Why complexity, development and sustainability in practice?

Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent and dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity and uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.  Donella H. Meadows.

I have always had a keen interest in how things work and why things are the way they are. But the more I have learnt and experienced in this quest for understanding, the more difficult is seems to comprehend all the different factors and processes that shape the trajectory of the world in which we live. When one considers the historical, political, economic, financial, social, cultural, ecological, and geographical forces at play, it can feel overwhelming to identify ways to influence positive changes in the fields of international development and sustainability, and to put those ideas into practice.

However, I believe that only by embracing this messiness and complexity and seeking to better understand how all these different forces interact, and then testing different types of practices (whether projects, policies, programs, or other types of activities), will it be possible to influence positive changes in our human systems and the environment. Moreover, we must possess a willingness to accept mistakes, learn from them, and adapt strategies and practices in response to unforseen barriers and/or changes in circumstances and conditions.

Underpinning this belief are ideas and concepts such as complexity science, systems thinking, ecological economics, adaptive management, and resilience in social-ecological systems, which I believe provide very useful frameworks for understanding the complex array of factors that influence the dynamics of human and ecological systems.

I also seek to draw insights and make connections between ideas and theories from different academic disciplines, such as economics, history, anthropology, sociology, political science, philosophy, and critical management studies, in order to view development and sustainability issues from alternative perspectives and value systems.

In addition, I seek to explore different tools and approaches from practical fields such as project management, engineering, policy analysis, finance, permaculture, holistic management and land-use planning, in order to identify ways in which these ideas can be implemented and applied in practice.

Lastly, I am motivated to make these ideas and concepts more accessible to those without expertise or training in these fields. Too often I find that good ideas or practices are cloaked in technical or academic language that is unnecessarily complicated, making it difficult for regular folk to interpret and apply these ideas in their respective fields of work or everyday lives. (I think the fields of international development and sustainability are both very culpable in this regard, as each have developed their own professional jargon and acronym-filled jungles, which only seems to further complicate something that is very complex and messy to begin with!).

Case Study – Agroforestry in Ethiopia

It is probably a good time to give an example of what I actually mean by embracing complexity and using different frameworks and perspectives to better understand processes of development and sustainability. Given that I am currently supporting the implementation of a major action research project on agroforestry in Ethiopia, it seems like an appropriate choice as a case study given it concerns issues related to both development and sustainability.

The project in question is essentially seeking to encourage Ethiopian farmers to plant specific types of trees on their farms in order to boost crops yields and improve the environmental condition of their fields. The ultimate aim being to improve the food security of these farming households and to reduce their vulnerability to climate change.

On the surface this project might seem simple enough. The objective being to investigate and identify which agroforestry methods (e.g. combination of tree and crops) are most suited to the local environmental conditions and will have a positive net benefit on crop yields. Once the appropriate agroforestry methods are identified, then this information can be provided to relevant farmers so they can adopt these methods on their farms.

However, such approach would be taking a very narrow view, one which focuses purely on scientific and environmental considerations, and would not be taking into account the range of factors and dynamics at play, in other words: the complexity of the issue.

In order to better understand the complexity of the different issues related to the aims of this project, one should consider a range of factors that might influence the decision of farmers whether or not they are able and willing to adopt agroforestry methods (and take actions to improve their food security and reduce their vulnerability to climate change, but I will ignore these two issues for the purpose of this discussion). Some of the factors to consider are:

  • Historical – for example, have agroforestry or related initiatives previously been implemented in the local area or region that might result in farmers holding positive or negative preconception towards agroforestry practices?
  • Social/Cultural – for example, what types of social and cultural values influence the decision-making processes of local farmers when it comes to selecting farming practices, or their views towards different tree species?
  • Economic – for example, do the farmers have access to the necessary resources, such as finance, labour or other inputs, to adopt the recommended agroforestry methods?
  • Political – for example, are existing government policies and programs supportive of the recommended agroforestry practices?

In addition to considering these factors independently, is it important to assess how these factors interact with each other in order to better understand which factors have the strongest influence over the decision of farmers whether or not they adopt agroforestry methods.

For example, the provision of government-subsidised fertilisers may actually discourage farmers from adopting agroforestry methods even if the farmers have a favourable view towards the agroforestry methods and have access to the necessary resources to implement them. This is because in the short-term their yields might be improved by the application of the fertilisers whereas the yield benefits of the agroforestry methods may not be realised until after a number of cropping seasons. So under these circumstances the farmers may be less inclined to adopt a long-term view due the incentive to use fertiliser for immediate benefits. This especially the case if they are living close the poverty line and/or have limited or no access to a social protection system.

Another way to look at the issue is to assess how agroforestry methods fit within the farming system as a whole. This is where a systems thinking framework can be utilised to consider the relationships between different components of the ‘system’ and how they might influence the adoption of agroforestry techniques by the local farmers.

The boundary of the system in question could be defined at different levels, such as a single farm, the local agroecological zone, or the relevant government administrative area, depending on the purpose and focus of the analysis.

If the agroecological zone is used as the system boundary, then the analysis might consider how agroforestry methods would interact with the other existing land-use practices within the agroecological zone, i.e. the system components. These components could include farms, forests, industries, human settlements, water resources, transport networks, and/or pastoral communities. (Other important considerations in the agroecological zone would be climate, topography, soil types, etc. but I will ignore these for the purposes of this discussion).

When analysing the relationships between these different components, systems thinking considers such things as:

  • Stocks and flows – the volume and transfer of energy, resources and information between different components of the system. For example, the impact of agroforestry methods on the volume and transfer of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, within and between the different land-use practices within the agroecological zone.
  • Feedback loops – these are mechanisms that create consistent patterns of behaviour or outcomes within or between system components. Feedback loops are present when changes in the volume of a stock affects the flow of energy, resources or information back into the same stock based on “a set of decisions or rules or physical laws or actions that are dependent on the level of stock”(Meadows, 2007, p. 24). For example, the more the stock of soil on a farm is depleted, the less plants will be able to grow, and the less plant roots will be present to hold the soil, thus the more soil will be depleted (a negative feedback loop).
  • Resilience – the ability of a system to recover and maintain its core functions after it is subject to external or internal disturbances or shocks. For example, the ability of a farmer to continue to produce a yield during a drought or following a flood. Or the ability of a farmer to mitigate the impact of a collapse in the market price of his or her crops at harvest time.
  • Self-organization – the ability of a system to create new structures, to learn, to diversify, and become more complex. For example, the adoption of one or two simple agroforestry methods by a farmer would create more diversity on his or her farm by adding trees alongside crops. Over time the farmer may adopt additional agroforestry techniques and practices thus further increasing the diversity of species and farming methods on his or her farm. This process of diversification could also be replicated across neighbouring farms if the farmers chose to come together to share and learn from their experiences with agroforestry techniques.

However, even if all these different analytical methods are utilised, it may still be difficult to predict with much certainty how the different factors and system components will interact with each other and what the results will be. Under this scenario it might be best to consider the system as a ‘complex-adaptive system’, which would necessitate a more experimental approach to influencing farmer decision-making and behaviour.

A complex-adaptive system is made up of autonomous yet interrelated agents (system components) which are capable of learning and adapting and whose interactions are non-linear. It is also a system that is constantly evolving and in the process creating new system structures and patterns of behaviour, which makes it difficult to predict and control how the system will respond to changes and interventions. In short, it can be viewed as an ecosystem containing a diverse range of species that is slowly evolving over time and which responds to changes in unexpected ways.

In the agroforestry case study, individual farmers can be considered autonomous agents who are capable of learning and adapting new farming methods and livelihoods strategies. Their behaviour and choices are influenced by a range of factors (as outlined above) thus making it difficult to predict how they will respond to and apply new information about agroforestry techniques. The adoption of agroforestry methods by the farmers may also produce unintended or unforeseen results. Therefore, when assessing the best way to encourage and facilitate the adoption of agroforestry techniques by Ethiopian farmers, the most suitable approach would be an adaptive and iterative approach, whereby different communication techniques and enabling methods are tested to see which combination of methods work best under different local circumstances.


I hope this short case study on agroforestry in Ethiopia has provided a useful example of how different frameworks and lenses can be applied to better understand and analyse the diverse range of factors that can influence the decisions and behaviour of farmers. Moreover, I hope it has demonstrated the importance of appreciating the complexity of issues pertaining to development and sustainability, even though I have presented a simplified description of the different factors and considerations related to agroforestry in Ethiopia.

The research project I am working on does in fact adopt a much more holistic view of this issue and takes into consideration many of the factors I have described above. However, this still does not guarantee the project will be successful, primarily due to the limited ability of the project team to directly influence the behaviour of farmers and other key stakeholders. Therefore, it will be important for the research team to continuously monitor, reflect, seek feedback, and adapt its approach when necessary in order to successfully identify the most effective ways to encourage and enable farmers to adopt agroforestry techniques.

References and Further reading:

Meadows, D. 2008, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Chelsea Green Publishing Company: White River Junction.

Ramalinga, B. and Jones, H. 2008, Exploring the Science of Complexity: Ideas and Implications for Development and Humanitarian Efforts, Working Paper 285, Overseas Development Institute: London.

Leach, M., Scoones, I. and Stirling, A. 2010, Dynamic Sustainabilities: Technology, Environment, Social Justice, Earthscan: Oxon.

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One Response to Why complexity, development and sustainability in practice?

  1. Pingback: The informal taxi network in Addis Ababa: A complex-adaptive system? | Complexia

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