What is a complex system and how is it different?

This video presentation from Chris Wood, Michael Quinn Patton and Ben Ramalingam for USAID looks at complex systems and how they are different from the norm. The presentation begins by focusing on concepts and methods for exploring complex and adaptive systems and then moves on to the niche and implications of complexity and then finishes with a discussion of complexity and foreign aid.


"I hope I can maybe draw together the strands between Chris' and Michael's presentations. I want to start with a well-known parable, which I'm sure some of you will know. I think its origins are in Buddhist philosophy. A man was walking home one dark and foggy night and as he made his way through the murk, he trips over someone that's on all fours, fumbling around under a lamppost. "What are you doing?" he asks. "I'm looking for my keys," says the second man. "Are you sure you lost them here?" asks the traveller. "I'm not at all sure," came the reply, "but if I didn't lose them here, I don't have a chance of finding them."

This, to me, this order of fumbling around under the lamp light, is a really good analogy for what we in the development sector do when it comes to our mental models. And I would argue that developing humanitarian aid is dominated, not just a light touch thing; they're dominated by certain mental models. We treat economies; we treat social systems; we treat political systems, ecologies, as if they were analogies essentially to a series of wind-up clocks.

These are essentially basic machines. And that we can analyze these clocks, we can understand their parts, we can understand how they fit together perfectly; and having understood that, we can design interventions as if we were external to these machines. We can design these interventions and through analysis, through prediction, through planning, and through control we can bring about changes in these systems. This basically turns aid into the search for the right inputs. As long as we do the right thing, we'll be able to bring about the changes that we want in the world."


Wood, C., Patton, M. Q.,  and Ramalingam, B., (2011). What is a complex system and how is it different? USAID. Retrieved from: http://usaidlearninglab.org/sites/default/files/media/articulate/111012_complexity_event_session_1/player.html

No votes yet
Rate this Resource:
This resource is useful for:
A special thanks to this page's contributors


There are currently no comments. Be the first to comment on this page!

Add new comment

Login Login and comment as BetterEvaluation member or simply fill out the fields below.