Foreign Policy and Complex Adaptive Systems
Exploring new paradigms for analysis and action
This Santa Fe Institute (a center for research on complex adaptive systems) paper is from a former USAID Mission Director in Afghanistan and a Senior Research Associate of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). They argue that conventional and reductionist ways of analyzing and dealing with social and economic problem are not applicable to address the complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity that characterizes the emergent behavior of development change [e.g. development programs in Afghanistan]. Foreign policy experts and analysts agree that:
- the world is characterized by complex systems that are interdependent and interconnected by multiple feedback processes, and that system-wide behaviors emerge unpredictably from the accumulated interactions among the actors.
- in complex systems, change processes are evolutionary and dynamic, are highly sensitive to initial conditions, and can shift dramatically with non-linear tipping points.
- complex human systems are populated by ‘adaptive agents' that act in their own interests with their own view of the situation, who network with, react to, and influence other actors and the wider system.
Enhancing the adaptive capabilities and robustness of these networks is central to strengthening resilience, robustness and innovation. They propose that development actors,
- "work to understand the systemic nature of the problems faced in foreign policy and how these problems evolve over time;
- involve those people who matter the most in the decisions that matter the most;
- avoid ‘silver bullet' strategies and instead attempt multiple parallel experiments;
- establish real-time strategic analysis & learning as a key form of operational feedback;
- be open to the fundamental adaptation of efforts, along with changes in local contexts and conditions; and,
- reframe the overall foreign policy efforts as dynamic networks of multiple systems and actors."