Complicate to Simplify: Lessons from Complexity Science

by |July 21, 2015

By Peter T. Coleman & Chris Straw
A few years ago, our research team at Columbia was asked to work on addressing a problem of ongoing gang violence in a public school in the South Bronx. The school had been faced with recurring patterns of vandalism, theft and intimidation by gang members for years. The problems would ebb and flow but were always present. At some point, tensions between some of the gangs escalated, and the school was afraid of violent retaliations. It was a bad situation that kept getting worse and the community felt burned out and hopeless about it.

From the outside, a conflict may look immensely complex; but from the inside, it may appear as simple as "they" are the problem.

From the outside, a conflict may look immensely complex; but from the inside, it may appear as simple as “they are the problem.”

So we started talking to people in the community to try to get a sense of the main causes of the problem. It was immensely complex. The more we talked to people in the community, the more overwhelmed and depressed our team felt. We too felt ourselves getting sucked into the dark sense of helplessness and despair the community was experiencing.

Then we noticed something. When we talked to people familiar with the violence, but not in it—the principal, local youth officer, social workers etc.—there was a clear sense of how complicated the problem was. It was not just one thing that drove these kids into gangs and violence. These kids were poor and lived in miserable housing; they had too many brutal role models and played violent video games; they had been around drugs since they were infants; they had grown up exposed to environmental toxins like lead paint which, reduces impulse control; and they were often exhausted from being up all night in the ER with their sick siblings, because their family had no other access to health care.

But when we talked to the people in the conflict—the gang members themselves and even some of the parents and teachers who had gotten caught up in it—the problem was very simple. They were the problem. The others. They made our life hell. They were crazy and sick and were the ones the cops and the school needed to deal with. For these people, the ones in the conflict, it was all very simple. Their side was just responding to the other’s hostility and craziness. That was the simple truth.

What we realized is that they were right. They were all right. These situations were very complicated and did involve many different problems that fueled each other and were getting increasingly more complex the longer they lasted. But it was also true that the more tense and threatening these situations became to the people directly involved, the more obvious it was to them that the problem was simple: They were the problem. We were simply victims of their hate.

What our team found at this school in the Bronx is what we see in many intractable social problems. They spring from a complex constellation of ills, and the longer they last the more they tend to spread and intensify, recruiting more and more people and issues, which in turn makes them last longer. And the more intense and threatening they become, the more the people in them tend to perceive them as simple; they see all the complicating issues as linked to the real source of the problem: “them.”

The 2015 Sustaining Peace Conference was held in March at Columbia.

The 2015 Sustaining Peace Conference was held in March at Columbia.

Complex, intractable conflict, such as that described above in the South Bronx, resist being solved through standard conflict resolution practices such as mediation and negotiation.  Our team thinks of these as “the 5 percent”—the problems that need a different approach that sheds light on the multitude of factors and interrelationships that keep the conflict stuck.  With this common understanding, an increasing number of scholars from a range of disciplines and practitioners in a variety of fields are exploring the contributions that complexity science and systems thinking can offer in addressing intractable problems.

At the 2015 Sustaining Peace Conference, Peter T. Coleman and Beth Fisher-Yoshida, co-executive directors of the Earth Institute’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity, brought together an interdisciplinary group of experts—from mathematics, physics, social psychology, anthropology, environmental science, among others—who work on very difficult, enduring problems. While they understand and think about conflict and peace in very different ways, they all believe that what is most important and a critical step in working to address these issues is to make things more complicated, more complex than they appear to be—to get beyond the “us” and “them,” and as those not directly engaged in the conflict in the South Bronx knew, look for the web of factors that interact and drive the conflict and that keeps the conflict “stuck.”

In a series of nine talks at the Sustaining Peace Conference, this group of scholars and practitioners shared their perspectives and insights from their work on difficult, enduring problems from around the world—from shifting away from poverty and violence in our local Harlem neighborhood to working on the transition to democracy in Myanmar, changing patterns of urban violence in Colombia, incorporating conflict resolution as an integral part of addressing environmental issues in Peru, and searching for leverage points to “nudge” the systems in the Middle East toward peace. These talks invite you to think differently:  View the whole, consider interconnections and time, look for patterns and simple rules, and even think about dumping the terms “success” and “failure.” In short, think about conflict and peace as parts of complex social systems. All speakers are members of the Dynamical Systems Theory Innovation Lab, a global group that has met for several years to share ideas and inspire new work in approaching seemingly unresolvable problems.

The talks are now available on line in series titled, “Big Ideas on Complexity Science and Sustainable Peace.”  We invite you to shift your thinking.

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