Kelly McSweeney

Mar 26th 2020

Complex Systems Theory: How Science Solves Social Issues


It’s official: life is complicated. A new discipline called complex systems theory uses scientific approaches to understand and predict social issues. This emerging field gives us concepts and tools to help us navigate the modern world, which is growing more connected and therefore more challenging by the nanosecond. Science can provide insights and predictions that governments and other entities can use to guide decisions.

What Is a Complex System?

When a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, it is considered a complex system. Traditional thinking would analyze each individual component, but this method also includes the relationships between all components. This gives us insight into emergent behaviors that wouldn’t normally be expected from the parts. By studying how the parts of a system relate to each other, we can predict the likelihood of certain outcomes. Complex systems theory can reveal hidden patterns that help predict the weather, social issues, the spread of diseases, financial recessions and more.

Whether we are looking at something as small as an atom or as big as the stock market, it’s not easy to predict future behavior because there are so many variables. If we can accept and embrace the complexity, we can find patterns in what first appears to be chaos. With globalization and the digital revolution, we are more connected than ever. Suddenly, a bunch of complex systems (governments and cultures) are forging new connections. The bad news is that bad things, such as diseases and violence, spread quickly. The good news is that advances in science and technology mean we have new solutions.

At the first sign of change (a weather event, shifting political attitudes, recession, etc.), we can run computer simulations that help us see into the future. Not only can we be better prepared for a crisis, but it’s even possible to avoid a crisis altogether.

Today’s digital era is filled with extremely large data sets that are filled with valuable information about the “parts” of each complex system. While it would be impossible for humans to sift through the deluge of information, computers can reveal trends in data that help us understand and predict human behavior. Big data and machine learning can help us recognize patterns to make better decisions. The latest artificial intelligence lets software crunch the numbers, and complex systems theory provides a framework for moving forward.

Experts develop mathematical approaches that can be used to help understand problems that are typically far beyond the scope of science. According to the New England Complex Systems Institute, “We combine a quantitative foundation in physics, computer science and mathematics with computer simulations and high dimensional data analysis to describe real world patterns of behavior.”

Bringing the Theory to the Real World

While complex systems theory can’t solve our problems, it can help policymakers minimize the damage. This new field of study provides analytical tools and computer models for simulating how these systems are likely to react to a given change. The concepts that are being defined can help leaders think about challenges on a deeper level. The theory could help improve the healthcare system and prevent pandemics. For example, a recent study revealed that the best way to prevent an outbreak from spreading (such as Ebola or Zika) is to focus on community rules, such as restricting travel, rather than individuals.

Analyzing data can help scientists understand what causes a food crisis. Scientists can provide suggestions for resolving the immediate crisis, as well as make long-term predictions that can influence policy changes to reduce future crises. In finance, this approach can help predict an economic crisis so that governments can be prepared for the fallout. Algorithms can describe the ways that relatively small changes in one part of the world will affect lives in other countries. The same framework that helps scientists explain biochemical reactions and understand how new species form can also be used to guide worldwide policies.