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What Complexity Science Teaches Us About Social Change
by Virginia Lacayo

From 1992 to 2004, I worked at a Nicaraguan nongovernmental organization called Puntos de Encuentro, which means "meeting points"¯ or "common grounds,"¯ a feminist nonprofit organization that believes in the role of communication, research, and education in fostering social change. Puntos advocates an innovative approach to designing communication strategies to promote social change, believing that "while societies have to change, they have to decide for themselves how to change."¯ Rather than seeking to change individual behaviour, it seeks to influence the social context in which individuals act and in which discussion about different aspects of daily life, both public and private, occurs.

To this end, Puntos uses its weekly television social soap series Sexto Sentido (Sixth Sense) as a launching pad for a multimedia, multilevel communication for social change strategy called Somos Diferentes, Somos Iguales"”We're Different. We're Equal. The award-winning strategy combines entertainment-education outcomes, youth leadership training, alliances between partners and strengthening on-the-ground social movements to promote change in Nicaraguan society.

In spite of its wide recognition as an innovative, risk-taking NGO, Puntos has been struggling to frame theoretically and justify its outreach strategy. This is because, while Puntos is experimenting with alternative approaches to promote social change through its communication interventions, it still has to contend with traditional log frames, planning models, impact indicators and research methods based on behaviour change communication theories, which respond to the standard criteria scholars and granters have established to legitimise project outcomes. Seldom do such methods and indicators reveal the multilevel mechanisms through which social change occurs.

Contradictions arise when organizations such as Puntos approach social change as a nonlinear, "messy,"¯ complex problem, while most donors, social scientists, and practitioners approach it as a predictable, linear process. A minority of practitioners and scholars, who share a more holistic and complex definition of social change as a process, increasingly criticize the notion of conceptualising social change as an event that can be achieved by strategic behaviour change communication inputs. However, barring some exceptions, these criticisms have not translated into revamped field-based interventions.

In the development enterprise, even those grant makers and leaders who may intrinsically believe that social change is a long-term, complex process silently collude to support theories, indicators, methodologies, and policies favouring a linear, step-by-step, cause-effect approach. The hegemony of behaviour change theories and steps to change models persists. Meanwhile, organizations that use communication strategies deal with the pressure of sustainability and the need to demonstrate"”with legitimised standard indicators"”their "success"¯ to compete for funds necessary for their work.

New theories and methodologies that respond to the notion of social change as a complex, nonlinear, contradictory, emergent and self-organizing process are necessary.

How I Came Across Complexity Science

Hoping to find some of the answers I was looking for, I left Puntos de Encuentro in 2004 to pursue my master's degree in Communication and Development Studies at Ohio University. I am now enrolled in the university's Ph.D. program in mass communication.

At OU, my path crossed with Professor Arvind Singhal, who himself was questioning the relevance and applicability of traditional social science methods in understanding the complexities of social change. Highly intrigued by the complexity science framework, he had become a passionate advocate for its usefulness in providing alternative explanations of how social change occurred. He introduced me to the complexity literature and some of its key practitioners. I saw that complexity science is increasingly used as a framework to analyse complex interactions between various actors in systems, such as stock markets, human bodies, forest ecosystems, manufacturing businesses, immune systems, termite colonies, and hospitals. I was so intrigued by the insight this new science could provide that I read about the topic voraciously.

I started to understand better the role of relationships, connection and interactions. I began to understand the concepts of emerging orders, self-organizing, nonlinearity. I began to see the importance of pattern recognition, the difference between the whole and the mere sum of the parts, the value of outliers and diversity, and how small inputs can lead to big changes and so on.

Even though these concepts were familiar to me, the wholeness of them gave me eyes to see Puntos and its work from a different perspective.

What Is Complexity Science, And How Can It Help?

Complexity science is not a single theory. It is a combination of various theories and concepts from a variety of disciplines--biology, anthropology, economy, sociology, management and others"”that studies complex adaptive systems (CAS).

All three terms in the name CAS are significant in the definition of a CAS: Complex implies diversity, many connections among a wide variety of elements. Adaptive suggests the capacity to alter or change, the ability to learn from experience. A system is a set of connected or interdependent things. From this definition, it is possible to approach organizations, communities and societies as complex adaptive systems.

Complexity science seeks to understand how complex adaptive systems work the patterns of relationships within them, how they are sustained, how they self-organize and how outcomes emerge.

In this sense, complexity science addresses aspects of living systems that are neglected or understated in traditional social change approaches. Complexity science provides insights to understand better how complex social systems work and change. It invites us to examine the unpredictable, disorderly and unstable aspects of organizations and societies.

So instead of describing how systems should behave, complexity science focuses the analysis on the interdependencies and interrelationships among their elements to describe how systems actually behave.

How Complexity Science Speaks About Social Change

According to complexity theorists, all complex adaptive systems, such as organizations or communities, are governed by a few basic principles and share a number of associated proprieties. Understanding these principles could provide clues to design and implement interventions that evoke the natural quality of living systems to change and re-create themselves.

Let me share a couple of examples.

Complexity Idea No. 1: The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Complexity science argues that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Most of us know this already, but each of us interprets and applies this in a different manner. For Puntos, this meant to develop its communication strategy Somos Diferentes, Somos Iguales by chunking, that is, experimenting to get pieces that work and then linking the pieces together, while being aware of the unpredictable, emergent behaviours and outcomes that new interconnections brought. Puntos realized through these experiments that combining media and methodologies for an ongoing period of time would produce more cost-effective outcomes, and would be more aligned with its conception of a messy process of social change.

Puntos understood that interpersonal and organizing activities at the local level were essential to promote individual-level changes and organizational capacities of communities. But, but at the more macro level, the mass media played an important role to shape public opinion, creating a supporting environment for structural changes to occur. A multimedia, multi-method strategy allowed Puntos to have both individual and social change catalysts operating simultaneously and over time.

Puntos's strength, in this sense, lies in the synergies of the integrated whole"”more than the sum of its isolated parts.

Complexity Idea No. 2: Order Is Emergent and Self-Organizing

Another example of a complexity principle applied to Puntos's work is the case of the distribution network of La Boletina, the organization's national feminist magazine that shares news and promotes dialogue within Nicaragua's growing women's movement.

La Boletina's circulation has gradually increased from an initial print-run of 500 copies in 1991 to the present 26,000 copies, making it the largest circulation magazine in Nicaragua. This growth can easily be explained: La Boletina is free of charge, and it is distributed by hundred of volunteers who travel long distances in buses and canoes to Managua to pick up packages of the magazine. They hand-carry them to towns and villages all over the country and distribute the newspaper to local groups. These groups may then distribute the magazine to smaller groups in their communities.

The distribution network of La Boletina is a unique phenomenon of self-organization. It works on the principle of solidarity and is sustained by mutually supportive relationships among women's groups. Puntos didn't plan the distribution strategy, and has no direct control over it. The system emerged on its own.

This absence of centralized control in the distribution of La Boletina provides a lot of freedom for emergence, but it also has, ironically, jeopardized its own existence.

The lack of control by Puntos over the delivery and use of La Boletina makes it hard to demonstrate its impact, the indicators established by donors. Donors have pressured Puntos to increase its level of control over the magazine by, for instance, charging a price. It has been difficult for Puntos to justify to its donors how charging a price might actually "kill"¯ the most important distinctiveness of La Boletina: its volunteer,-self-organized distribution network and the collective ownership of the magazine by women's groups.

Complexity science, on the other hand, values this lack of centralized control as an essential quality of healthy systems. The most illuminating paradox of all is that in complex adaptive systems order is emergent and self-organizing. In a healthy, complex adaptive system, control is distributed rather than centralized, meaning that the outcomes emerge from a process of self-organization rather than being assigned and controlled externally by a centralized body. Order emerges from the interactions among the individuals. It results as a function of the patterns of interrelationships between the agents, and it is characterized by unpredictability. It is not able to predict precisely how the interrelationships between the parts will evolve.

Complexity Idea No. 3: The System Changes When It Chooses To Be Disturbed

Another principle of complex adaptive systems, which is that the system changes when it chooses to be disturbed by the information it receives, is appealing. The system will choose to be disturbed when the information adds new meaning to what exists. In other words, the system becomes different because it understands the world differently. It is not just the intensity or frequency of the message that gets our attention; but mostly how meaningful the message is to us personally.

The key word here is "choice."¯ The system "chooses"¯ to be disturbed by something it considers meaningful. People do not want to be bossed; they want information so they can, when they can, make their own choices and decisions.

That is where Puntos's strategy is fundamentally different from most other communication for behavioural change initiatives.

First, instead of following the general advice "keep it short and simple,"¯ Puntos believes in making it "long and complicated."¯ This allows Puntos to show how social issues are closely interrelated with each other"”and how people often engage in contradictory behaviours.

Second, Puntos believes that people have the right to decide what they want, so rather than presenting behaviours as "good,"¯ e.g., modelling them as "socially desirable"¯ or advancing them because they are endorsed by international donors and population control organizations, Puntos promotes the right of each individual to make informed decisions and take responsibility for these choices. Puntos does this by showing a variety of alternatives to analyse and deal with different realities and issues. Puntos also believes that "appropriate behaviour"¯ may vary from person-to-person. It is complex and should be decided upon by the people affected by the situation, so they can take responsibility for the decisions they make.

Complexity Idea No. 4: Free Flow Of Diverse Information Is Essential For The System To Evolve

Meaningful information can be presented in various forms to convey a meaning for the system/receptor, and the more diverse the sources, the better. Complexity science values both diversity and participation.

Diversity means not only having different voices on an issue, but it also means addressing issues generally considered taboo. Participation means creating an environment in which everyone can feel comfortable sharing opinions and feelings. It is not only what information is being shared, but also who is sharing it. The wider the variety of people who share ideas, the greater the opportunity for new associations to form and new patterns of meanings to emerge.

Through its own mass media and interpersonal communication activities, Puntos aims to promote dialogue and debate among different people and groups. The purpose is not to create consensus around a topic but to explore, and be exposed to, different points of view in a climate of respect and tolerance while strengthening and legitimising minority voices.

Showing and dealing with complex and contradictory behaviours and issues, instead of stereotypical ones, doesn't make for a short-and-clear message, e.g., bad guys lose, and good guys win. But it allows audiences to reflect more deeply about their attitudes, behaviours, and options. It shows that people aren't bad or good, but often both, which is consistent with the complexity view: Life is cluttered, full of paradoxes and seldom is either/or. Puntos believes in this complexity.

Complexity Idea No. 5: Planning the Unpredictable

While organizations like Puntos can dream, based on a complexity approach to social change, their operative planning usually follows a complicated, linear, step-by-step approach required by their donors and by the expectations of their partners. These planning methods require that an organization plan its mission and goals in terms of actions, activities, outputs, outcomes and measurable results.

But does social reality work that way? First, not all social processes are linear, meaning that not every action has a direct and single effect. Second, there are many unpredictable events that can influence one's strategy, and so it should be flexible enough to adapt. Third, by detailing how expected outcomes will be measured, the assumption is that they are the only possible outcomes"”ergo, one is predisposed to them"”and focuses on measuring them exclusively, perhaps overlooking other important factors. In a world that asks for measurable outcomes, it is easier to go with the flow and not resist the dominant currents. But when the measure of success is defined in quantitative terms, what matters more is how much was done, and not the quality of the processes and the relationships.

Although some planners would argue that a log frame is a guiding tool not a straight jacket, the way the boxes are organized is linear, connecting each one to the other by arrows that show the cause-effect relationship between one and the next... .

This doesn't mean that social change organizations must not plan; it means they should consider changing the way they plan. Interventions in complex adaptive systems require careful consideration and planning but of a kind different from a mechanistic system. It is more important to understand local conditions and to be aware of the uncertainty and feedback that accompanies any intervention than to predict the number and type of the outcomes expected.

Complexity science recognizes the difficulty of planning everything in detail, especially when working within an unpredictable and constantly changing environment. It suggests that the best way to plan is by establishing minimum specifications and a general sense of direction, that is, to describe the mission the organization is pursuing and a few basic principles on how the organization should get there. Allowing the flexibility of multiple approaches by trying several small experiments, reflecting carefully on what happens and gradually shifting time and attention toward those things that seem to be working the best. Once the minimum specifications have been set, the organizational leadership should then allow appropriate autonomy for individuals to self-organize and adapt as time goes by to a continually changing context.

In a perfect world, Puntos and its allies"”organizations and donors"”should get together routinely, with a shared vision about the complex nature of social change, and to agree on the main strategies, or minimum specifications, to achieve common goals. Then, let each one trust the process and plan its activities and indicators accordingly.

Puntos is still far from realizing that perfect world. In fact, this idea of minimum specifications is frightening. In a world that expects activism rather than reflection, and assured outcomes rather than experiments, it is hard to suggest such an evolving approach. Yet, we do know that planning harder, and in advance, will not do any better.

Complexity Idea No. 6: Complex Adaptive Systems Are History And Context Dependent

Evaluations and impact assessment are another challenge for organizations like Puntos. The generally positive results demonstrated by impact evaluations of edutainment strategies around the world have created expectations of regularity and predictability about social change. This positivist approach leads us to think that there are "effective"¯ ways to change societies. Many organizations, especially international aid organizations and foundations, use concepts as "best practices"¯ to re-enforce the idea that successful experiences in one setting can be replicated in different settings. This notion of replication privileges the importance of "outside experts,"¯ and it re-enforces beliefs that local organizations and communities need them to find the "right"¯ solutions.

As much as success stories may attract new converts to social communication strategies, the pressure to "succeed"¯ in traditional terms may also prevent innovation within the field, not only in terms of project design and implementation but in terms of evaluation. The required predefinition of the evaluation methods and indicators by donors left little room for opportunities and unexpected changes that arise during the implementation process"¦.

Complex Adaptive Systems: Are History And Context Dependent?

Complex systems learn new strategies from experience, and they are shaped and influenced by where they have been.

While it is important to recognize what does work to promote social change and use it as an inspiration for other interventions, it is risky to scale it up and/or replicate it in a different context. Even in the same locality, a single intervention would unlikely have the same results twice because the environment and the community are constantly changing.

Wholeness matters. As complex adaptive systems, societies "“ made up of thinking, feeling, and believing people -- are for the most part unpredictable and uncontrollable. They do not respond to general laws. Yet, while social change is complex and incoherent, it is not at all unintelligible.

Planning and evaluation are important to social change, but we need to open our minds to new ways to understand how social systems evolve. So instead of looking for the formulae for social change, it may be more useful to understand and focus more on the processes that lead to effective interventions.

In Closing

The issues discussed here are not new. Indeed, some of the "answers"¯ proposed by complexity science are not new. But as some complexity theorists state: "In many contexts, these 'answers' were not explainable by theory."¯ They were the intuitive responses known by many but appeared illogical, or at least idiosyncratic, when viewed through traditional scientific theories. Complexity science provides the language, the metaphors, the conceptual frameworks, the models and the theories that help make the idiosyncrasies nonidiosyncratic and the illogical logical. It also provides a rigorous approach to study some of the key dimensions of organizational life.

There is still much more to learn from, and understand about, complex adaptive systems and complexity science. In addition, there is much more to understand about social change. Complexity science is still in development. Debates about complexity-based indicators and research and evaluation methods are urgently needed if we are to be able to provide communication for social change strategies and interventions with better instruments.

However, complexity science applied to social change strategies, such as Puntos's, can open our minds and help us look for different ways to do things; to ask different questions; to get different answers; to try different strategies; and to understand better what does work and what doesn't in each context. Most importantly, complexity science helps us understand how and why social change happens.

Even if this essay only sparks new questions, that would seem to me a good place to start.

[Important references for this essay were: Plexus Institute and Margaret Wheatley's Finding Our Way: Leadership for Uncertain Times. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Inc. 2005.]


In Fall 2004, when I first met Virginia Lacayo at OU, I was immediately struck by her intelligence, her wide repertoire of activist experiences in Nicaragua, and her gentle but irrepressible "irreverence."¯ Not shy of asking why?"¯ or, more importantly, "why not?"¯, Virginia challenged my thinking over the next two years in ways that few had done. In late 2005, I was honoured when she asked me to work with her on her master's project.

For the most part, social scientists and practitioners are trained erroneously in believing that social change phenomena, much like "raising a child,"¯ can be predicted, controlled, and achieved in linear steps"”and with a high degree of certainty. This problematic prevailing mindset"”if we do this to people, they will behave in this way"”is a result of the overwhelming dominance of Newtonian thinking that spilled over to social science and was reified over decades without much questioning. To question this prevailing paradigm meant turning upside down the Holy Grail and inviting derision and condescension about "not being scientific enough."¯ The notion that the thoughts and actions of human beings could be predicted and measured in the same way as the movement of heavenly bodies seemed to me as being downright faulty.

The social change enterprise, in my opinion, was badly in need of a framework that could explain the certainty and uncertainty associated with outcomes, as also the agreement and disagreement about how those outcomes could be achieved. What we needed was a framework that could explain why small inputs in a social system could result in surprisingly big outcomes; and why often big, expensive interventions yielded small, dismal outcomes. We also needed a framework that could account for the simultaneous order and disorder in a system, as well as the co-existence of paradoxes and contradictions. As Virginia Lacayo has shown, complexity science provides that framework.

Arvind Singhal, Ohio University:

For Lacayo's entire master's thesis: Visit either OU's Department of Communication and Development Studies Web site:, or Puntos's Web site at
Or you may write her directly at:

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