I am rethinking complexity. I used to think that complexity occurs through dynamically changing, unpredictable systems that create the potential for chaos and random behavior, but I’m learning that there’s more to it.
Last weekend I spent some time with a couple of good friends. One is a knowledgeable psychotherapist who does some of the hardest work in the world from my perspective. In a town infused with violent gang activity (this city could be anywhere in the U.S.), my friend—who I’ll call her Amy (not her real name)—works to help children who are on probation. The kids Amy works with have been arrested for crimes they committed and they are on probation instead of in jail.
Amy also works with families who are in various states of crisis and leads a team of mental health workers. Amy mentors and coaches her team so that they can provide support and safety nets for the kids and their families—safety nets that will keep children from committing crimes that send them to prison and that will help families deal with chaos and unraveling family relationships. Amy and her team provide support to help families and children be more healthy and functional members of our society.
In this mental health system there are conflicts between leaders of the probation department and of children’s mental health. These conflicts eat up time, energy, and creativity for the leaders of both groups. The probation department undermines mental health for reasons I don’t comprehend, and the people in the probation department who have been least likely to support collaboration have been promoted. Probation has to look good to get state or federal funding, and probation looks good when kids stay out of jail. The mental health department knows that when a violent offender is out of jail and on the streets, the whole community is in danger. There are systemic conflicts: Two different groups with two different sets of values driven by the need for different outcomes.
All this is taking place in a community that looks idyllic on the surface, but underneath, gang activity involved with drug sales have created a dark underbelly in the once-peaceful town. And, sadly, once children get involved with gangs, it usually is a dead-end street. After being inducted into the criminal gang community, kids just can’t get out. Gang leaders in prison continue to call the shots and rule with brutality. This situation is an interconnected set of complex systems that operate from Mexico and further south and stretch throughout the U.S and probably into Canada.
This example of a complex system is one that emerges from interacting parts, people, and organizations that are trying to work together to help people. Complexity science perhaps is a model that can provide guidance and insight for dealing with such a system. Complexity science draws upon multiple domains of knowledge to study and understand emerging phenomena. Fields such as biology, psychology, computer technology, physics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, mathematics, and immunology interweave to explore and create deeper understanding of complexity. In 2007, Neil Johnson defined complexity science as “the study of phenomena which emerge from a collection of interacting objects.”
In order solve very complex problems of interwoven systemic phenomena that emerge as things interact—for example, police officers, courts, mental health workers, probation officers, drug addicts, gang members, schools, teachers, children, moms and dads, weapons, weapons dealers, and so on—it may help to follow the example of complexity science and bring multiple fields together to study and learn about complex systems so that we can truly understand the interventions that will be most beneficial.