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Editorial: Signs of development in complexity studies




I find this issue, 10.2, of E:CO striking not only for its abundance of complexity research and theory being applied across quite diverse types of systems, but also for its many indications of just how far the study of complex systems has been developing in new directions and with greater sophistication, both qualitatively and quantitatively. I propose that we can see signs of this growing development in several interrelated aspects of the papers herein: in terms of the varied themes taken-up; in terms of the diversity of the multiple approaches and methods used; in terms of the sundry subject matters investigated; and in terms of the multitude of insights and implications proffered by the probing reflections found on in this issue.

I think that this sense of the maturation of the field of complexity studies tends to be more salient in this issue rather than earlier ones because of the very interesting juxtaposition of its contemporary complexity papers with the classical paper (indeed, a classic paper in many ways) that is a key statement on General Systems Theory (GST) authored by its progenitor, the esteemed biologist/embryologist/philosopher Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Professor Bertalanffy had emigrated to the United States from Austria during the Nazi regime via intermediate stays in London and Canada. Although GST was modeled on biological organisms, Bertalanffy was after the bigger game of general insights into all “open” systems, that is, systems whose vitality depended on an open exchange of resources with their environments. In this, Bertalanffy was inspired by Prigogine’s work just as many of us remain today. Bertalanffy’s paper also reminded me of another crucial linkage of complexity-based approaches with earlier systems thinking found in a classic paper by Walter Elssaser that was also re-published in an earlier edition of E:CO (see Elsasser reprinted in 2005, 2006, 2007).

I find the comparison and contrast of von Bertalanffy’s prescient conceptualizations of “general” systems with the contemporary complexity-based papers in this issue of E:CO conceptually inspiring. Indeed, I think one can’t avoid doing this kind of conceptual comparison since the topics addressed here, including, for example, biological systems, ecological systems, and organizational systems, all depend, as Bertalanffy proposed, on a similar exchange of resources with their environments. Several pioneers in the field of ecology have even given explicit credit to Bertalanffy’s characterization of open systems.

Yet, this same juxtaposition of contemporary complexity perspectives with GST also reveals what the latter lacked (from hindsight we can say GST conspicuously lacked) and, consequently, how far the study of complex systems has come since them. For example, GST’s notion of equifinality would seem to leave little room for the crucially important complexity notions of self-organization, emergence, and the key roles of randomization and recombination in complex systems. Thus, where would one fit Peter Allen’s idea of evolution via the amplification of lower level diversities in GST? Nevertheless, with a bit of strong tweaking, equifinality might be able to be squared with these core complexity ideas, especially if one takes into consideration von Bertalanffy’s idea of open systems and anamorphosis.

There’s no doubt that the historical role of Bertanlanffy’s GST as a general theory of systems was indispensible in the development of complexity theory, which has also had as a paramount goal a theory general enough that it can cover many different types of systems. The chaos and complexity theorist Sally Goerner once told me that chaos and complexity theories were indeed the general systems theory that had been first intimated by Bertalanffy and other earlier systems researchers, but which did not yet have the more complete panoply of investigative tools and constructs that have been developed over the past thirty years.

The point of bringing up here what GST lacked is not to suggest a tampering with earlier approaches but, rather, to again be reminded of a critically important fact about complexity theory (one that has been deeply explored in papers by Kurt Richardson in earlier issues): as much as some of us might desire to believe, complexity science didn’t just pop-up out of the blue like Athena from the head of Zeus. Instead, complexity science has its roots in earlier systems sciences such as General Systems Theory and it can be quite helpful to bear that in mind when considering just what it is that complexity theory is offering us with its concepts of self-organization, emergence, randomization, and so forth.

Because there’s so much going on in this issue regarding diverse complexity approaches, perspectives, methods, subject matters, even geography, I thought it might be helpful to the reader to separate the articles and reviews and commentaries into three main themes or areas of interest. To be sure, there is some arbitrariness with my categorization since some aspects of some articles could just as easily be put together with other thematic categories. Nevertheless, I offer the following three general categories:

  1. The ecology and coevolution of organizations and institutions within regional industrial economies, in this case, that of regions in the Netherlands:

    • The paper by Frank Boons;

    • The paper by Jurian Edelenbos, Lasse Gerrits & Marcel van Gils

  2. The complexity of biological systems:

    • The paper by Scott Turner on homeostasis (there’s an idea reflecting earlier systems sciences like GST) and complexity in biological design;

    • The paper by Vincent Vesterby on measuring complexity which although not specifically focusing on biological organisms has direct pertinence to the complexity of organisms as such;

    • The classic paper by von Bertalanffy;

    • The book review by Peter Corning (about biological emergence per se which situates it nicely in comparison to what I said above about the lack of the idea of emergence in GST)

  3. Novel approaches to the application of complexity to the management of organizations

    • The paper by Kurt Richardson;

    • The paper by Andrew Tait and Kurt Richardson;

    • The paper by Duncan Robertson and Adrián Caldart;

    • The paper by Ken Baskin;

    • The book review by Alice MacGillivray (specifically on managing social networks but certainly tied into management in general as Alice demonstrates).

The ecology and coevolution of organizations and institutions within regional economies

The complementary articles by Frank Boons and by Jurian Edelenbos, Lasse Gerrits & Marcel van Gils, exhibit the kind of context sensitivity that is one of the great strengths of the field of ecology in general, although here this sensitivity is aligned with complexity orientation and applied to the ecology of industrial/economic regions. We also see a full measure of such other complexity/ecological attunements to multiple sub-systems occupying multiple levels, on multiple scales interdependent on each other and their various environments, and exhibiting adaptability through a Bertalanffy type of “open” interaction.

These papers also show the same highly textured taking into consideration of the multitude of factors required for a viable ecological perspective. Indeed, the term “ecology” comes from the Greek for household or community, or, as it might be put in German, the dominance of “Gemeinschaft” over “Gesellschaft” even though these two articles directly examine the many “Gesellschaften” in the region. What these articles trace out is the embeddedness of multiple sub-systems that constitute industrial ecologies.

The complexity of biological systems

The papers representing this theme include Scott Turner’s lucid understanding of biological design from the perspective of the ideas of homeostasis and complexity, Vincent Vesterby’s discerning examination of what is involved in measuring complexity in general, although much of what he has to say can be related directly to biological organisms, our classical paper on General Systems Theory (GST) mentioned above, and Peter Corning’s review of a book on biological emergence.

In Turner’s paper a strongly argued case is made for understanding structure, function, and design in biological systems through utilizing complexity approaches and constructs that look at the “big picture” and not just sticking to the “atomistic” level. This “big picture” perspective is displayed in the key role of the “superorganism” found in the nest and mound of macrotermitine termites. Turner resorts to the key role of homeostasis (an idea clearly derived from such earlier systems thinking as exemplified in GST) to provide the needed conceptual context to understand how structure, function, and design interrelate. I was reminded of a similar thesis in a book I just happened to have recently read, namely, by Stephen Asma (1996) who makes a similar point about the role of homeostatic type integrative “glue” in understanding biological design (Asma’s book is an excellent read yet doesn’t have the same degree of scientific data to support his position as Turner includes).

The signs of maturation of complexity studies mentioned above can be clearly seen by juxtaposing both the article by Scott Turner on biological design and Vincent Vesterby on measuring complexity with that of our issues’ classical paper. Vesterby’s paper suggests that besides such more well known complexity measures as algorithmic complexity or logical depth and others, a more sufficient way to think about measuring complexity is through the construct of “sophisticated organizational complexity” which has to do with the diversity and “intricacy of the ordered interactions of structure and process between the components.” The emphasis is decidedly on the ongoing, high complexity of the interactions for it is only from that does the organization of the whole be produced.

These articles on biological complexity mesh well with Peter Corning’s review of a recent book on biological emergence. Indeed, Corning has one of the most impressive backgrounds to assess the place of emergence in the biological realm, having integrated complexity into his own unique perspective of what he has called “holistic Darwinist synergy.”

Novel approaches to the application of complexity to the management of organizations

The papers falling under this category run the gamut from determining which main complexity principles are most pertinent in applications to management, to an innovative technique called “Confrontation Management” used in alliance with complexity when applied to management, to a careful consideration of why natural science approaches can be of help in thinking about managing organizations, to an evocative exploration of understanding organizations as “storied spaces,” and to a review of managing social networks in managing organizations.

The reader will soon see for themselves how much is going on in these several papers. I’d like to share just a couple of the ideas that were spurred in me by them. First, the novel technique of Confrontation Management, in which tensions caused by incompatibilities among different parties’ result in creative attempts to change the context of the interaction, brought to my mind some research from my early days in working with systems approaches. I am referring to the work of the psychotherapy and small group researcher John Andrews (1973) who suggested it was disconfirmation among the parties involved in interactions and not some kind of artificial or premature consensus that actually led to significant growth and change. “Confrontation Management” takes insights like those of Andrews and operationalizes them in a manner that is obviously inspired by agent-based models but utilizes the latter, not via computational simulations, but rather in real world organizational group methods.

Second, Ken Baskin offers a very interesting interpretation of organizations as complex “storied spaces” whose narrative structures reveals a great deal about the dynamics of an organization. For Baskin, rather than presuming Aristotle’s definition of the human as the “rational animal,” it is story telling which is an essential ingredient of what makes a human being human. He uses the idea of “storied spaces” to illuminate organizational dynamics at AT&T and 3M. I would argue that Baskin’s “storied spaces” is not a mere metaphoric approach to using complexity, but is as rigorous an approach to the complexity of organizations as quantitative models. Baskin’s paper, accordingly, is a clear demonstration, to me at least, that complexity studies, in their commitment to methodological pluralism, are best accomplished by including rigorous qualitative research along with the customary quantitative research of science. This can be done by giving space not only to reductionist methods focusing on components of a whole, but also paying attention to the organization of the whole of which the components are a part, or as Herbert Simon once put it, “... in the face of complexity, an in-principle reductionist may be at the same time a pragmatic holist” (Simon quoted in Wimsatt, 1972: 174).

In this regard, it is interesting to hold Baskin’s narrative approach with the justification of natural science for management suggested by Duncan Robertson and Adrián Caldart. These authors probe the use of agent based models coming from the natural sciences in application to management of organizations. In particular they focus on the N/K model and the Forest Fire model and find matches between the specifics of each model and their possible cognates within actual organizational dynamics. What I found particularly enlightening is the authors’ pointing out of the deficiencies in the agent based models when it comes to real world applicability. This is a rich paper combining the best of conceptual and quantitative perspectives.

Placing Baskin’s story-telling approach along side agent-based modeling approach of Duncan Robertson and Adrián Caldart indicates to me another sign of the development of the study of complex systems. Complexity is not simply “big” enough or “tolerant” enough to keep two apparently contrasting views simultaneously together. In my opinion, it is only through such an integrated juxtaposition that the most novel insights can be achieved. Such a holding together of oppositions was shown to lead to the highest originality in works of art by art students in the research of Albert Rothenberg (1979). He showed that stimulating the art students’ highest originality was accomplished by showing two slides, each consisting of imagery in jarring contrast to that of the other, one top of one another on a screen. It was the coexistence of the contrast within the same space which led to most original and most worthy of productions with a high score on inter-rater reliability.



Andrews, J. (1973). "Interpersonal challenge: A source of growth in laboratory training," Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, ISSN 0021-8863, 9: 514-533.


Asma, S. (1996). Following Form and Function: A Philosophical Archaeology of Life Science, ISBN 9780810113985.


Elsasser, W.A. (2006, 2007). "A Form of logic suited for biology," republished in Emergence: Complexity and Organization, 2005 Annual, Vol. 7, ISBN 9780976681434. pp. 416-459; and in K. Richardson and J. Goldstein (eds.), Classic Complexity: From the Abstract to the Concrete, ISBN 9780979168833, pp. 60-107.


Rothenberg, A. (1979). Emerging Goddess: The Creative Process in Art, Science, and Other Fields, ISBN 9780226729497.


Wimsatt, W.C. (1972). "Complexity and organiza-tion," in K. Schaffner and R.S. Cohen (eds.), PSA 1972: Proceedings of the 1972 Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 2, Dordrecht: D. Reidel, pp. 67-82.

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