What is complexity?

“ I think complexity is the science for the 21 st century” ~ Stephen Hawking

Complexity is an emerging intellectual revolution, at the confluence of science, social science, and the humanities. It is the science of clouds and flocks of birds and symphonies and human bodies – diverse and marvelously complex compositions of parts which dynamically interact within and between all levels of scale, co-evolving, self-organizing, and culminating in a whole that is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. For example, the brain is made up of component cells and molecules that comprise neurons and neurotransmitters, but where in the brain does consciousness lie?

Thus by leading us to these questions, complexity reframes our view of many systems only partially understood by traditional Newtonian deterministic perspectives, with the promise of yielding new insights, understandings, tools

A few concepts:

  • A science of the real world modeled after processes observed in nature and society, how systems ACTUALLY behave rather than how they SHOULD behave
  • currently being applied to everything from stock markets to ecosystems to human bodies to hospitals to termite colonies… because they share patterns of behaviour
  • look at networks and linkages within and between pieces of a system at all levels of scale, the patterns of relationships, how they are sustained, how they self organize, how they co-evolve, how outcomes emerge
  • complexity thinking allows us to think and see differently, to better understand the world with new insights and perspectives, and gives us tools to solve 21c problems
  • The discipline has developed from Nobel laureates, MacArthur and Pulitzer prize winners, and renowned scientists as Murray Gell-Mann in physics, Linda Reichl in physics, Ilya Prigogine in chemistry, and the late Herbert Simon in psychology. A scaffold timeline is provided on the sidebar.

    The Plexus Institute has an excellent introduction to complexity http://www.plexusinstitute.org/About/New_to_Complexity.cfm.

Where do complexity and women intersect?

1) Is Complexity inherently a “feminist science”?

Many of the principles of complexity resonate with the way women approach and relate to the world around them, sparking much debate on whether complexity approaches are inherently a feminist science.

For example, “Complexity, A Feminine Science: Why Women Leaders Have An Edge In Complex Organizations.” was the subject of a Plexus Group panel discussion, between Birute Regine, Dr Eileen Hoffman and Dr Justina Trott, experts on women and complexity (Plexus Calls). The panel proposes that women leaders effectively demonstrate success in dynamic, ever-changing, complex organizational environments by combining traditionally “masculine” values such as goal oriented, bottom line thinking, and comfort with hierarchy, with more typically “female” skills such as compassion, collective leadership, a holistic perspective, relational intelligence, consensus building, and orientation to context.

2) The Value of Story, Attachment, Meaning

 “Is Complexity the language of the mother?” asks Anne Phelan, in “Rationalism, Complexity Science and Curriculum: A cautionary tale.” Professor Phelan studies feminist and post-structural theories at the University of British Columbia. Feminist science talks about the weaving of women’s own experience into multi-threaded tapestries, and the value of the narrative – which is often replaced by the linear narrative and Euclidean thought in traditional academic training. Dr Phelan suggests the complexity approach invites an interpretive and linguistic turn in our thought and practice as a HERMENEUTIC (notion that one cannot understand the meaning of a portion of a work until one understands the whole, even though one cannot understand the whole until one understands the parts), yielding a richness in education, endowment of meaning and an attitude of inquiry.

“ I never thought to wonder where this process of educated men was leading me” ~ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

 3) Relationships Matter!

“When you begin bringing relationships, feelings, into anything, there is messiness. Just by nature, this becomes complex." ~ Birute Regine

  • Agents dynamically interacting together have a mutual effect, and something novel will emerge… relationships!
  • In relating narratives, sharing stories, and developing collective shared experience, participants have the opportunity to co-evolve, learn and grow. All these are principles of complexity.
  • Women in leadership positions tend to quietly build critical mass, develop collective wisdom drawing on individual strengths and weakness, and seek to find common ground. This synthesis is the essence of complexity, leading to the emergence of successful approaches.
  • Women tend to draw together their many roles and aspects of their lives in a holistic perspective, which seeks relationships across disciplinary boundaries

4) It’s All About Context

Women, individuals and populations interact within complex frameworks and networks of social, economic, psychological, biological, political systems, and others, shaping their experiences and understanding of the world. Complexity embraces the dynamism of the many factors, the relationships between them, the complex outcomes that may emerge, and that to truly understand the individual experience, one must consider all the systems in which they are nested. Sustainable solutions to any problem must address multiple levels in these causal webs.



1643 Sir Issac Newton

whole = sum of parts

1851 Henri Poincare

three body problem unsolvable!

1963 Yoshiko Uede

discovery of chaos in an electrical lab

1963 Edward Lorenz

MIT weatherman - the butterfly effect

1970 Sir Robert May

criticality in ecosystems

1975 Li & Yorke

"CHAOS" first used, in a math paper

1977 Ilya Prigogine

Nobel Prize for dissipative systems far from equilibrium

1980 Benoit Mandelbrot


1984 Santa Fe Institute

dedicated to research and education applying complexity

1987 Per Bak

self organized criticality in sand dunes

1988 James Gleick

Chaos - Making a New Science