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We are a multidisciplinary innovation studio working with diverse partners to understand sustainability challenges and identify holistic, resilient solutions, and we are committed to training the next generation of leaders.

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Insights, inspiration and opportunities to create a more vibrant and resilient future.

What Does Complex Even Mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

The world is complex, the challenges we face are complex, even our solutions are complex. Everything these days is described as complex. But what does that even mean?

The word “complex” is derived from the Latin “complexus,” meaning "braided together." Our understanding of the word today is also informed by complexity theory, which emerged in the mid-1980s to describe the uncertainty and non-linearity of natural systems. It describes complexity as emerging from the interrelationship, interaction, and inter-connectivity of elements within a system, as well as between a system and its environment. It further acknowledges that interactions between elements may drive feedback loops that exacerbate the initial interaction. In short, a complex system adapts and changes in unpredictable ways over time.

So, in light of a more thorough look at the word, what is or isn’t “complex”? Cities, like ecosystems, are considered complex adaptive systems. The challenge of putting a man on the moon, however, is technically only considered “complicated;” it really comes down to the difficult task of aligning the right experts, technology, and equipment. On the other hand, addressing climate change is a “complex” issue, because every year that passes, the climatic conditions change. It is an uncertain future and our response, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation, must evolve over time.

When tackling truly complex problems our approach must reflect the true definition of the term. Thus, the idea of a “solution” is far too definitive and settled. We must instead adopt an adaptive approach and consider our work as interventions that should be ever-tested, evaluated, and revised.