In social innovations, there must be an alignment of circumstances that make action possible. The trick is to see the relationship among various elements. And in order to see, we must often change our thinking. We must move from seeing the world as simple, or even merely complicated. To understand social innovation, we must see the world in all its complexity.

Traditional methods of seeing the world compare its workings to a machine. We say “things are working like clockwork” or “like a well-oiled machine”, and people are seen as “human resources” who use management “tools”. By using a machine metaphor, often unconsciously, we ignore the living aspects of our world and our work. Complexity science embraces life as it is; unpredictable, emergent, evolving and adaptable – not the least bit machine-like. And though it implies that we cannot control the world the way we can control a machine, we are not powerless, either. Using insights about how the world is changed, we can become active participants in shaping those changes.

All complex systems, from human beings to stock markets to global organizations, share behaviours that cannot be explained by their parts. The whole is different than the sum of the parts. In complex systems, relationships are key. Connections or relationships define how complex systems work; an organization is its relationships not its flow chart. And this perception is crucial to understanding how complex systems differ from simple or complicated systems. The following chart illustrates these differences:

Baking a Cake Sending a Rocket to the Moon Raising a Child
The recipe is essential Rigid protocols or formulas are needed Rigid protocols have a limited application or are counter-productive
Recipes are tested to assure easy replication Sending one rocket increases the likelihood that the next will also be a success Raising one child provides experience but is no guarantee of success with the next
No particular expertise is require, but experience increases the success rate High levels of expertise and training in a variety fields of study are necessary for success Expertise helps but only when balanced with responsiveness to the particular child
A good recipe produces the same cake nearly every single time Key elements of each rocket MUST be identical to succeed Every child is unique and must be understood as an individual
The best recipes give good results every time There is a high degree of certainty of outcome Uncertainty or outcome remains
A good recipe notes the quantity and nature of the “parts” needed and specifies the order in which to combine them, but there is room for experimentation Success depends on a blueprint that directs both the development of separate parts and specifies the exact relationship in which to assemble them Can’t separate the parts from the whole; essence exists in the relationship between different people, different experiences, different moments in time

Successful social innovation combines all three problems – simple, complicated and complex – but the least understood is the complex. And yet complexity is the most fundamental level when we try to understand how social innovations occur. We know that complex interactions can produce social innovation. Single individuals, single actions, and single organizations all play a part, but it is the subtle rules of engagement, between and among elements, that is the force that seems to give initiatives a life of their own. In other words, complex systems comprise relationships. Social activists can use this and other insights from complexity theory to increase the likelihood of success. Not guarantee success. There are no guarantees, no certainties. Instead, we can strive to tip the scales in favour of successful social innovations in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.


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