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How Complexity Makes Civity Clearer

Updated: May 22, 2019

By Daniel Friedman


In everyday parlance, to describe a situation as "complex" is to deem it complicated, intractable, and unmanageable. Politicians might label an issue as "complex" if there is no clear path toward resolution, essentially using the adjective "complex" as a rhetorical parry to side-step further discussion. Thus, from the smallest towns to the largest inter-governmental coalitions, there is an accumulation of unresolved "complex" problems in environmental, economic, and social domains. Where do we go from here?

For individuals and organizations working toward solutions to these problems, a good starting point is to reframe our understanding of the word "complex" by borrowing concepts from the field of Complexity Science. Far from the conversation-stopping deployment of the word "complex" in politics, in Complexity Science the word "complex" is like a passport that allows one to transcend their own narrow conception of an issue and explore a vast archipelago of related systems and helpful tools. Here, I want to clarify the concept of "complexity" according to Complexity Science and address the perspective of Complexity Science on socio-economic change and Civity.

Complexity Science is not (yet) a department at most academic institutions or an undergraduate major. Rather, it is a powerful interdisciplinary framework for thinking about systems that consist of many interacting subunits. Classic examples of complex systems are the brain, the internet, and ant colonies. Despite obvious differences, these aforementioned systems display many important commonalities. For example, all of these systems are self-organizing, sensitive to small changes in ambient conditions, display emergent properties, and make adaptive collective decisions even when individuals (here neurons, computers, or ants) may be only partially-informed.

Again, to say that brains, the internet, or ant colonies are "complex" is not to say that they are too complicated to understand. Rather the term "complex" here turbo-charges your mind by providing access to new families of quantitative models and creative analogies. This is hardly "standing on the shoulders of giants", a metaphor that alludes to a massive teetering intellectual pyramid scheme. Rather, the interdisciplinary approach of Complexity Science reminds me of a flat raft of fire ants being washed down a river by a flood. Perhaps if Newton would have known about Complexity Science, he would have quipped: "If I have floated further down the river of knowledge, it is only by participating in a decentralized floating process which we are all a part of. "

Civity is an action-oriented approach to socio-economic change that draws on the power of Complexity Science. Both Civity and Complexity Science stress the importance of network-thinking, feedback loops across multiple system levels, and the impact of local behavior and connections on global outcomes. Many links between Civity and complexity have already been drawn: (1) complementing other work on complexity in sociology (2), policy (3), and governance (4).

As President of the Stanford Complexity Group, I was immediately drawn to Civity. Social issues such as wealth inequality have long been a focus of Complexity Science. But like many academic inquires, most of the work on society as a complex system remains quite abstract. Civity is exciting to me because it is “applied complexity science” for the clamorous socio-economic issues of today. Action requires us to go beyond neutral descriptions of injustice by stating both a positive vision for the future and specific next steps to take. I think that if Complexity Science asks "Why?", Civity asks "How?". If Complexity asks “When?”, Civity already knows that the time to act is NOW.

Civity and Complexity Science harmonize on this theme: when individuals act locally, their actions are amplified by the pre-existing network structure of their society. Small negative changes in individual behavior might plunge entire nations into censorship, totalitarianism, or genocide. Conversely, when we are kind to our neighbors and practice Civity, we play a unique role in repairing the world and cannot pre-state the beneficial impact of our works. In the Jewish community, this is known as "Tikkun Olam".

The peak of Mt. Everest can be approached from either Tibet or Nepal. Similarly, the towering realization that our individual behavior really matters for the world can be reached via Civity or Complexity, science or spirituality. That we can reach this realization from so many different disciplines is a testament to its Truth (truth?). This is a deeply empowering insight, and at least for me, a terrifying one, as well. Indeed, any realization that is electrically-charged enough to be empowering is also energetic enough to be shocking.

Perhaps the engine that drives the effectiveness of Civity is the "social butterfly effect". When we flap our Civity-wings locally by performing true acts of kindness for our neighbors, we may unknowingly catalyze a love storm somewhere halfway across the world.

May the Complexity be with us all.

Daniel Friedman is President of the Stanford Complexity Group.

1. Strand, P. J. Cultivating ‘Civity’: Enhancing City Resilience with Bridging Relationships and Increased Trust. (2014).

2. Page, S. E. What Sociologists Should Know About Complexity. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 41, 21–41 (2015).

3. Mitchell, S. D. Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy. (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

4. Duit, A. & Galaz, V. Governance and Complexity—Emerging Issues for Governance Theory. Governance 21, 311–335 (2008).


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