How are problems complex

Different types of complexity.

Complexity has been traditionally considered the interaction between two dimensions – the degree of (un)certainty about how to solve the problem and the degree of (dis)agreement amongst stakeholders about how to solve the problem. These considerations resonate with potential differences and disagreements between multiple stakeholders and scientific and knowledge uncertainty characterising complex real-world problems.

Arkesteijn, van Mierlo and Leeuwis (2015) argued that complex problems, in addition to the dimensions of (dis)agreement and (un)certainty, have a third dimension, namely, systemic stability, or 'lock in'. This where there are conditions in the system that perpetuate existing, but undesirable, practices. An example might be lock in created by banking lending criteria, or existing policies around changing land use, might both impact on the ease with which farmers can change their land use.

It is useful to consider the different types of complexity for the issue that you are working on as it can inform where you may need to focus your efforts in order to achieve impact. For example, if there is already some agreement about the science, but the complexity arises from a high degree of lock-in, a sole focus on further science may not achieve the impact you seek.

A short questionnaire designed by Small et al. identifies the dimensions of complexity.

Download the questionnaire(PDF).

More information

Arkesteijn, M., van Mierlo, B., Leeuwis, C. (2015). The need for reflexive evaluation approaches in development cooperation, Evaluation, vol. 21(1) 99-115.

Patton, 2010 Developmental Evaluation: Applying complexity concepts to enhance innovation and use. Guilford Press, New York Primary Innovation MBIE project

Small, B., Robson-Williams, M., Payne, P., Turner, J., Robson-Williams, R, Horita, A. (2021) Co-innovation and Integration and Implementation Sciences: Measuring their research impact - an examination of five New Zealand primary sector case studies. Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences.