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Complex Adaptive Systems

Ecosystems, human societies and our economies are complex adaptive systems. They evolve and develop in unpredictable ways that cannot be fully managed, directed and controlled.   They can be seen as a collection of vast numbers of interacting elements with a myriad of interconnections.  All the different elements are constantly reacting and adapting to what is going on in the rest of the system. While some coherent patterns of change and behaviour can be observed, how these complex systems evolve and change cannot be fully predicted.  They are full of surprise and uncertainty.  As a result, small changes in inputs can have very large impacts on the overall system.

Over the last several decades a much better understanding has developed about the nature of complex adaptive systems, which has significant implications for how we try to govern and bring about change in our human societies.  It is impossible to use simple linear cause and effect relationships to understand and intervene.

Instead of trying to fully control outcomes through rigorous upfront analysis, hierarchical top-down management and detailed plans we need to focus more on creating the conditions for human systems to adapt and evolve in desirable directions.  

Adaptive and innovative change in such systems is enabled by increasing the shared understanding, feedback, relationships and networks between the different the actors in the system. This is precisely what multi-stakeholder partnering processes make possible. In an increasingly complex world, multi-stakeholder partnerships are turned into an important mechanism of governance. They complement the more formal workings of national governments and international relations.

When one acknowledges that human societies are best understood as complex adaptive systems, a well-considered engagement in multi-stakeholder partnership can open up ways to contribute to transformative change in the direction of sustainability and equity.