.

Making things simpler and more straightforward

Dr Boulton argues that embracing complexity can actually makes things easier, simpler, and more straightforward. That organisations spend a lot of time making cases, forming detailed plans, completing analyses, and demonstrating outcomes, but often little of this really gets to the heart of the situation. 

Complexity suggests that clarifying intentions but undertaking less planning and more experimentation would be not only more effective but also simpler.

Speaking about complexity, Jean says; “If the world is complex, then acting congruently with that complexity can be simpler than trying to control a machine that does not exist.”