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2 Observing Complex Dynamics by Being Sensitive to Complexity

2 Observing Complex Dynamics by Being Sensitive to Complexity

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N. Satanarachchi and T. Mino

systems of systems that have dynamic relationships within themselves and their

environment.4 Complexity or complex systems are explored in numerous fields

such as mathematics (Engelbrecht 1997; Lorenz 1963), cybernetics (van Dijkum

1997; Gleick and Hilborn 1988), ecology (Holling 2005; Gunderson 2001), social

systems (Miller and Page 2009), living system studies (Capra 1996; Goldsmith

1988; Bateson 1979), evolution studies (Hooker 2011; Simon 1991), anthropology

(Otto and Bubandt 2010) or philosophy (Morin 2008; Polanyi 1966, 1958); with

the interpretations of complexity differing slightly from one field to another.5

Complexity is often interpreted in terms of parts and wholes (Morin 2008;

Heylighen et al. 2006; Ashby 2004; Holland 1998; Cilliers and Spurrett 1999;

Simon 1991; Polanyi 1968). For instance it may be interpreted as a characteristic

of a system that has a large number of interacting parts that are capable of having

organizing relationships (Ashby 2004; Cilliers 2002; Kauffman 1993). Or, it may

be seen as the degree to which a system can be differentiated into its parts and can

be integrated into wholes (e.g. living systems such as flora and fauna that have

nested hierarchical relationships within—individual cells being parts of an organ,

organs being parts of a body, and so on). Emergent properties and self-organizing

capacity are two key features that can characterize complex systems (Morin 2008;

Cilliers 2002; Corning 2002; Goldstein 1999; Holland 1998). Particularly, the selforganizing capacity of complex human–natural systems has attracted considerable

attention in scientific inquiries of sustainability (Espinosa et al. 2008; Ostrom

2007; Holling et al. 2002). However, it is also noteworthy that acknowledging factors, such as parts and wholes, and the organizing relationships they generate is

unlikely by itself to capture the full implications of complex dynamic sustainability changes in human–natural systems. Sustainability, having a human-interpretation at its core, suggests that the role of the observer (with an observer being

defined as an entity who understands and interprets those factors) also largely

influences the interpretation. Morin (2008) illustrated three significant stages in

observing complexity, using a tapestry as a simile:

(i)In the first stage of complexity, we have simple knowledge that does not

explain the properties of the whole. A banal observation that has consequences is not banal; the tapestry is more than the sum of the threads that it is

composed of. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

(ii)In the second stage of complexity, the fact that there is a tapestry means that the

qualities of this or that type of thread cannot be fully expressed. The threads are

inhibited or virtualized. The whole is therefore less than the sum of its parts.

(iii)The third stage of complexity poses problems relating to our capacity to

understand and structure our thoughts. The whole is simultaneously more and

less than the sum of its parts.


dynamic relationships here we generally mean the relationships among the system, system

entities and the environment, which can have feedbacks, feed-forwards and emergent properties

(Poli 2009; Corning 2002; Goldstein 1999).

5For an elaborative review of ‘complexity’ in these different fields, please refer to Wells (2012).

A Methodology to Evaluate Sustainability in the Face of Complex …


Morin’s (2008) illustrations suggest that in the observation of complexity, observing the whole alone, or observing the parts that build up the whole alone, is not

enough. Rather, the observation process must acknowledge that both the parts and

the whole have the capacity to inform one another to generate an holistic understanding. The observer’s involvement has strong implications for a situation where

a system is actually complex but he/she fails to observe it as being complex.

Failing to observe complexity could occur in two ways. First the observer could

focus on the whole, neglecting the parts (observation supports ‘wholistic’ understanding).6 Second he/she could focus on the parts, neglecting the whole (observations support ‘partial’ understanding). A rigorous analysis of one issue or one

aspect of an issue could lead to a comprehensive understanding of that part but

still represent a ‘partial’ understanding of the whole. While there are strengths in

both of these ways of looking at a system, in isolation they could lead to an erroneous or incomplete interpretation of a system. Polanyi (1958) gives two scenarios

to explain when the observation process plays an illusory role in recognizing complexity, again, with relation to parts and wholes. The first scenario describes the

discovery of many prehistoric sites immediately after the airplane was first developed. Although the edges and remnants of these sites had been among human settlements in clear sight for centuries, they were recognized to be cohesive wholes

only after their outlines were clearly visible from above. The second scenario is

related to his own joint research effort to establish the atomic structure of white

tin. During this work Polanyi encountered claims by a different research team,

who asserted to have established an entirely different atomic structure to what they

had proposed, which later turned out to be an interpretation made along the lines

forming an angle of 45° to those along which they had done. This trivial difference

in the viewing of the atomic arrangement had rendered it mutually unrecognizable

to both parties, simply because of a lack of sufficient understanding of the relationships involved in the atomic arrangement (Polanyi 1958). Polanyi (1958) calls

these two scenarios complementary efforts aiming at the elucidation of a comprehensive entity, one that proceeds from the whole towards the particulars, and the

other that proceeds from presumed particulars towards grasping the relationship as

a whole (Polanyi 1958). His examples suggest that both efforts applied alone

would not lead to the elucidation or understanding of a comprehensive entity.7

This means that in order to have an holistic understanding it is essential that the

observation processes that highlight the parts and the ones that highlight the


this study the term ‘holistic’ understanding is reserved for interactively generated understanding, through the understanding of the parts that leads to understanding of the whole, and

the understanding of the whole that leads to the understanding of its parts. The term ‘wholistic

understanding’ is used for only the understanding that is generated by observing the whole alone.

For example, in the case of a bird eye view observation, the understanding could just be confined

to the surface of the ‘whole’. Having a bird eye view of a field can lead to a ‘wholistic’ understanding, but not necessarily an holistic understanding.

7Polanyi (1958) further names these efforts as two types of attentions and discusses their role in

the understanding process of a comprehensive entity.


N. Satanarachchi and T. Mino

relationship of the parts to the wholes are dynamically integrated,8 so that they can

play a complementary role in generating an holistic understanding. Further, these

observations suggest that in order to reach an holistic understanding of the sustainability of a human–natural system it is important to be conscious of how the observations are made.

2.3 A Framework that Supports a Methodology to Evaluate


Addressing the need to pay more careful attention to the observation process, the

authors developed a framework to evaluate sustainability in a human–natural system, focusing attention on the observation and understanding steps (Satanarachchi

and Mino 2014). Its basic structure is illustrated in the Fig. 1.

This framework was developed by considering some of the key requirements of

sustainability evaluations, which particularly highlight the researcher’s role as an active

observing and analyzing agent. The key features of the framework are the focus–system, background layers, sustainability dimensions, sustainability contexts, and sustainability boundaries (Satanarachchi 2015; Satanarachchi and Mino 2014). Focus–system

denotes the human–natural system that is being examined to ascertain whether it is

sustainable or not, be it a village, town, country or region. Not necessarily confined by

administrative or geographical boundaries, it could also represent systems that have

functional boundaries (e.g. watersheds), mental boundaries (e.g. mental maps, ideologies) or cultural boundaries (e.g. ethnicities, indigenous communities). The

background layers, as the name suggests, denote different backgrounds within which a

focused system could be explored to ascertain its degree of sustainability. These backgrounds may include issues (e.g. global warming, nature depletion), systems relationships around those issues (e.g. socio-ecological relationships, socio-economic

relationships), key narrations/directions of the system (e.g. economic development,

nature conservation, socio-cultural conflicts), key concepts (e.g. growth, stability, resilience) etc. They also could represent different ways of structuring the problems regarding a pressing issue, which can be shaped by different ideological positions,

philosophies etc. (e.g. an environmental issue being problematized as a threat to planetary wellbeing, or as a threat to individual wellbeing). When considered over time, they

could provide different streams of narrations to interpret the sustainability of the

focus–system. Sustainability dimensions represent different angles from which sustainability could be looked at. The dimensions that were proposed for the original

8By the term ‘dynamically integrated’ we mean an integration that occurs as a process. In the two

examples by Polanyi this is ensured by a cognitive process supported by various simultaneous

cognitive steps such as ‘grasping’ and ‘doing’ via sensory organs (Polanyi 1966). In the latter part

of the framework, we attempt to create such a dynamic process by directing observations from

multiple and conflicting angles (via employing dimensions and background layers).

A Methodology to Evaluate Sustainability in the Face of Complex …


framework are the (i) sustainability-linked knowledge9 (ii) sustainability-linked worldviews (iii) resource limitation and availability (iv) wellbeing views (v) policies, rules,

regulations, and governing practices (vi) innovations, new creations, and artifacts

(Satanarachchi 2015; Satanarachchi and Mino 2014).10 Collectively, background layers and sustainability dimensions, which are organized and explained under two observational methods (i.e., layer view-based and dimensional view-based methods), enable

the observer to decompose the complexity of the system. Further they provide a set

of sustainability contexts that can lead to different sustainability boundaries.

Sustainability contexts represent detailed interpretations of different observational

meta-structures that the observer may come up with after decomposing the complexities of the system (Satanarachchi 2015). A sustainability boundary would demark what

is sustainable from what is unsustainable. Therefore, hypothetically sustainability

boundaries would enclose a safe operating space for a system.11 In sustainability discussions it can also represent an evaluation basis that could be derived by looking at

one or several of these contextual sustainability interpretations. This process is not a

static process. Each sustainability interpretation and evaluation could have the capacity

to inform the next interpretation and evaluation, and have a reflexive and iterative relationship. Reflexivity occurs when the attention of the observer simultaneously encompasses both the subject and the object in a way that may challenge the way he/she sees

reality (for an elaborative account of reflexivity, please refer to De Cruz et al. 2007;

Stirling 2006).12 Reflexivity can take place in an effective manner when the observer is

part of the system being observed. Iteration involves repeating a process continuously,

and thus iterative understanding would mean that in each step the previous understanding of the system provides the basis for the next understanding.13 Together, reflexivity

and iteration reflect the relationship between parts and among parts and wholes in a

complex system—in this case a complex system of understanding, which is supported

by observations. Furthermore, with these understanding processes the observer is

transformed from a passive observer to an active observing agent who is sensitive to

9By sustainability-linked knowledge we mean the knowledge that is directly linked to sustainability issues, and the systems that are experiencing those issues.

10Please kindly refer to Satanarachchi (2015) and Satanarachchi and Mino (2014) for an elaborative account on the rationale and the boundaries of what is explained under each of these


11A visual representation of the sustainability boundary appears in Satanarachchi (2015) and

Satanarachchi and Mino (2014).

12Reflexivity has multiple meanings in different fields of studies. For instance it could also

denote a characteristic that enables to project the self as an active and creative agent (De Cruz

et al. 2007).

13Usually the term iteration is used to indicate the act of repeating a process (often given as a

function) to reach a certain goal. In this repeating process, the results of one iteration are used as

the starting point of the next iteration. Particularly in mathematics, iteration stands for a problemsolving or computational method in which a succession of approximations, each building on the

one preceding, is used to achieve a desired degree of accuracy. In an understanding process, the

result of one iteration could be seen as a whole that is used as the starting point of the next understanding process.

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