Part 2: In Search of the Holy Grail of Implementation

What does complexity theory tell us about implementation?

Posted by Pat Gordon

Lately, I have been doing a lot of reading (re-reading actually) on the topic of complexity theory.  During the hectic phase of running a project whether it is a planning or implementation initiative, one seldom has the luxury of time neither to read about theory nor to reflect on it.  In the lead up to a Sustainable Cities PLUS Network workshop in Ottawa last week that I was co-leading with two respected colleagues I dove into complexity theory and paddled about in the literature that was available on the net.  To my surprise I found that little had changed during the last decade with respect to applying complexity theory to the planning and running of cities (the municipal context).  There were however, some interesting ideas and papers that I would like to explore in this and future posts.

Complexity theory was developed around the understanding of natural systems such as lakes and forests with an emphasis on how all of the parts of the system interact.  Ecologists and biologists were seeking to understand what the most effective strategies to put in place when managing natural systems – not unlike a city planner looking for the appropriate strategies for land use or transportation.  The key message in complexity theory – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  A change in one part of the system will result in a different outcome.  This is called self organization.  Water is purified, air is cleaned, trees grow, animals and insects evolve.  A forest is not just a collection of individual trees and animals and soils.  It is also an open system that is influenced by other slower, bigger systems.  Each element interacts with each other and the outcomes of these interactions cause the forest to develop and change at the same time that it responds to other, bigger systems such as climate and hydrological cycles.  Through their work ecologists could see patterns and it is these patterns of interactions that are at the heart of complexity theory.  The most influential book of the early 2000’s was ‘Panarchy’ by CS Hollings and LH Gunderson.  The authors took the patterns of natural systems and applied their thinking to the interaction of natural and socioeconomic (human) systems with the goal of identifying successful interventions or strategies.  The authors defined sustainable development in this context. 

So, none of this is new.  However as I dug deeper I found two concepts that helped me to understand how we as a network of sustainable city practitioners could use this information to enhance our ability to plan and implement for sustainability.  I apologize if this is going over old ground for some of you but as I seek to add new information to my existing experience I find it exciting to share this ‘new knowledge’.  At least it is new to me!   The two concepts are: recognizing patterns and communicating them through stories and; the possibility of the ‘co-evolution’ of planning and implementation (happening at the same time).

I have to admit that ‘telling stories’ was something I viewed with some skepticism.  Perhaps that comes from my scientific training (both my degrees have a science focus) or it came from working in large bureaucracies that were peopled and often led by engineers.  Either way, I felt that stories were a ‘soft’ form of information exchange – a bit too much Hansel and Gretel and not enough biological oxygen demand.  Imagine my ‘ah ha’ moment then when I read of the critical role that stories had to play in communications, particularly when one is operating in the realm of complexity and complex problems.  The importance of recognizing complex patterns and being able to communicate those patterns to others is at the heart of successful sustainability planning and implementation.  These patterns can often only be described and understood through such powerful story telling mechanisms as metaphor.  For example, the complex relationship between land use and transportation is probably best understood by telling the story of a city that invested in transit versus a city that invested more heavily in roads and the land uses changes that resulted from these choices – sprawl vs compact land uses.  Statistics and data, while they can enhance a story, are not the heart of the story itself. 

I think there is a long way to go towards improving the ‘street cred’ of storytelling.  To sit in a roomful of engineers and scientists and to feel validated through storytelling is still a stretch to me.  However, my inner scientist feels liberated that complexity theory demands this approach to communications and I will have to find a way to embrace it.  Certainly, when communicating with my fellow practitioners in the PLUS Network, storytelling will and must be our preferred way of exchanging information and learning from each other about complex issues and their solutions.

I look forward to your comments!

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4 Responses to Part 2: In Search of the Holy Grail of Implementation

  1. Gary Buxton says:


    I came away with a critical piece from your posting that I wanted to share.

    “recognizing patterns and communicating them through stories”

    Too often we are provided stories that are great narrative but convey little in terms of the patterns, recognition of them, and what they mean. It’s fine to describe what happened, but if it lacks a description of why it happened, it’s a nice story but not a great learning instrument. Data and statistics may not be the heart of the story, but maybe they are the arms and legs, or the pictures that accompany the story. Often you need the data to reveal the patterns, but it is the pattern itself that is the important element.

  2. Alex Aylett says:

    The use of storytelling particularly makes sense when you take into acount the role that ICSC events play as hubs in a network of participants immersed in much more specialized local contexts. Narrative is one of the most productive forms for conveying complexity in a way that can cut across substantial differences among participants. Narrative is also key to communicating the often complex political contexts that sustainability projects must negotiate.

    But, as Gary pointed out, we need to make sure that in the telling a good story (which is an art in itself) there is a strong core of empirical information that gets communicated.

    Carl Zimmer has an interesting piece on Network Theory up at Yale’s Environment 360 [] . While it’s not completely on this topic, it does provide an interesting way of seeing the ICSC and its place within the network that it has created.

  3. Thank you for the important and relevant blog. I am always amazed at how we seem to come back to age old stuff as the solution to modern problems. Your blog made me realise again how insightful Jesus was, because he used story telling to get His message across.

    I am particularly interested in making a movie (big dream) telling different true stories and how they interconnect, that will solve the worlds problems. Still in dream stage.

  4. Gis Méndez says:

    Hi Pat!

    I have a story/confession for you. I’m so afraid of implementation, it gives me the chills.

    I’m a planner and I like to plan, is my comfort area, so I plan for others to implement, cause its takes some much responsibility, knowledge, connexions and wiliness to not care about failure. At the end, we all do that and its ok, until you realize that everybody else is moving except you.

    Then, you all came along being this side of our inside conscience telling every once in a while “do something”.
    (Jane): “what are you going to finish this year?”
    (Linda after asking how Calgary…): “just start at something, it doesn’t matter where, just start”
    (Luis with a note at the end of a transport meeting): “do not let these people leave the table with out a commitment, say something”.
    So, I discovered that was more afraid about letting the Network down if I do not accomplish things.

    We took the big picture and broke it into pieces, starting with the easy ones, those that had very limited risk until we felt comfortable to take it to the next level.
    Filling the blanks does not give you the sense of success… entirely…. cause big parts are still in front of you, and worst, more people come along either to tell you that you are not the generation that is here to implement, or people that believes you do can make the change and their are waiting to be inspired or joint.

    Suddenly you find yourself in the middle of commitment, responsibility, self-made challenges, with failure waiting for a minor distraction, just like your worst living nightmare… but you like it, because at least it moves things.

    What keeps you going is the people that comes along with you… to work besides you, to challenge you, to ask for help or for inspiration, more people that you do not want to let down cause they strongly believe that you are implementing something, even though you don’t see nothing yet.

    Now I understand why we are so afraid of implementation, because we think we have to face it alone, and when high risk comes our way we step aside breaking the safety net that we built.

    Implementation still gives us the chills, and we hope to never lose that feeling. It’s a team thing.

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