Complexity + Community

My PhD thesis is titled The Beauty of a Complex Future, exploring the success and sustainability of change in the workplace, focusing on the teaching and learning environment.

There are valid reasons why it’s important to shift from a machine-like factory model of school to one that is more human and organic. But this is not just relevant to education. Right now, we have the opportunity to rethink many aspects of everyday life, to realign our priorities.

What do I mean by complexity?

In earlier, simpler times, life was a little more certain, less ambiguous. We could make plans and we thought the future was predictable. In the 21st century, technology added a layer of complexity. But in 2020, this amplified exponentially. Complexity theory helps us to navigate the ‘uns’ – unknown, unpredictable and uncertain.

A Lesson in Complexity – Mechanic or Organic

Machines are necessary, in the right place. I want my espresso machine to predictably make a great cup every time. It is predictable, a machine is just the sum of its parts. Communities need to be more like an ecosystem, if we try to use the mechanic-mindset, our communities will just break.

Complexity theory functions as an adaptive system, like ants in an any colony. Through their complex interactions and feedback loops, agents (the people in our communities) work out a way forward, through trial-and-error. Agents collaborate to prototype and test, they respond to feedback. Fresh innovation and creativity emerge from grassroots interactions, which is less likely to be achieved by top-down directives.

Embracing complexity means rethinking the ‘how’. Decision-making and problem-solving are the vehicles through which we navigate life. Everyday we face decision which require a response:

Based on Cynefin Knowledge Framework (Snowden & Boone, 2007)

Seeing the world through the lens of complexity has led me to consider the constructs, the expectations, and the rituals that govern our lives.

The Complex Community

I wanted to lay this foundation before getting to the heart of this post. I am talking about culture.  Schein (2009) suggests that we often oversimplify culture by describing it as ‘the way we do things around here’.  Instead he suggests that “Culture is a pattern of shared tacit assumptions that was learned by the group as it solved its problems” (p.27). When common attitudes and behaviours are reinforced these are then taught to new group members and integrated into the fabric of the group. In short, we do things the way they have always been done, we keep perpetuating the known.

How might we approach complex challenges?

I have been part of faith communities all my life, I was raised in the factory-era of church, with its cause and effect scenarios, its top-down leadership directives. The metaphor of the body is often used to describe the people in a faith community, one body, but it is comprised of many parts. While we can identify the parts of the body, we can’t take it apart and reassemble like a machine. This ‘body’ is greater than the sum of its parts. Human-centred faith communities successfully navigate complexity, rather than complicate things.

What does this mean? (Perhaps another post!)
In short, a community of people, interconnected, self-organising and ‘as one’. 

there are many parts. But there is only one body. The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  In fact, it is just the opposite. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without. (1Cor. 12.20-22)

Perhaps we need to consider community with fresh eyes in 2020.


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