Using ‘complexity thinking’ to manage an increasingly complex world – by Paul Cairney, Robert Geyer and Nicola Mathie

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Complex policy-making systems are ‘greater than the sum of their parts’.  To understand them we must examine not only the individuals involved but also the ways in which they interact with each other, to share information and combine to produce ‘systemic behaviour’.  Professor Paul Cairney, Professor Robert Geyer and Nicola Mathie consider what is involved in using ‘complexity thinking’ to inform policy decisions.

In complex systems, policy outcomes often seem to ‘emerge’ despite government attempts to control them, largely because we live in an interconnected world, where ideas, commodities, cultures, and people travel and spread through time and space.  Problems and issues such as climate change, violent crime, global financial crisis and health pandemics do not remain confined and static but mutate to effect different spaces, actors, and resources.

‘Complexity thinking’ describes a way to understand these systems, act accordingly, and invite others to do the same.  To do this, our Handbook brings together a wide range of specialists to address these issues from different angles: disciplinary specialists examining how complexity thinking influences the study of topics such as the law, philosophy and politics; interdisciplinary teams examining how best to model or describe complex systems; case study specialists explaining the outcomes of real world events; and scholars and practitioners examining how to ‘translate’ complexity theory into ‘simple’ policy–making advice.

9781782549512The Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy represents a practical resource for policy-makers, to help them navigate through a range of complex issues and problems, and understand why their proposed solutions often have a limited effect.  In complex systems, a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.  Policy-making systems are difficult to control and policy makers should not be surprised when their policy interventions do not have the desired effect.  Instead, they must adapt quickly and not rely on a single policy strategy.  This may require a shift of focus, from the idea of order, and the use of rigid hierarchies and top-down, centrally driven policy strategies.  An attachment to performance indicators, to monitor and control local actors, may simply result in policy failure and demoralised policy-makers.  Although there are many ways to interpret complexity, the Handbook identifies ways in which policy-makers may have greater success if they rely less on central government driven targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment.  The book covers a range of policy areas and issues, but its real strength lies in its application to everyday emerging policy conundrums.

Cairney+mugshot+3.7.13_587_180x180_CONTENT.jpg;jsessionid=b9aa1ffa73f5b3aaad525aff5ea8 Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy, Division of History and Politics at the University of Stirling. 

987Robert Geyer is Professor of Politics, Complexity and Policy, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. 

 

 

 

They are co-editors of the new Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy, published by Edward Elgar.

Nicola Mathie is a Doctoral Candidate in International Relations, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University

 

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