Looking to History, Patterns & Hidden Structures for Positive Change


Humanity is in a crisis of consciousness. Society and the way we interact with each other is broken because we too often see the world in separate, static, and linear ways. Our reductive thinking keeps us stuck in the past, with no clear path for how to move forward, for we are in constant conflict with the complex, dynamic, and evolving world around us. Luckily, an opportunity for change is presenting itself. We have a new approach to the art of inquiry, called complexity science, which can guide us forward. A complexity science approach allows us to explore and address questions beyond the the scope of “traditional” science, including human behavior, cultures, and social movements. Complexity science pushes us to look at history, not for answers but for a map toward a more positive future and every February in the United States, we are presented with an opportune time to reflect on the past. Black History Month, which stems back to the 1920’s as “Negro History Week”, is here to remind us that the past contains important insights. Unfortunately, over the years we have missed too many of these insights and desperately need to expand our thinking in order to move forward in a positive way. With a collective shift in human consciousness, guided by missing lessons from our past and complexity science, we can work together to achieve positive change.

The late Stephen Hawking said, “I think the next century will be the century of complexity.” As a lifelong scientist, seeker, and questioner, Hawking obtained a profound appreciation for the ways in which science can influence how we see the world. His unfailing curiosity propelled his research endeavors and vision for a unified scientific theory about the mysteries of our universe. He worked tirelessly on his research, writing more than 140 papers in search for a unifying scientific theme that would bring people together and inspire conversations around science and why we exist.

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist
— Stephen Hawking

Hawking was a scientific pioneer who helped propel new discoveries and theories, and toward the end of his career, he saw complexity as an opportunity for the future of science and the human race. Luckily, during his many years of research, there were scientists all around the world, including many physicists and mathematicians who dedicated their time to research complex adaptive systems. For example, Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, a Physicist and President of the New England Complex Systems Institute, has been contributing to research, education, and real-world applications of complex systems science since the late 1980’s. Around the same time, the Santa Fe Institute became the first research institute dedicated to the study of complex adaptive systems.

Although this scientific field matured later in the 20th century and is young compared to many other scientific disciplines, its fundamental principles can be traced back to historic philosophers, like Aristotle. There are also cultural ideologies like Neo-Confucianism and many ancient wisdom traditions that share common language and ideas with complexity as a science and a worldview. With a rich background as a young scientific field rooted in ancient principles and wisdom, there are many lessons we can learn from complexity, just as Hawking suggested.

A powerful starting place and opportunity to understand complexity is within ourselves, for we are a complex adaptive system. Our body and mind are comprised of millions of cells that interact and connect with each other in non-linear and dynamic ways to produce behaviors and functions that emerge and cannot be understood by looking at one cell in isolation. Our bodies are comprised of biological interconnections, relationships, processes, and systems that scale to co-create life and consciousness.

We can not truly grasp complexity without a foundational understanding that interconnections are the fabric of all systems and all life.

Even when we think about ourselves as independent agents with our own identity, thoughts, and behaviors, the significance of interconnection remains, for we are entwined with our surroundings and inescapably influenced by our environment. Separation is merely an illusion, created by our need to break things down in order to explain and understand them. As Alan Watts said, “black implies white, self implies other, life implies death”; thus, separation implies connection. We have not learned how to talk about the paradoxes that result from infinite interconnectedness. Systems educator, Linda Booth Sweeney said in her interview with us, “we live in a world of systems, but for the most part we aren’t really taught to see them, to recognize them, to understand them, or to make them visible.”

Beyond this fundamental principle of interconnectedness within systems, complexity science also helps us understand the dynamic, complex nature of systems, including how and why they emerge and co-evolve in certain ways. Dynamic complexity occurs when “cause and effect” are not close in time and space and human intervention often results in unintended consequences or so called, “side effects”. In these environments, seeing the underlying structure, context, relationships, patterns, and history are all key to understanding why certain individual actions and system behaviors occur.

Systemic structures are powerful forces, which shape key interconnections and ultimately influence patterns of behavior over time. Some structures within a network might limit access to information or resources for someone while reinforcing access for someone else. In network science, a subfield of complexity science that studies the structure of complex systems, this positive feedback cycle is called preferential attachment. Oftentimes, seeing and understanding these structures in our society are not easy because they are very subtle, nuanced, and deeply interconnected. The influencing structure is often not as obvious as a less connected node in a network, for example. In human systems, there are many hidden structures, like policies, perceptions, or social norms, that influence how people make decisions and act. Looking for and studying patterns can help us identify many of the influencing structures within our human systems and society at large.

A truly profound and different insight is the way you begin to see that the system causes its own behavior.
— Donella Meadows

History plays a very important role in our search for context and patterns. Patterns happen and change over time, so looking backwards and asking questions can help us recognize them and learn from how they evolve. As we see patterns repeat and build upon each other, we also begin to understand the context wherein current social systems emerged, including many systems that now contribute to conflict and inequality in our society. Without a foundational awareness for the history of these systems, we will continue to unknowingly reinforce underlying structures that erode our social and economic equality. We also take our power away when we refuse to acknowledge the part we play in reinforcing existing systems. Peter Senge said, “leverage often comes from new ways of thinking. In human systems, people often have potential leverage that they do not exercise because they focus only on their own decisions and ignore how their decisions affect others.” One of the biggest lessons from complexity science, which helps generate more expansive, integrative-thinking, comes from acknowledging that our behaviors are actually interactions, which have ripple effects beyond our knowledge. Even as observers, we are not separate from the systems we observe because scientific boundaries are a man-made concept. We will never fully comprehend complex dynamic systems, we can however, begin to filter our thoughts through a lens of inescapable interconnection. Once we shift our consciousness to the complexity worldview, we will see reality for what it truly is and can begin to heal the broken pieces.

Hawking and the scientific movement toward complexity are calling us to see the world in systems and Black History Month is the perfect time to embrace and challenge our new awareness. The potential richness of Black History Month lies in its call to action, for it asks us to reflect on a Nation’s history, to ask ourselves what have we missed and what part did we played in the system? These are common questions that system scientists use to expand their thinking. We can choose to use complexity thinking and exploratory questions like these to open our minds, or we can continue to reduce the world to a series of separate issues to be solved in isolation, knowing this mindset will keep us trapped in the past.

Systems thinker and entrepreneur, Tanuja Prasad said in her interview with us, “it is the human desire for a simple, static answer to things that create a contrast between what we want to see and what exists.” With a complexity worldview we can use opportunities like Black History Month to expand our thinking, to see interconnections, to search for patterns and underlying structures, and to reflect on our own contributions. Together, with insights from complex systems science, we can shift our focus away static solutions that lead to unintended consequences and toward emergent solutions that are co-created organically and collectively by the system itself. Reflecting on societal issues or historical conflicts with this new lens empowers everyone to affect real, positive change in the future.

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