This accelerating interconnectedness has in many ways made life better. But it has also brought greater complexity to world affairs. Many of the grand challenges that confront humanity—problems as diverse as climate change, the stability of markets, the availability of energy and resources, poverty and conflict—often seem to entail impenetrable webs of cause and effect.But these problems are not necessarily impenetrable. Powerful new tools have given scientists a better understanding of complexity. Instead of looking at a system in isolation, complexity scientists step back and look at how the many parts interact to form a coherent whole. Rather than looking at a particular species of fish, for example, they look at how fish interact with other species in its ecosystem. Rather than looking at a financial instrument, they look at how the instrument interacts in the larger scheme of global markets. Rather than think about poverty, they might look at how income relates to conflict, politics and the availability of water. Whatever the object of study happens to be, complexity scientists assemble data, search for patterns and regularities, and build models to understand the dynamics and organization of the system. They step back from the parts and look at the whole.
Published on: Tuesday 15th of January 2013