On complexity

Complex versus complicated

Complexity has always been a part of our environment. Where (environmental) science has already embraced complexity as a default, economics have great difficulty dealing with it. One of the reasons complexity isn’t fully understood by economists is because complex is often confused with complicated. Or as Wikipedia describes it:

Complexity (displaying variation without being random) has always been a part of our environment, and therefore many scientific fields have dealt with complex systems and phenomena.

The use of the term complex is often confused with the term complicated. Complex is the opposite of independent, while complicated is the opposite of simple.

While this has led some fields to come up with specific definitions of complexity, there is a more recent movement to regroup observations from different fields (interdisciplinarity) to study complexity in itself, whether it appears in anthills, human brains, or stock markets.

When dealing with environmental issues, the interconnectedness of things is ever present. Every decision will have an effect on other parameters.

On simplifying things

When we’re asked for a simple question, what people mean (most of the time) are independent answers. “If this… than that…”-answers. We want to change the result rather than look at the process that created the problem in the first place. What we don’t realize, however, is this:

  • There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all answer
  • reducing complexity in a complex problem will always make the problem more difficult.

Complex problems call for complex answers

Before going in deeper on complex answers, I’d like to define the term complex problems first.

A complex problems are also called multi-level problems. These problems are not isolated but embedded in a larger whole. For example, when looking at “the problem” of the third world, we’re not talking purely food scarcity. It’s more a structural poverty on different levels that has an effect on different actors. It’s vitally important to understand that complex problems are never urgent, they are relevant.

Complex problems are never urgent, they are relevant.

Sustainability is always relevant and always as urgent as it was before. There’s enough time, there’s no time to waste.

Now on solving complex problems. We tend to look for solutions that are simple, independent answer, able to blanket the entire problem. We won’t find those answers. Even more, by looking for them, we ignore the complexity of the problem and will never be able to solve it. Complex problems ask for complex answers. Multi-level answers where we try to give a different answer on different situations. These answers will be different for each and every one. Be inspired by other solutions, see how others coped with similar problems in other situations, adopt, adapt and improve.

And most important, a complex answer tries to show you how to play the game rather than gives you an end-score. It has to prepare you for a marriage not just for the wedding.


About leyssensjan

Jan Leyssens is a designer and entrepreneur who strongly believes you can’t turn sustainability into a positive story if your main focus is on negative impact. When designing, he is always looking for the overlap between activism and entrepreneurship, technology and community. His main expertise lies in strategic business model development, Circular Economy, the makermovement, and social innovation. With a background in Industrial Design, Jan quickly shifted his focus towards business design and using the design process in strategic management. Jan is the father of two kids and founder & CEO of Regenerative Design, co-founder of Full Circle, ImpactBoost, and the Circular Design map, podcaster, storyteller, and changemaker.


  1. I found this very appropriate to my work this week. We are developing an Enterprise Risk Management Framework and the management team have been identifying corporate risks with reference to our Corporate Plan. The process has highlighted (for me) the difficulty that some people have in understanding complexity and the importance of all elements of sustainability. Identifying risks around our financial management and governance activities was relatively easy. After all, these are the elements upon which the auditors focus. Then we arrived at the environmental and social objectives…not quite as simple. What are the risks – to our organisation and our community – if we don’t support local community groups and events; if we don’t encourage recycling. The full impact of the loss of a community event, for example, is quite hard to nail down.

    • Hi Beth,

      Getting people to understand interconnectedness can indeed be very hard (and acting on it is even harder).
      You could use a stakeholder-plot analysis to map out visually who your stakeholders are (primary, secondary, tertiary) and how they are affected by the company. Simply by making interconnectedness a visual thing and showing your stakeholders while brainstorming can be extremely helpful to keep them on top of your mind.

      The impact of not clearly defining stakeholders and keeping them in mind is, as you say, hard to define. We’re not very good at long term estimations, so I think the long term impact can only be defined by managing the emotional debate (I’ve got a post coming up on that somewhere in may) and Murphy’s law (Anything that can go wrong will go wrong).

      I’m always interested in real life experiences with these tools or terms. Thanks for your comment.

      With warm regards,

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