Metaphors of complexity

Stepping into the fields of “complexity”, “complexity science”, “complexity theory”, “complex systems”, “complex adaptive systems”, “complex problems”, and “social-ecological systems” is an overwhelming experience.

Part of the difficulty is that the study of complexity lacks a clear origin point and disciplinary focus. Instead, the new level of analysis (beyond reductionism and towards systems views) found footing in a number of different fields of study during the twentieth century before accreting into what now might be roughly called “complexity science.”

Listing the characteristics of complexity is also not immediately helpful in orientation: heterogeneity, non-linearity, adaptation, evolution, feedbacks, emergence, self-organisation, tipping points, and nestedness present a jumble of ideas on initial encounter.

Below is the beginnings of a collection of metaphors used to illustrate complexity. Hopefully these visual shorthands will assist complexity newcomers.


2014 © Kristin Wilson

A complex system is one of interwoven parts. The Latin complexus from the Greek pleko meaning to plait or twine (Lenton and Oijen, 2002).

2022 © Kristin Wilson

Rugged Landscapes

Anti-Atlas © Kristin Wilson

The conceptual structure of social-ecological problems is a rugged landscape with many peaks and valleys – “finding higher peaks when the number of potential solutions is drastically reduced to a few ‘‘optimal’’ strategies is grossly inadequate for reaching creative and productive solutions to challenging problems” (Ostrom, 2007).

Lenton, T.M., van Oijen, M., 2002. Gaia as a complex adaptive system. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 357, 683–695.

Ostrom, E., 2007. A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 104, 15181–15187.