By Orit Gal & Greg Fisher
Over the past few years, the spillover of complexity theory from the natural into the social realms has intensified, instigating a whole range of new theories and insights about the manner in which complex human systems emerge, behave, and transform. But, with a few honourable exceptions, complexity theory has struggled to make the leap from the academic community into the real world. Could policy makers use ideas emanating from complexity theories, to design and implement better policies? Or, to paraphrase Eric Beinhocker, could complexity evolve from a Sunday afternoon thought into a Monday morning action?
Complexity experts have produced a growing array of books and articles presenting the added value of analysing social environments as complex systems, be it new understandings into the behaviour of markets; the manner in which tastes and preferences are shaped through network effects; the indirect impacts of infrastructure development; or the optimisation of knowledge retrieval. However, as might be expected from any emerging field, much of this new knowledge is still structured from an R&D perspective rather than an end-user’s point of view, thereby potentially slowing down adoption, integration, and learning. Put another way, the complexity community looks rather supply-side heavy and demand-side light.
Curiously, the problem of bridging the theory-policy gap is much more acute with complexity theory than other approaches because complexity puts a great deal of emphasis on uniqueness, both in time and space. Idiosyncrasies matter, which means that some policy adopted in one area might not be appropriate elsewhere; and a policy implemented now might not work in the future (in the same area) because complex human systems are constantly evolving (unpredictably). However, far from saying policy is pointless, it means that policy analysis has to be differently focused and any outcomes better tailored to a dynamic environment.
Helping to create the bridge from the theoretical to the practical will entail an end-user’s exploration into complexity, i.e. the people making decisions, designing action plans and leading implementation. Given the impressive strides already made in the field, this short article aims to answer the following: given a policy maker’s perspective, what could complexity ever do for us?
Policy-making: between design and outcome
Reforming the NHS? Developing new growth strategies? Fighting human trafficking? Or contemplating military intervention? It would be hard to find policy makers who wouldn’t describe their challenges as complex, comprising of seemingly endless interrelated elements, actors and uncertainties. At the same time, the mere acknowledgment of life as complex is rather futile. The real question is whether complexity theory can provide decision-makers with an actual toolbox for better dealing with their challenges. We suggest that complexity based methodologies can contribute to policy makers on three main fronts – redefining end goals; providing new knowledge bases for both background research and implementation; and supplying new tools for policy design.
Overall, while we would like to think of policy-making as a rational problem-solving exercise, in which problems are analysed, solutions based on reliable evidence gathering are modeled, authorised and translated into effective end-results, we also know that real life policy-making is a messy and fuzzy process involving only partial knowledge, political bargaining, egos, pre-conceived positions, chance events and unintended consequences. To a large extent, policy makers seem to have inevitably accepted this chasm between rational modeling on the one hand and messy decision-making and implementation on the other – i.e. the inevitable friction between theory and practice. We believe complexity theory provides a foundation upon which this chasm can be bridged, providing policy makers with more genuine and dynamic means for successfully creating the social impacts they seek. Building on this foundation will now require the joint efforts of complexity experts and policy practitioners i.e. to bring the supply-side and the demand-side much closer together.
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