Previous post:

Next post:

Complex vs. Complicated problems

by mel starrs on September 1, 2008

in Opinion, Theory and Comment

In the pub the other evening, a colleague asked me to explain what I felt the difference was between complicated and complex problems. My thinking on the issue is heavily influenced by Dave Pollard and I credit him with the following explanation:

A complex problem or situation is substantially different from a merely complicated one. Here’s how you know a problem is complex:

  1. There are too many interrelated variables to manageably map and show causal relationships between. In other words it is far from perfectly ‘knowable’.
  2. It’s intractable — it has defied previous attempts to resolve it satisfactorily.
  3. It entails many human factors and hence is subject more to human nature than definable rules.
  4. Clarity about the problem co-emerges with ideas for its possible resolution.

The context of our conversation, somewhat obviously, was sustainability and the built environment. The same can be said for the interactions between business and sustainability. An article from HBP’s Leading Green asks if business is becoming too focused on carbon footprints (indeed the same question can be asked of the built environment):

…a singular focus on one ecological system, the atmosphere, may cause perverse outcomes or neglected crises in the hydrosphere or lithosphere. We see this clearly in the rush to produce lower carbon biofuels and the unintended consequences this has had on land use, biodiversity, water and other issues. To put it bluntly, your company does not live by carbon alone, but on water, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and hydrogen cycles.

The article goes on to promote forthcoming tools which will help business cope with these issues.

Sustainability is not the problem – it’s the state we are trying to reach. Sustainable development is how we will get there. Endogenous activity with the biosphere in more than complicated (refer to Dave’s list above). The key to successful sustainable development is in acknowledging the complexity of the situation and not getting distracted by, what in essence is, the low hanging fruit of carbon. Rather than compartmentalise a small aspect of the problem, we need to look at the bigger picture.