Joint National Conference

The Application of Complexity Science to Human Affairs

Tuesday 28th February 2006

Michael Young Building, Open University Campus, Milton Keynes

Co-hosted by:

The Complexity Society, UK


The Open University Innovation, Knowledge and Development Research Centre.


9.00 - 9.30

Registration and Coffee

9.30 - 9.45

Welcome to the Conference - Prof Jo Chataway, IKD

Introduction & Conference Themes - Dr. Elizabeth McMillan

9.45 - 10.40

Key Speakers: Dr. Katrina Wyatt & Dr. Robin Durie Complexity and innovation in communities - the conditions for change

10.40 - 11.30

Key Speaker. Prof. David Byrne. Representing Complexity - issues for social scientists in providing evidence for policy and practice in a complex world.

11.30 - 12.00


12.00 - 12.45

Key Speaker. Dr. Paul Stevens. Getting value from IT - can complexity help?

12.45 - 1.45


1.45 - 2.45

Interactive Discussion Session: What can Complexity Science offer Society?

Led by Eve Mitleton-Kelly and Elizabeth McMillan

2.45 - 3.30

Key speaker: Dr. Robert Geyer. Is there any thing to fear from the politics of complexity?

3.30 - 4.00


4.00 - 4.45

Key Speaker: Damian Allen, Knowsley MBC.

Complexity and Educational Change

4.45 - 5.30

Interactive Discussion Session: What are the core issues and challenges in applying Complexity Science to Human Affairs?Led by Peter Allen and Ysanne Carlisle


Conference Close


Katrina Wyatt and Robin Durie

Innovation in communities - the conditions for change

The aim of this presentation is to share our understanding of the process of transformational change which took place in an area of high deprivation in West Cornwall. Using complexity theory as the evidentiary framework we will show how an area characterised by isolation and despair has been transformed physically, economically and socially. Data has been collected through one-to-one interviews, non-participatory attendance of meetings, access to written documents and through field note observations and informal conversations. This presentation will draw upon our understanding gained about the creation of these enabling conditions producing transformational health, education, police and housing outcomes.

David Byrne

Representing Complexity - issues for social scientists in providing evidence for policy and practice in a complex world.

Unless we regard the scientific description of the world as equivalent to the religious practice of the contemplation of the nature of God, then we do science to inform social practice - to be used. Since the 16th Century the western scientific project has attempted to deliver absolute descriptions as the basis for prediction and hence the development of effective technologies. However, throughout the history of that project, there has been a continuing expression of ‘reservation’ as to the appropriateness of such an approach in domains where the intentionality of human beings has creative capacity. From Vico through Dilthey into the social constructionist programme of the twentieth century, voices have been raised saying ‘the human sciences are different’. Complexity science offers a parallel and related challenge to the predictive claims of simple science. In brutal summary we can say that both complexity and the emphasis on human social action assert that prediction as to what will happen has to be replaced by understanding of what can be made to happen. This has the crucial corollary that different things can be made to happen. This presentation will explore the implications of these fundamental points for both ‘evidence based practice’ and the evidence informed development of policies in the public domain. To a considerable extent the emphasis on evidence has been understood as enabling the replacement of political determination of crucial social issues with the technical resolution of social problems. The contrary argument advanced here is that what complexity theory requires is a scientifically informed politics in which real and probably incommensurate interests are informed as to the alternative futures which can be created on the basis of the present AND as to what interventions and practices will produce which futures. The argument will be illustrated by reference to the role of complexity theory in urban policy and planning.

Paul Stevens

Getting value from IT - can complexity help?

Following the merger of GlaxoWellcome and SmithKlineBeecham in 2001, the IT department within the UK commercial company determined to adopt a radically new approach to IT. This approach focused the whole department on the generation of value and led to the adoption of new ideas and ways of working that have forged a close alignment with other business areas. This close working relationship has allowed the company to use IT as a truly strategic tool to become the only Pharma company in the UK to adopt a different way of competing in the market place, and consequently to greatly increase sales. My talk will recount the changes that were made in IT and how they emerged from a simple set of direction-setting ideas, and will attempt to relate this to Complexity theory.

Robert Geyer

Is there anything to fear from the politics of complexity?

From a complexity perspective, many of the worst human excesses of the twentieth century were constructed and justified by an approach to human beings founded on a deterministic orderly linear paradigm. Whether this was cloaked in a communist ideology, the horrors of the an agricultural collectivization policy that killed 10-20 million in the 1930s, a free market ideology, the tragedy of the catastrophic impact of rigid IMF/World Bank policy towards 3rd world debt, or a planning ideology, the appalling urban housing policies of the 1960s, the fundamentally linear mechanistic approach doomed millions to suffer under the constraints of politicians and bureaucrats convinced of the certainty and “scientific” foundation of their actions. Now, if Stephen Hawkings is correct and the 21st century is the century of complexity, what are its political implications and should we be worried about them?

Damian Allen

Complexity and Educational Change

The Borough of Knowsley is the third most deprived in Great Britain, and educational achievement is historically well below national expectations. A series of change initiatives have been implemented in recent years to improve educational achievement, which have resulted in significant improvements, particularly at age 16. The magnitude of this was recognised by the award of Beacon status for ‘Transforming Secondary Education’ in 2003-04. The preponderance of the undertaking has been with the educational system as a whole, rather than with individual institutions. These changes have been managed with reference to the concepts of complex adaptive systems, and the learning from these changes will be shared. The next series of challenges, focusing around the creation of a new learning system, made possible by the Building Schools for the Future programme, will be examined.