Sonja Blignaut wrote an article titled 7 Differences between complex and complicated. The article contrasts complicated problems and complex problems in seven categories.

  1. Causality
  2. Linearity
  3. Reducibility
  4. Controllability and Solvability
  5. Constraint (openness)
  6. Knowability
  7. Creativity and Adaptability

« Roberto Poli articulates the difference between complicated and complex as follows:

Complicated problems originate from causes that can be individually distinguished; they can be address­ed piece by­ piece; for each input to the system there is a proportionate output; the relevant systems can be controlled and the problems they present admit permanent solutions.

On the other hand, complex problems and systems result from networks of multiple interacting causes that cannot be individually distinguished; must be addressed as entire systems…  the problems they present cannot be solved once and for ever, but require to be systematically managed…  and the relevant systems cannot be controlled — the best one can do is to influence them, or learn to “dance with them” as Donella Meadows rightly said. »

Roberto Poli is author of Working with the Future: Ideas and Tools to Govern Uncertainty (2019).

Donella Meadows is author of Thinking in Systems: A Primer (2008).

Below are some highlights about complex systems from the article.

« Because we are dealing with patterns arising from networks of multiple interacting (and interconnected) causes, there are no clearly distinguishable cause-and-effect pathways. »

« Complex systems are emergent, they are greater than the sum of their parts … we need to interact or “dance” with the system in order to be able to influence it, and we also need to understand that our mere presence is already changing it. Our attempts to reduce and re-arrange will fundamentally change or even destroy the system properties we hold most dear, like culture and resilience. »

« These systems are prone to high levels of surprise, uncertainty; and interventions (even simply observing the system) causing unexpected changes and even new or worse challenges. We need to shift from “problem & solution” thinking to “patterns & evolution”. »

« …it is often difficult to determine where the system ends and another start. Complex systems are also nested they are part of larger scale complex systems, e.g. an organization within an industry within an economy. It is therefore impossible to separate the system from its context. »

« We cannot transform complex systems into complicated ones by spending more time and resources on collecting more data or developing better theories… The only way to truly understand a system is to interact with it. »

« These systems are able to observe themselves, learn and adapt. They are creative. »

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