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Chain Reactions and Complex Problems

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

In the early blush of the Information Age, we possessed naïve optimism that global connectivity and technological progress would be able to solve the myriad challenges of our modern world - refractory issues such as poverty, climate change and pandemics. What we now can see is that the future in which we placed our hope will not bring the relief we had anticipated. While progress solves some problems, it simultaneously creates others with unpredictable and often dire consequences.

The onset of COVID-19 has sharply demonstrated the branching consequences of “complex problems” - multifaceted issues that cannot be understood from a unitary perspective. Complex problems are comprised of multiple interconnected variables, that are all influencing one another in dynamic, non-linear ways. With complexity, impact to any single element is likely to generate significant, unanticipated impacts elsewhere.

This coronavirus has brought us face-to-face with the entangled and refractory nature of global challenges. The immediacy of COVID-19 has forced the issue into our lives. Global warming has been with us in this way; it is also a pressing, complex issue but climate change could be ignored and minimized while the novel coronavirus cannot.

Five decades of increasing interconnectivity have opened up the world to massive international flows of goods, services, money, ideas, data, and people. We now experience the effects of war, pathogens, technology, human migrations, and economic and ecological disasters on an unprecedented scale, as a global community.

Globalization is not new but our vulnerabilities have been laid bare by the rapid progression and enormous scope of this pandemic. COVID-19 make it crystal clear that the consequences of globalization must be addressed systemically. We need to organize ourselves in ways that can better mitigate the risks associated with complexity.


Currently, scientific expertise is siloed and hyper-specialized, focusing primarily on incremental advances in esoteric subfields. Complexity demands that we expand our knowledge sets. Specialization alone limits cross-fertilization; precludes knowledge integration; and, obscures the fundamental truth that we are all connected.

Modern science is also largely reductionistic. Breaking everything down into tiny parts for analysis tends to frame human knowledge and action as if the world is inert. But it is not – the world is a living system in which we are all a part. Knowledge is not “known” once and for all, it is continuously “becoming”. Knowledge therefore must evolve along with an eco-system that consists of environmental, cultural, economic, political, educational, ethical and physical realities.

Complex, ill-defined problems and their global repercussions require perspectives beyond scientific expertise. Yes, we seem to have forgotten that there are other modes of knowing such as storytelling, the arts, personal experience and fuzzy logic. It is just as important to consider how we experience the phenomenal world, as it is to objectively measure it. We must focus not only on breaking things down but also on context, relationships, integration and subjective experience in relation to the collective.

Specialization without collaboration limits inspiration, isolates ideas and ultimately buries creativity before new solutions can be fully explored. Radical innovation comes from making boundary-spanning leaps. It is only with new crosscutting alliances that we will find solutions to the massive and complex challenges facing the world today. We must conceive platforms that give rise to inclusive and intersectional collaborative action.

To envision and construct holistic approaches we need to cultivate partnerships that are empowered to test new ideas with original designs. We need to nurture creative engagements with novel approaches that can critically address the themes of relationship, process and growth. By redefining our challenges and constructing systemic perspectives, we may represent our problems in new ways that render the solutions transparent.

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