Exploring the science of complexity: Ideas and implications for development and humanitarian efforts

This paper, authored by Ben Ramalingam and Harry Jones with Toussaint Reba and John Young for the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), explores and reflects on the concepts of complexity science and what they mean for development and humanitarian programs.


"The paper details each of the 10 concepts of complexity science, using real world examples where possible. It then examines the implications of each concept for those working in the aid world. Here, we list the 10 concepts for reference, using the next section of this summary to suggest some overall implications of using the concepts for work in international development and humanitarian spheres.

The ten concepts are as follows:

  1. Interconnected and interdependent elements and dimensions;
  2. Feedback processes promote and inhibit change within systems;
  3. System characteristics and behaviours emerge from simple rules of interaction;
  4. Nonlinearity;
  5. Sensitivity to initial conditions;
  6. Phase space – the ‘space of the possible’;
  7. Attractors, chaos and the ‘edge of chaos’;
  8. Adaptive agents;
  9. Self-organisation;
  10. Co-evolution" (Ramalingam, Jones, Reba & Young, 2008)


  • Putting complexity sciences into context 4
  • Origins 4
  • Applications in the social, political and economic realms 5
  • Concepts used in complexity sciences and their implications for development and humanitarian policy and practice 8
  • Unpacking complexity science: Key concepts and implications for international aid 8
  • Complexity and systems 8
  • Complexity and change 23
  • Complexity and agency 44
  • Conclusions 59
  • How do the concepts of complexity science fit together? 59
  • What do the complexity science concepts offer to those facing international development and humanitarian problems? 60
  • How does complexity science differ from existing ways of understanding and interpreting international development and humanitarian problems? 60
  • What kinds of phenomena can complexity science help us better understand? 61
  • What is the value of complexity science for those engaged in humanitarian and development work? Specifically, does complexity science tell us anything new? 62
  • What kinds of practical uses are there for complexity science in international aid? 63


Ramalingam, B., Jones, H., Reba, T., & Young, J. Overseas Development Institute (ODI), (2008).Exploring the science of complexity: Ideas and implications for development and humanitarian efforts. Retrieved from website: http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opi...

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