Complexity Theory as a Navigational Tool for Social Work Futures

Futures thinker Bob Johansen says that futures thinking now, is about moving from “categorical” to “spectrum” thinking in his most recent book. To me, full spectrum thinking is about being able to consider the complexity of phenomena, situations and/or challenge – and avoid the trap of oversimplifying. As I’ve continued my work in futures/foresight – getting a better handle on the ways that complexity “works” has been important to my work and thinking.

Most of us get a very deep sense that complexity is become more apparent in all that is happening around us…but though social work is grounded in systems and ecological theory, we seldom do deeper dives into its important cousin – complexity theory. Complexity theory focuses on phenomena that have many interacting parts – which change and react to each other in both anticipated and unanticipated ways. Five common principles can be found in the complexity literature: the presence of networks; the concept of emergence; the phenomenon of self-organization and social coordination; feedback sensitivity and the ability to learn together; and finally agility (Siemens, Dawson & Eshelman, 2018).

The need to learn this frame, question it, stretch it, apply it and intersect it with social work futures work has grown over time for me. In the spirit of sharing, thought I’d do a quick scan of the academic literature (within as well as beyond social work) on the topic of complexity theory as it relates to issues most intersecting with social work: education, political science, social issues and beyond.

An important note, the goal of complexity theory is not in fact, to make everything more complicated. Nature is an example of a symphony of complexity that can be (somewhat) understood through generations of scientific thought, observation and learning. Can complexity theory ironically make it possible to boost our sensemaking of the social world around us as well? And from a futures perspective, might it help us to navigate the interaction of all that is to come in the future?

I’m studying this. And sharing what I’ve found. Here’s a collection of ideas.

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