Complex Systems Science and Global Challenges

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 12. December 2019 - 13:59
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Complex Systems Science and Global Challenges

Report on a colloquium in Stockholm, Sweden, 7-9 December 2019
Arthur Lyon Dahl

On 7-9 December 2019, the Center for Emergent Diplomacy, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, an organization specializing in complex adaptive systems, convened a Complex Systems Science Gathering in Stockholm, Sweden ( The gathering brought together nine leading international specialists in complexity science with local experts and practitioners to launch an exploration of the catastrophic risks of collapse in the present global society faced by the climate and biodiversity crises and a materialistic economy out of control. The aim was to try to find ways forward towards the adjacent possible that might provide hope for the future.

The gathering was facilitated by Dr. Merle Lefkoff, Executive Director of the Center for Emergent Diplomacy and mediator in conflict zones around the world, and featured Dr. Stuart Kauffman, an award-winning theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher studying the origin of life on Earth; along with IEF President Dr. Arthur Dahl, a biologist at the science-policy interface in intergovernmental organizations working on proposals to reform global governance; Stephen Guerin, President of Redfish Group in Santa Fe, applying the science of complex adaptive systems to create living software systems; Katherine Peil Kauffman, Founding Director of EFS International fostering global emotional wisdom; Dr. Gary Metcalf, an American systems scientist, organizational theorist, management consultant and university professor; Dr. Luciano Pietronero, Professor of Physics at the University of Rome "Sapienza" and Director of the Institute of Complex Systems of the Italian National Research Council; Dr. Michael Rostek, a futures researcher advising the Canadian Armed Forces; Dr. Naresh Singh, an international development advisor applying complexity science to sustainable livelihoods, poverty and environment; and Steven Smith, President of Los Alamos Visualizations Associates working on computer-mediated perception and modelling. A number of Swedish experts joined the discussion.

Complex Systems Science Gathering

The first day was devoted to small group discussions of the key challenges and the perspectives that systems science could provide concerning their causes and consequences. It intentionally had no preset agenda and no specifying goals or objectives to encourage holistic analysis. The process aimed to combine the experimental evidence of reductionist science with the deep experience of indigenous peoples. As a starting point, it was noted that, while science is warning us that we may not survive, the future is unpredictable. The linear path of strategic thinking is not working, requiring imagination and deep humility.

A number of key questions were raised. How do we deal with an economy that is out of control? What do we need to unlearn? What rules do we need to live in peace with ourselves and the world? Living systems are self-regulating. What would nature do? How do we learn from nature and work for the recovery of the Earth? What new conception of ethics and morality can be grounded in complexity theory? What new narrative do we need to communicate to bring change? How do we influence people and get them to stop believing that they are powerless? How do we co-create the future? There was an acknowledgement that we needed universal values, which had been left to religion and philosophy, but were missing in the mechanistic story of the materialistic society, while complexity science describes self-organization and self-regulation to achieve balance. Many participants were open to the spiritual dimension as a necessary part of human complexity. The exchanges provided a rich cross-fertilization of perspectives and initiated a process of networking among experts from different and complementary areas of expertise. While it was relatively easy to define the problems, the difficulty was in imagining solutions and envisioning a better future.

A personal contribution

My own contributions to the small group discussions and individual conversations are summarized in the following paragraphs. They addressed the problem of looking at the wrong level, considering the symptoms of our problems rather than the underlying causes of system dysfunction.

The climate crisis is the result of an economy out of control, where only profits count. The economy is working on the wrong assumptions of equilibria and perfect actors requiring endless growth in wealth measured as GDP and return on capital (Beinhocker 2006). The present economy is dominated by the neoliberal distortions of the Washington Consensus and the thinking of the Chicago School for which profit is everything. This assumes that the optimal choices are guided by the invisible hand of self-interest, and the environment and social issues are externalities. The result is the concentration of wealth in multinational corporations buying their way to monopoly dominance for ever-increasing shareholder returns and the rise of the top 1%. Excessive borrowing to maintain “growth” is producing a giant debt bubble.

The political systems have been designed for or co-opted by such power and wealth. As expressions of ego, power corrupts. Any sense of community responsibility or the common good in governance is lost. Special interests lobby and corrupt. The politics of fragmentation, manipulation and false news/alternative truths lead to authoritarianism if not despotism (MacLean 2017). National sovereignty no longer works in a globalized world, but those in power can use it as a shield.

Collapse is part of systems thinking. When a system gets severely out of balance, overshoot and collapse are the normal response. If a system becomes too rigid and inflexible, unable to innovate in changing conditions, collapse is a mechanism to sweep away obstacles to change and to allow evolution to proceed. The collapse of civilizations has been widely discussed (Meadows et al. 1972, 1992, 2004; Homer-Dixon 2006; MacKenzie 2008, 2012; Turchin 2008, 2010, 2016; Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2013; Diamond 2005, 2019), so we should expect and plan for it.

What is the elephant in the room?

The information in complex systems and the rules by which they function are coded differently as the layers of complexity increase, from physical laws and chemical interactions to DNA instructions and ecological interactions. In human systems, the coding can be in cultures, laws and ultimately values that determine how people relate to each other.

In looking at the crises we are facing today from our different perspectives, we are like the story of the blind men and the elephant, with each one of us only experiencing part of the whole elephant. But once we have identified the elephant from our complex systems perspective, what do we do with the elephant in the room?

The present system is based on a conception of human nature as aggressive, competitive, self-interested and materialistic. Adam Smith would be shocked, having written also on moral sentiments. Yet humans have the capacity to be altruistic, ready to sacrifice for the common good, devoted to service to society, moderate, humble, detached from material things (Dahl 2019). Our societies also can show emergent properties of integration and cooperation, just as in highly evolved ecosystems (Dahl 1996). That is what is missing in today’s world, both individually and collectively. Our society is morally and ethically bankrupt.

What is the adjacent possible?

The last place that most people in materially advanced countries today would turn for solutions would be religion. To imagine that the return of Christ might be included in the adjacent possible would seem far-fetched. Yet this would not be a bearded white man surrounded by angels with trumpets as He descends in clouds at a UN Summit to bring peace on Earth. The fatherless carpenter from Nazareth did not sit on the throne of David and had a miserable end, leaving a handful of followers, who took centuries to emerge from obscurity. Most other religions started the same way.

Meadows (1992) refers to the need for loving and compassion to overcome pessimism, and Peter Turchin (2016) wrote that religion was the only explanation he could find for civilizations uniting more than single peoples through a disinterested ruling class. The Renaissance was not Christian, but the entry of Islamic values into Europe. Religion is what addresses fundamental values and human purpose, and motivates change. It relates to what is the most fundamental leverage point in a human system (Meadows 1999). Systems thinking could suggest a modern update of beliefs necessary to effect the transformation required. So what might be the design criteria for a modern religion to drive complex systems transformation?

Social principles:
- Fully in harmony with science
- Gender balance
- Unity in diversity across all cultures and peoples
- Justice
- Trustworthiness
- Education, independent investigation of truth
- Able to generate a new economic system, altruistic and cooperative, employment for all, eliminating poverty
- Technology and science for the common good, in moderation, balancing material and spiritual

Spiritual/mystical level:
- love for an unknowable absolute perfection, beyond infinity; humility to acknowledge that we can never define it (God, Allah, Jehovah, etc.)
- exercises to help overcome the ego: prayer, meditation, fasting, etc.
- recognizing that all religions have the same source and purpose

Institutional level:
- no clergy, priesthood, ruling class
- no individuals with power or authority
- collective, democratically-elected, consultative leadership
- federated world government able to manage global problems
- collective security, abolition of war, disarmament
- sustainability, respect and care for environment
- mechanisms for learning, change, adaptation to evolving society

Such a religion could guide an ever-advancing civilization with a focus on growth in knowledge, science, culture, art, beauty, and harmony with nature.

The above is a description of the Bahá’í Faith, an embryonic alternative already existing, developing organically around the world, ready to emerge, perhaps when catastrophe strikes and people start desperately searching for better solutions to their problems. Just as in the age of dinosaurs, the dysfunctional economic and political institutions of today could suddenly go extinct, leaving a formerly insignificant movement, like the mammals, to take over the earth.

One other thing that is clearly needed today is institutions of global governance capable of managing those aspects of our globalized world that are beyond all national control, such as peace and security, and the climate and biodiversity crises and other features of the global environment. With two colleagues, I have been working on proposals for a profound reform of the United Nations system to make it fit for the challenges of the 21st century, to be published shortly (Lopez-Claros, Dahl and Groff, 2020).

Stockholm Transition Colloquium

The second day was a public event, the Stockholm Transition Colloquium, with a series of presentations that were live-streamed and are now available on Facebook*. The first speaker was Lars Larsson, a Swedish engineer deeply knowledgeable about climate change, energy and sustainability, who has lived and worked with indigenous peoples in Africa and South America and is concerned about local communities and sustainable lifestyles. He described our long stable history of GDP and now exponential growth, and asked how do we bend the curve? Just as we are experiencing negative compound effects, we need solutions with positive compound effects. We must communicate the issues to the public: to leaders with the knowledge to take decisions, to the general public to understand the need to change lifestyles, and in the following years explaining to those who have been forgotten or are fearful.

He was followed by Stuart Kauffman speaking on the unpredictable future and the adjacent possible. Complex systems are made up of simple parts interacting in deterministic chaos. The biosphere is not algorithmic; there are no laws for biosphere development. He went from atheistic to agnostic seeing nature as sacred. Functionally-relevant processes are not predicted by physics. We cannot predict where pre-adaptations will lead, just as we cannot predict the adjacent possible. Reason is an insufficient guide for living forward, so we need innovation. We make new things to solve problems by endlessly combining what we have, producing the hockey stick graphs of hyperbolic growth to infinity. Our juggernaut of a global economy has lifted millions out of poverty while driving the climate crisis and a mass extinction. More than half the biomass on the planet is now people and domestic animals, creating the Anthropocene with its existential threats. Seven billion people could not return to survival level in a crisis, yet there are solutions. Small farms are more productive than the industrial monocultures driving extinction. What will be necessary to allow the emergence of adjacent possible solutions?

Merle Lefcoff, the conference organizer, described complexity science in the Anthropocene and her 35-years experience using it to mediate in conflict situations, such as the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel. Epic wins require persistence and the science of surprise, in black swan events when victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. This is now needed for climate change. We cannot predict unintended consequences. What event might save the planet? She reminded us of the conclusion of the consultations among indigenous peoples at the United Nations that we need values change for survival.

Pella Thiel, Vice-chairman of End Ecocide Sweden and winner of the WWF Environmental Hero of the Year 2019, called for a sense of direction when faced with the unknown and unknowable. She referred to the student strikes of Fridays for the Future, and Greta Thunberg wanting us to panic. Our children are living with complexity and need stories of another vision and culture. To indigenous people, the world is alive, complex and sacred, as science is also demonstrating. We cannot solve our problems in the present system and need transformation. Donella Meadows with her 1972 "Limits to Growth" was ridiculed. Her 1999 "Leverage Points for Systems Change" called for a values shift and paradigm change for our survival. We must create another story, shifting our world view to be part of the living world and condemning ecocide. She called for an event in 2022, the 50th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference, leading to a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Nature by 2030.

Professor Karl-Henrik Robert, renown cancer specialist, founder of The Natural Step, winner of the Blue Planet Prize and the Green Cross award and leading expert on sustainability, gave a masterful presentation on strategic sustainable development. Rather than worrying about the immediate symptoms and ignoring the long term, we need to go to root causes and identify the boundary conditions for success. Boundary conditions are not negotiable. In cancer, this means killing the cancer cells without killing the patient. Our decision-makers and national economies are like cancer cells. We need to find our way from unsustainability to sustainability to restoration of the planet's capacities. Our environmental problems (forests, crops, water, chemicals, heavy metals, climate, biodiversity) and social problems (trust, segregation, corruption) are symptoms. We need vision to look for the basic mechanisms behind the impacts, and understand how the evolution of systems leads to a huge growth in value, as a model for a sustainable economy decoupled from growth, with principles for ecological sustainability rather than an increasing concentration of extractive solutions. Spatial planning is key, since biodiversity, food, resource extraction, energy and infrastructure are all surface demanding. For social sustainability, trust is important, with a vision and core values. Without trust, we go to corruption, disorder and no cooperation. We are going backwards in evolution now, and the most complex species are the most vulnerable.

Stephen Guerin showed computer simulations of collective behaviors. He referred again to Donella Meadows and the importance of leverage points in systems. In living systems, energy flows and matter cycles. The science of complexity is about interactions. Models of complexity can show systems behaviours. With atoms, there is no pattern, only density. Fish and birds show flocking and schooling with no leader. Traffic shows backward wave behaviour. In complex systems like economics, there are large gradients and stocks with no equilibrium. With systems like eddies in water or ants finding food, the collective organization persists despite disturbances, since cognition is in the system, not the water molecules or individual ants. Life is an ecological property of the system. He demonstrated his computer-modulated light technologies for predicting the path of forest fires, where there are phase transitions with tree density.

Angelica Lips da Cruz, CEO of Innorbis and a consultant on sustainability to the finance industry, described how to combine expertise from natural and social sciences and economic values into solutions for sustainable development. Today's economic system uses metrics only of non-living things. The accounting system is not working for our benefit. We need to change the old system of values to include the environment and people presently considered as externalities. A complex adaptive systems approach can help us to make sense of the economic challenges. There were market bubbles in 1900s, 1929, 1937, the post-war bull market and dotcom bubble, with an everything bubble today. Regulations are too late. Looking at real hourly compensation and productivity, the latter has increased steadily, but there has been no increase in hourly compensation after 1972 with the end of the Bretton Woods agreement. The economy has destroyed nature while leaving the workers behind. Among the sustainable development challenges, governance is the most important, as it is necessary to control the private sector.

On the last day teams of journalists recorded interviews with many of the experts to prepare a lasting record of the accomplishments of the gathering. Even the location of the event was exemplary at a hotel in the outskirts of Stockholm serving only delicious vegan food.


A rough cut film of the event is at (35 minutes, Arthur Dahl at 12-13 minutes and 33-34 minutes)


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Last updated 9 March 2020