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Characteristics of Complex Systems Project

Characteristics of Complex Systems in K-12 Education project

Led by a partnership between MIT Professor Emeritus Jay W. Forrester and the Creative Learning Exchange, the goal of the project is to create online curriculum materials for ages five and above that will illustrate the characteristics of complex systems.

An iceberg is a useful image for understanding complex systems. At the tip of the iceberg are the events that we can easily see and understand. Explore the iceberg visual here.

The intuitively obvious "solutions" to social problems are apt to fall into one of several traps set by the character of complex systems.
Jay W. Forrester, World Dynamics

Project Goals

The long-term goal of the project is to help our audience understand the nature of complex social systems – why do such systems resist policy changes? Why are short-term and long-term responses to corrective action often at odds with each other? How can leverage points be applied to bring about desirable change in social systems?

An abstract level of understanding with regards to social systems will help prepare future citizens to actively shape their society.

Lessons and Simulations

Cause and effect are not closely related in time or space.
Complex systems are composed of many interacting feedback loops. They often contain long time delays. What may appear to be an obvious reason for a particular problem is often not the fundamental cause of the problem, but only a symptom.
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Action is often ineffective due to application of low-leverage policies.
Complex systems contain balancing feedback loops that surround the various goals of the system. Low-leverage policies often seem to be the "obvious" solutions to the problem at hand, but they encounter resistance – the tendency for interventions to be defeated by the response of the system to the intervention. Low-leverage policies are unable to overpower the balancing loops in order to align the competing goals of the system. In this complex system, the syptoms are commmonly treated rather than the problem.
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High-leverage policies are difficult to apply correctly.
Complex systems contain areas of high leverage – places where a small push in the correct direction is likely to effect the desired change. In many cases, these high-leverage policies are difficult to identify and difficult to apply correctly. The "levers" for such policies may be pushed in the wrong direction, or not pushed at all.
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The cause of the problem is within the system.
Problems observed in complex systems are almost always internally generated. While it is easier and more comfortable to place blame on others, it is more productive to look within the system itself to understand and change undesirable behavior. This complex system charactersitics is often identified by the ocsillation of the system.
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Collapsing goals results in a downward spiral.
Complex systems tend to drift to lower levels of performance over time. This can occur over a long timeframe, making the downward spiral both insidious and hard to combat. This situation occurs when individuals or institutions respond to failing to reach their goals by adjusting them downward in order to relieve the discomfort of failure.
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Conflicts arise between short-term and long-term goals.
In complex systems there are tradeoffs between short-term and long-term goals. What is achievable or desirable within a short timeframe can reveal problematic consequences in the fullness of time. Conversely, concentrating on a future payoff almost always involves sacrifice in the present.
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Burdens are shifted to the intervener.
This characteristic is often closely related to the tradeoff between short-term and long-term goals. Both play out over time, but the presence of an intervener usually means that a form of addiction or dependence is at work. The system's natural ability to fend for itself declines over time as the addiction/dependence becomes stronger.
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More resources

There are many published works that expand upon the characteristics of complex systems and their importance in today's educational environment. Please refer to our resource page for further reading about this topic.

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