Complexity Theory

AuthorWendy Mason, Hal Kirkwood

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The basic premise of complexity theory is that there is a hidden order to the behavior (and evolution) of complex systems, whether that system is a national economy, an ecosystem, an organization, or a production line. In business and finance, complexity theory places its focus on the ways a factory or company resemble an ecosystem or market, rather than a machine "whose parts and functions have been plucked out in advance," according to David Berreby. He maintains that the organization of systems is no accident, but "the results of laws of nature that we don't yet fully understand." Once understood, managers will learn that if left to function on their own, systems organize themselves, bringing about "order for free."

Proponents of complexity theory believe specific traits are shared by most complex systems. These systems are the combination of many independent actors behaving as a single unit. These actors respond to their environment, much as stock markets respond to news of changing economies, genes respond to natural

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selection, or the human brain responds to sensory input. All of these "networks" also act as a single system made of many interacting components. Complexity theory attempts to explain how even millions of independent actors can unintentionally demonstrate patterned behavior and properties that, while present in the overall system, are not present in any individual component of that system.

Complexity theory was founded on researchers's attempts to rationalize the behavior of large and complex systems, believing they cannot be explained by usual rules of nature. It attempts to discover how the many disparate elements of a system work with each other to shape the system and its outcomes, as well as how each component changes over time. It is also one way to express the perceived domination of systems over their myriad smaller influences.

While complexity theory is strikingly similar to chaos theory, complexity theorists maintain that chaos, by itself, does not account for the coherence of self-organizing, complex systems. Rather, complex systems reside at the edge of chaos—the actors or components of a system are never locked in to a particular position or role within the system, but they never fall completely out of control. As M. Mitchell Waldrop states in Complexity, "The edge of chaos is the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive."

Sherry Turkle, author of Life on the Screen and professor of sociology of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), feels that technology has helped bring the issues of complexity theory to life. She asserts that computers helped persuade us that knowing all the parts of a system (or a computer) cannot give anyone the ability to foresee all the complexity that can arise as all of those parts interact.


Much of the research on complexity theory originates from the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico, a mecca for those studying complexity theory. George A. Cowan, head of research at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, founded the Santa Fe Institute in the mid-1980s. Scientists at the institute claim that through the study of complexity theory, one can see not only the laws of chaos, but also those of order—through which a powerful explanation for how any collection of components will organize itself can be generated.

One of complexity theory's leading proponents is Stuart Kauffman, author of At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of...

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