ODI's working paper 285: exploring the science of complexity theory

By Willemijn Verkoren

Apart from development intervention, many other factors play significant roles in determining the changes that take place in societies. A recent Overseas Development Institute (ODI) paper 1 explored the value of complexity theory in improving performance in the development field.

In the report, the authors identify and describe ten features of complex systems – no mean feat. Each feature is outlined, explained in detail, illustrated with examples and explored in terms of its implications for development and humanitarian action. One such feature, with which many people may be familiar from chaos theory (an element of complexity theory), is the ‘butterfly effect.’ The butterfly effect refers to the ability of a tiny event, such as a butterfly flapping its wings, to cause a big event, such as a tornado, through an unpredictable chain of interrelated events. The butterfly effect illustrates two complexity characteristics: sensitivity to initial conditions and unpredictability. It is important to understand the broader contexts of development interventions and continually look for what was not anticipated.

The paper offers concrete ideas about what complexity theory could mean for development planning and analysis. For example, it describes how the monitoring method called ‘outcome mapping’ would fit particularly well with the ideas of complexity theory. In broader terms, the authors argue for a shift in overall thinking that would lead to more tolerance of uncertainty, greater reliance on continuous learning (rather than using fixed planning models) and better connection to wider processes of change. As a systematic attempt to apply complexity thinking to the realities of aided development, and for looking at its potential for increasing effectiveness, the paper is a welcome step forward.