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Science and Technology
Environment & human behaviour - complexity theory, complex adaptive systems, climate modeling, social relations, conflict resolution
Complexity theory may have a role in managing social relations.
Summary Analysis:
The global ecosystem is the most important known terrestrial example of a complex adaptive system and the one currently most studied. Understanding it with a high degree of confidence is important to human survival, but recognizing the impact human activity has on it is not enough to solve the problems that have already emerged because of that activity. Complexity theory (focusing on complex adaptive systems and emergent phenomena) may be applied to social relations to help mitigate the negative impacts on the global ecosystem caused by human activity. Better understanding of nonlinear social processes may help humans summon the will to make hard choices for long-term good over short-term gain.

Once complexity theory has proven itself in the physical world, its application to the social sciences is more likely. This theory sees emergent social phenomena like suicide bombing or free trade as 'strange attractors', centres of gravity around which many people and social groups gradually gather and orbit. The goals are: understanding the order that emerges from chaos in social relations, why and where strange attractors form, and how to tip the balance in a positive direction (the butterfly effect).

Researchers are already applying complexity theory to political and economic activity (see sources below). The approach may become increasingly popular over the coming decades.


  • Better management of human impacts on the environment
  • Potential for improved health, life expectancy, and well-being for most if not all people through understanding of social processes

Early Indicators:

  • Use of complexity theory in conflict resolution and agreements over local resource management (for example, agent-based systems to interpret legal code)
  • Emergence of the open source movement, an example of a form for knitting cooperation

What to Watch:

  • Reliable climate prediction, confirming the utility of complexity theory
  • First accurate predictive model of international negotiation


  • Quantum physics theory leading to the transistor
  • Artificial life revealing the emergent order


  • Advances in grid computing
  • Increased application of complexity in social science
  • Increased number of courses and university programs in complexity and social science


  • Santa Fe Institute (investigation of social dynamics, predicting the behavior of dynamic social systems, among other topics)
  • New England Complex Systems Institute (research on networks, negotiation, environmental complexity, and the like) [link]
  • Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan (encouraging and facilitating research and education in the general area of nonlinear, dynamical, and adaptive systems) [link]
  • University of Liverpool, Centre for Complexity Research [link]
  • Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin [link]
  • University of Southampton [link]
  • LSE Complexity Research Programme [link]
  • Complexity Society [link]
  • Complexity Science in Europe [link]


  • Richardson, Kurt A. 2002. "Methodological Implications of Complex Systems Approaches to Sociality: Some Further Remarks." Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation Vol. 5, no. 2 [link].
  • Pavard, Bernard and Julie Dugdale. An Introduction to Complexity in Social Science [link]
  • Maiese, Michelle and Guy Burgess. 2004. Complexity in Intractable Conflicts. [link]
  • David Byrne, Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences
  • Bernard Pavard and Julie Dugdale, An Introduction to Complexity in Social Science
  • Raymond A. Eve, et al, Chaos, Complexity, and Sociology
  • Michelle Maiese and Guy Burgess, Complexity in Intractable Conflicts
  • Richard Seel, Complexity and Organisational Development [link]
  • Complexity Digest [link]
  • Complexity and Emergent Behaviour in ICT systems [link]
  • Complexity Blog [link]
  • Foresight project on Cyber Trust and Crime Prevention [link]
  • Barbara Adam, The Future: A Complexity Too Far for Social Science Research? [link]

At A Glance:
21–50 years +
How Fast:

Related Outlooks:

About this outlook: An outlook is an internally consistent, plausible view of the future based on the best expertise available. It is not a prediction of the future. The AT-A-GLANCE ratings suggest the scope, scale, and uncertainty associated with this outlook. Each outlook is also a working document, with contributors adding comments and edits to improve the forecast over time. Please see the revision history for earlier versions.

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