How to approach complexity?

What we’re dealing with

When dealing with issues of design, planning, and organizing, we have to face both complicated and complex problems. A complicated problem is something that might be difficult, but still understandable and predictable. For example, building a watch or a bridge might be very difficult, but still something that we can understand and deal with careful planning. However, many problems are complex, meaning that they are difficult to understand and explain thoroughly. These kinds of problems, also known as messes (Ackoff, 1974) or wicked problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973) require different kinds of approaches and thinking than what we’re normally using in our daily lives.

Where do these problems arise? In an earlier blog post I briefly discussed the concept of SOHO systems (Kay et al, 1999, Kay and Schneider, 1994). SOHO is an acronym for Self-organizing, Holarchic, Open systems. Let’s take a closer look:

  1. Self-organizing means that when the system is pushed from its equilibrium, it might exhibit spontaneous coherent behavior and organization.
  2. Holarchic means that the system is formed up of part-wholes, i.e. holons, and is itself a part-whole. These part-wholes have dynamic interactions both horizontally and vertically across different scales of space and time.
  3. Open means that the system exchanges matter and energy between its environment.

SOHO systems are therefore dynamically relating part-wholes where non-linear feedback loops result in self-organization at different scales in the holarchy. What’s more, when these SOHO systems receive energy from their environment, they develop new structures and processes that make them more effective at receiving energy from their environment.

Ecosystems and human activity systems are prime examples of SOHO systems, both of which exhibit spontaneous coherent behavior and organization, are formed up of part-wholes, and are open. The messes that we face are the result of these dynamic interactions: as we have changed the environment we live in, we have created new and unpredictable changes in ecosystems.

What to do then? When we can’t predict our environment, we need to be able to coevolve with it, and this is where the concept of resiliency comes in.

Design systems for resiliency and learning

First, what is resiliency? From what I’ve learned, there’s at least two views on what resiliency means. The first, engineering approach, says that a resilient system is one that can take on outside shocks and quickly return to equilibrium. The other view, social-ecological resilience, says that a resilient system doesn’t have only one equilibrium, but instead can shift between different states, and learn, change and adapt.

In a wonderful article from 2006, Carl Folke had this to say about social-ecological resilience:

“Adaptive processes that relate to the capacity to tolerate and deal with change emerge out of the system’s self-organization. Furthermore, the dynamics after a disturbance or even a regime shift is crucially dependent on the self-organizing capacity of the complex adaptive system and the self-organizing process draws on temporal and spatial scales above and below the system in focus.”

Without going too much into details, the way I understand Folke is that resilient systems have the capacity to self-organize and create new structures and processes after a disturbance. Moreover, this capacity to self-organize is not a characteristic of one scale in time and space, but is derived from scales both above and below the system, as well as from different scales in time.

I think this point about different temporal and spatial scales is absolutely key here. The way we usually design human systems is by taking a look at one scale or holon at a time. When doing organizational design, you don’t usually start designing the whole that contains the organization. However, based on what Folke said, the capacity to self-organize is not contained at one level of time and space, but draws from all the other scales as well. This is why it’s about social-ecological resiliency, not only human resiliency. Building resiliency in one level will not be enough, and is in fact an illusion.

This also poses a major challenge to planning and design. How to design for resiliency when resiliency is not dependent on any one system? How can we ever build the capacity to self-organize when we can only affect a small part of the whole system at a time?

It would sound that enabling resiliency in our systems requires a paradigm shift at all levels of design. To enable resiliency, we need to change the organizing principles at all scales of social-ecological organization. How exactly are we going to get that done will have to be left for another discussion.


Ackoff, R. (1974). Systems, messes, and interactive planning. Portions of chapters 1 and 2 of Redesigning the future. New York / London. Wiley.

Folke, C. (2006). Resilience: The emergence of a perspective for social–ecological systems analyses. Global Environmental Change. Vol. 16. Pages 253–267.

Kay, J., Regier, H., Boyle, M., Francis, G. (1999). An ecosystem approach for sustainability: addressing the challenge of complexity. Futures. Vol. 31. Pages 721-742.

Rittel, H., Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences. Vol 4. Pages 155-169.

Schneider, ED. & Kay, JJ. (1994). Complexity and thermodynamics: towards a new ecology. Futures. Vol. 19. Pages 25-48.




Wicked Opportunities in Sustainability

While our world has become more dynamic and more complex, so have our problems. Wicked problems, such as climate change, terrorism, social inequality and destruction of natural habitat are extraordinarily difficult to deal with because they are almost impossible to define accurately. However, if we change our perspectives and reframe the issue in a new way we can overcome the wickedness of the challenge.


Wicked problems


“[Wicked problems are a] class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing”- Horst Rittel


The definition of wicked problems is as complex as the problems themselves. Wicked problems have been a topic of discussion since the 1970s when Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber published their article, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. The authors explained how wicked problems differ from engineering problems in that they are almost impossible to define.

To illustrate, let’s imagine that you have a rising drug problem in your city. The root problem appears to be a new gang that is importing large amounts of drugs to the city from overseas. After identifying the gang leaders, the city police finally apprehends the gang leadership in a large raid and confiscates all the drugs. For a while it seems that the amount of drug offences is decreasing. Surely the problem has been solved, right?

In reality the opposite is the case. In the following months a violent gang war ensues and the amount of people detained for drug abuse is actually increasing! The reason? By eliminating the dominant gang, the police created instability in the hierarchy between other rival gangs in the city and in the drug markets. This instability was then corrected by a violent power struggle between the gangs that remained.

The police had therefore introduced only a temporary solution to the drug problem. In fact, the real problem is not the use of drugs, which is only a symptom of the underlying cause. The use of drugs and other criminal activity were the result of a variety of other societal problems, such as poverty, racial issues and bad city planning. These underlying, systemic issues were not addressed by getting rid of one gang, which is why the drug problem only got worse.

Here are some other examples of wicked problems:

  • Climate change
  • Global terrorism
  • Nation-wide obesity
  • Acidification of the oceans
  • Deteriorating biodiversity
  • Poverty

All of the above problems consist of several interconnected parts. For example, climate change cannot be reduced to one problem definition with simple cause-effect relationships, because the climate itself is very complex and hard to understand. The climate is not a singular thing, like a mountain is, but the cumulative effect of all the streams of air, water and heat in our planet.

Understanding the nature of wicked problems is absolutely necessary for today’s problem solvers and decision makers because most problems worth thinking about are essentially wicked. It is easy to become paralyzed after realizing how challenging it is to solve wicked problems. However, I believe that by reframing the issue we can unleash our creative thinking and turn the problems into an opportunity

Wicked opportunities

What if I told you that climate change, inequality and other similar issues are only problems if we choose to define them so? In fact, I like to think of wicked problems as signals telling us that change is necessary – that we need to start doing something fundamentally different from what we’re doing now. It means that we need to design new and better economic, social, governmental and physical systems than the ones that are now in place. Therefore, our biggest challenge is in fact overcoming our unwillingness to change.

Change is sometimes very difficult, but whenever there’s fundamental change involved, there are also great opportunities. Furthermore, we humans are experts in change! Just think of how different our world is from a hundred years ago – or fifty, or even twenty years ago. The automobile, the airplane and the advent of ICT have all changed our lives and the society so fundamentally that our forefathers would think they’re in a different planet if they saw our world today. So there’s nothing new to systemic change – it is already happening all around us.

Therefore, what we need to do is reframe wicked problems as opportunities. They are opportunities for creating new value, new business and new, more sustainable ways of living. I am happy and inspired to see many companies, such as Demos Effect, PlantagonMBA Polymers, Ecovative Design, Piggybaggy, RePack and thousands others, adopting this attitude.

There’s a lot to do, so let’s not waste time trying to solve problems because it leads nowhere. Let’s instead choose to change our perspective and begin creating the world we want to live in.

Here are some suggestions how you can reframe wicked problems:

  • If you or your organization are faced with a difficult challenge, ask yourself whether it’s really an opportunity disguised as a problem.
  • When dealing with a wicked problem in your own life, instead of trying to solve the problem, try to think of ways you can re-design your life.
  • If you hear someone talking about a difficult challenge, try to identify the social systems that are involved in the issue. Then try to think of how we could go around the problem by designing the systems better.


Rittel, H. & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences. vol. 4. pp. 155-169.

Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues, vol. 8. no. 2. pp. 5-21.