What Designers and Design Thinkers Can Learn from Complex Adaptive Systems

by Idris Mootee

What Designers and Design Thinkers Can Learn From Complex Adaptive SystemsIn early 1995 I was obsessed with the new science of complexity and have spent a lot of time on cellula automata and was looking for new clues to illuminate strategy making when emerging technologies were causing uncertainties in the world of business. I questioned the relevance as well as applicability of many social science theories and economic theories in understanding the nature of change bought by complex systems.

Complexity science seems to shed some lights on the behaviors of network effects of people/computers, immune systems and termite colonies. I was intrigued by what I was seeing and ended up writing a book on its complexity theories and business strategy. It helps to explain the role of network influences and behavior, connections and interactions. Fascinating to the business applications of concepts of emerging orders, self-organizing, and nonlinear thinking, I realize the value of pattern recognition, the difference between the whole and the mere sum of the parts, the value of outliers and diversity, and the way some very small inputs can lead to big changes.

Fifteen years later, now when I revisit the ideas, these concepts seem to make more sense as we see with what’s doing on around us. It is important to understand that this science is not a single theory or a theory of everything. It is a lose combination of different ideas, theories and concepts from a variety of disciplines–biology, anthropology, economy, sociology, management that together helps explain complex adaptive system.

What does it mean for designers and design thinkers? The new science (or art) helps us 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. It is highly relevant when we are dealing with introducing a highly innovative products/technologies to the market where different elements interact to create a new behavior. Until they use the products, it is hard to see how it will be actually used rather than what was envisioned. It invites us to examine the unpredictable, disorderly and unstable aspects of organizations and human behavior.

Think social media and think sustainability. Think how activities at a local level can shape individual change and activate organizational capacities of communities and ultimate affect structural change. If Blockbuster understands these ideas, they might have a good chance of not letting Netflex eats their lunch. If GM understands these ideas, the might have come up with a new business model. If Visa understands these ideas, their market cap could be double its current market valuation. If LG understands this, they can create the next tablet that beats iPad.

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Idris MooteeIdris Mootee is the CEO of idea couture, a strategic innovation and experience design firm. He is the author of four books, tens of published articles, and a frequent speaker at business conferences and executive retreats.

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  1. Very good start Iris.

    I would like to see you flesh this out more. You title fantastic “What Designers and Design Thinkers Can Learn from Complex Adaptive Systems” leads to many individual ideas and possible methodologies.

    I will be watching for more from you on this subject.

    Stu French.

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