Complexity, Collapse and Large Systems Change

Sandra Waddock, Boston College  2015

Large systems change is arguably needed if the world is to transition from its current unsustainable business-as-usual trajectory toward a socio-political-economic system that creates a sustainable enterprise economy. As the special issue of the Journal of Corporate Citizenship (Issue 58) on Large Systems Change makes clear, such transitions are uncertain and difficult. Further, the collapse of numerous previous human civilizations in the past tells us that system changes are not always in the direction of sustainability. The question we wanted to raise with the special issue is how can we, as participants in the system, begin to bring about change in the direction of sustainability rather than its opposite?

Human and ecological systems are inevitably what complexity theorists call complex adaptive systems. What we now know from complexity theory is that such systems are inherently unpredictable in their particulars. They are comprised of numerous dynamically interacting parts.  When you make a change in one part, there is not necessarily a straight line to an outcome, because the change ripples across multiple other elements—and shifts as it moves along. Sometimes it seems that nothing happens. Maybe the change did not take hold for some reason. Of course, failed changes are hard to document. But perhaps the lack of concerted global action on the (related) sustainability and climate change crises, despite numerous calls for change, at least so far, means that collectively we still need to understand far more about how large systems change actually takes place than we currently know.

We know from complexity theory that sometimes a small change can actually have a very large impact if it occurs at what complexity scientists call the ‘edge of chaos.’ At that point a small change can sometimes create what author Malcolm Gladwell has called a tipping point. Such change can appear revolutionary, even when it may not have been intended as such. It is here where understanding the types of interactions involved in complex change systems can be helpful. Finding the right leverage points to create change in the desired direction, however, can bring about large systems change. One can consider the shift in attitudes around drunkenness, and particularly driving drunk that occurred in the US when a group of mothers whose children had been killed by drunk drivers formed MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. No longer was it cute or funny when someone got into a car to drive while drunk. Suddenly, designated drivers became requisite in many circles and bartenders began withholding keys if people were deemed too drunk to drive. Of course, MADD has not eliminated drunk driving, but it along with others shifts that rippled throughout the social structure have significantly changed attitudes about driving drunk.

What will it take to shift attitudes and behaviors similarly around issues of sustainability? Where are the tipping points? Is Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, issued in June 2015, the proclamation that will create a tipping point in the conversation around sustainability? Or will it take, as Paul Gilding has argued in The Great Disruption, a significant ecological catastrophe or collapse for that shift to occur? Tipping points or sudden state changes in complex systems can result in whole societies simply collapsing, as the American scientist Jared Diamond has vividly demonstrated in his book Collapse. Diamond argues that such collapse takes place under two major sets of conditions: when human civilizations push ecological resources beyond their limits and in conditions of growing inequity between the wealthy and the poor. Certainly in some regions of the world both of these conditions exist, and globally we are pushing limits as recent work on planetary boundary conditions suggests.

So, as we begin to grapple with understanding what it will take to accomplish large system change, we can hopefully keep the real stakes for humanity in mind.


Sandra Waddock

Sandra Waddock

Sandra Waddock is a guest editor of Journal of Corporate Citizenship’s Issue 58, special issue on Large Systems Change (along with Steve Waddell, Sarah Cornell, Domenico Dentoni, Milla McLachlan, and Greta Meszoely), and author of several Greenleaf books, including The Difference Makers (2008), SEE Change: Making the Transition to a Sustainable Enterprise Economy (with Malcolm McIntosh, 2011), and Total Responsibility Management: The Manual (with Charles Bodwell, 2009). Her latest book is Intellectual Shamans: Management Academics Making a Difference (Cambridge, 2015).


One thought on “Complexity, Collapse and Large Systems Change

  1. Not every human activity can be regarded as being so complex as to be incapable of analytic thought. In macroeconomics, for example, the myriad activities by the whole community can be classified by their specific kinds of activities, and I find (there may be a few more) that only 19 describe the whole thing. These activities are the taken as aggregate ones of the same function and are directed by idealized role-playing entities of which six suffice in this case. Thus what first seems to be impossible to grasp, can be understood when taken as a mega science of ideals and active trends. (Please review this in my book: “Consequential Macroeconomics–Rationalizing About How Our Social System Works” on which I can send you an e-copy,
    The mega principle is applicable to many complex subjects, having been started when the need to analyze perfect gas properties in physics enabled aggregates and ideals to explain the relationship between density, temperature and pressure of a volume of gas.

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