Systems and complexity

Can engineers and scientists ever master “complexity”?

John Horgan writes in Scientific American in the leadup to the launch of a Center for Complex Systems & Enterprises at his school, Stevens Institute of Technology.

Horgan reveals that he jumped at the chance to make concluding comments on complexity at the launch, and advises that he hoped to make these points:

  1. Researchers have never been able to agree on what complexity is.
  2. Previous attempts to master complexity have undergone a boom-bust cycle.
  3. A key insight to emerge from chaos theory is that many complex systems are inherently unpredictable, because infinitesimal causes can have enormous consequences.
  4. Complex social systems are especially hard to model.
  5. In the heyday of chaos and complexity in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers prophesied that increasingly powerful computers would lead to increasingly precise models of complex systems. Those forecasts were much too optimistic, as the struggles of artificial intelligence and artificial life have demonstrated.
  6. Engineers hope to master complexity through innovation, but new technologies can create more problems than they solve.

His take-away message is:

Engineers and scientists have demonstrated their ability to invent and manage extraordinarily complex systems, which provide us with energy, transportation, food and water, health care, entertainment, communication, shelter, security. We must, and will, find ways to further minimize the downside and maximize the upside of civilization. But given the history of complexity research, our can-do optimism should always be tempered by skepticism and caution.

Also published on Medium.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine ( and currently also teaches in the University of NSW (UNSW) Foundation Studies program in China. He has expertise and experience in a wide range of areas including knowledge management (KM), environmental management, program and project management, writing and editing, stakeholder engagement, communications, and research. Bruce holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction and a Certificate of Technology (Electronics). With a demonstrated ability to identify and implement innovative solutions to social and ecological complexity, Bruce's many career highlights include establishing RealKM Magazine as an award-winning resource for knowledge managers, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee the implementation of an award-winning $77.4 million river recovery program in western Sydney on time and under budget, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support communities to sustainably manage landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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