Conquering the Crisis of Complexity — Read These 5 Books to Understand Complex Systems

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I’m in the middle of a few books that discuss one of the most exciting developments of the past few decades: the science of complex systems. What is a complex system? The definition is debatable, but most researchers agree that a complex system is composed of many interacting parts that adapt in and evolve with the environment. It’s a promising area of study that’s revolutionizing how we understand big issues—global economics, public policy, the environment.


This brief introduction brings me to a few book recommendations. The first two are Simply Complexity: A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory by Neil Johnson and Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell. They are slightly technical but lively enough to entertain lay readers who are looking for a taste of the subject. Via

Simply Complexity: A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory –  Description

What do traffic jams, stock market crashes, and wars have in common? They are all explained using complexity, an unsolved puzzle that many researchers believe is the key to predicting – and ultimately solving—everything from terrorist attacks and pandemic viruses right down to rush hour traffic congestion.

Complexity is considered by many to be the single most important scientific development since general relativity and it promises to make sense of no less than the very heart of the Universe. Using it, scientists can find order emerging from seemingly random interactions of all kinds, from something as simple as flipping coins through to more challenging problems such as the patterns in modern jazz, the growth of cancer tumours, and predicting shopping habits.

Complexity: A Guided Tour –  Description

What enables individually simple insects like ants to act with such precision and purpose as a group? How do trillions of neurons produce something as extraordinarily complex as consciousness? In this remarkably clear and companionable book, leading complex systems scientist Melanie Mitchell provides an intimate tour of the sciences of complexity, a broad set of efforts that seek to explain how large-scale complex, organized, and adaptive behavior can emerge from simple interactions among myriad individuals. Based on her work at the Santa Fe Institute and drawing on its interdisciplinary strategies, Mitchell brings clarity to the workings of complexity across a broad range of biological, technological, and social phenomena, seeking out the general principles or laws that apply to all of them. Richly illustrated, Complexity: A Guided Tour–winner of the 2010 Phi Beta Kappa Book Award in Science–offers a wide-ranging overview of the ideas underlying complex systems science, the current research at the forefront of this field, and the prospects for its contribution to solving some of the most important scientific questions of our time.


The third is academic but ideal for anyone with a serious interest in economics and public policy: Complexity and the Art of Public Policy. Authors David Colander and Roland Kupers ditch dichotomies (Laissez-Faire versus regulation?) and argue that we must understand the global marketplace as a complex system, where government is one of millions of components.

Complexity and the Art of Public Policy – Description

Complexity science–made possible by modern analytical and computational advances–is changing the way we think about social systems and social theory. Unfortunately, economists’ policy models have not kept up and are stuck in either a market fundamentalist or government control narrative. While these standard narratives are useful in some cases, they are damaging in others, directing thinking away from creative, innovative policy solutions. Complexity and the Art of Public Policy outlines a new, more flexible policy narrative, which envisions society as a complex evolving system that is uncontrollable but can be influenced.

Steven Berlin Johnson’s Emergence tackles one sub-study of complex systems—emergence theory—with his usual captivating narratives. Fans of Gladwell or the Freakonomics franchise will enjoy this book. Lastly, I recommend Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile. The book is not about complex systems per se, but Taleb appreciates this area of research and applies it to several domains.

Still Interested? Check out A Better Way to Think About Lazy and Incompetent Employees

Image via Flickr/Erik Drost

Books Mentioned in this Post

Simply Complexity: A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory by Neil Johnson

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