Introductory Resources to DST

To provide a brief introduction to the Dynamical Systems Theory (DST), we offer the online resources and book recommendations below. Learn more about what makes intractable social problems different and why we need a different mental model.

SP-PeterComplexity, Intractability and Social Change 
Peter T. Coleman

Watch the Video (16:24)

In this talk at AC4’s Sustaining Peace Conference 2015, Peter T. Coleman talks about the value of using a complexity lens for addressing intractable social problems. He contrasts ‘clock’ and ‘cloud’ problems through a story of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an initiative by Geoffrey Canada.

Dan Jones Image (permission granted to use)

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been ongoing for 68 years. Photo source: Nature, March 12, 2015. Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Conflict Resolution: Wars Without End
Dan Jones

Read the Article (Nature, March 2015)

Nature writer Dan Jones explores intractable conflict – the 5% of wars that drag on for years – as dynamic, complex systems similar to ant colonies or cities. This perspective offers mathematical tools and computer-based simulations that are providing insights into the stable, if destructive, patterns of social behaviors that perpetuate conflicts.

Rob Slide image

Dump the Terms ‘Success’ and ‘Failure’ 
Rob Ricigliano

Watch the Video (10:36)

In this talk at AC4’s 2015 Sustaining Peace Conference, Rob Ricigliano argues that traditional ‘success’ and ‘failure’ thinking are nonsensical and even self-defeating in complex peacebuilding contexts and environments.

huff postThe Mathematics of Middle East Conflict and Peace
Peter T. Coleman

Read the Article (The Huffington Post, August 2011)

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict specifically or the Middle East more generally often comes to mind as a symbol of ongoing, entrenched conflict – continuing despite myriad attempts to resolve it. Through the lens of this conflict, Peter T. Coleman explains about using complexity science as a platform for understanding how intractable conflicts become self-perpetuating attractors – tightly coupled systems that resist change.

Hidden Patterns in Peace and Reform Processes
Josefine Roos and Stephen Gray

Watch the Video (9:01)

This animated video presents a systems mapping of Myanmar’s peace and reform process. The analysis demonstrates how invisible factors can generate unintended consequences when they interact with our own interventions, which typically are targeted at ‘problems’ that are most visible.

Eric Berlow simplifying complexity image v2Simplifying Complexity 
Eric Berlow

Watch the Video (3:35)

In this three-minute TED Talk, Eric Berlow, an ecologist, shares insights he has developed in studying complex ecological systems. His approaches mirror those outlined to engage with complex social systems: the power of visualization, the importance of stepping back and understanding the network of linkages in the whole system, and only then zooming in to the area of interest to identify simple answers, often different than the ones you came up by simply looking at two isolated elements in the network.


The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts
Peter T. Coleman

five percent

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This easy-to-read yet rich and thought provoking book by Peter T. Coleman offers a deeper discussion of the ideas touched on in the resources above. These include: the human cost and challenges of intractable conflict, the repeated failure of traditional diplomacy, negotiation and mediation all point to the need for a new approach, a new way to think about conflict and sustainable social change.

The book outlines DST as a paradigm shift to shifting the stuck dynamics of intractable conflict through understanding the complexity of a situation, looking for the patterns that are keeping the conflict stuck, and identifying the leverage points that will shift the dynamics of the system.

Read a book review here.

Coleman, P. T. (2011). The five percent: Finding solutions to seemingly impossible conflicts. New York, NY: Public Affairs.

Making peace last: A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding
Rob Ricigliano

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The international community invests billions annually in thousands of discrete projects designed to overcome poverty, stop violence, spread human rights, fight terrorism, and combat global warming. The hope is that these separate projects will add up to lasting societal change in places like Afghanistan. In reality, these initiatives are not adding up to sustainable peace. Making Peace Last applies systems thinking to help improve the productivity of peacebuilding, broadly defined.

Ricigliano, R. (2012). Making peace last: A toolbox for sustainable peacebuilding. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Navigating Complexity in International Development:  Facilitating Sustainable Change at Scale 
Danny Burns

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This latest book by Danny Burns addresses the shortcomings of international development work:

International development interventions often fail because development experts assume that our world is linear and straightforward when in reality it is complex, highly dynamic and unpredictable. (IDS)

This book expands on Burns’s earlier book Systemic Action Research (2007) by addressing not only an engagement approach of system action research but also participatory systemic inquiry and the more organic processes of what Burns refers to as ‘nurtured emergent development’.

Burns, D., & Worsley, S. (2015). Navigating complexity in international development: Facilitating sustainable change at scale. Rugby: Practical Action Publishing.

Adaptive Action:  Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization
Royce Holladay and Glenda Eoyang

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Adaptive Action provides simple tools, practical examples and real-world stories to understand and take action in the chaotic world around us. Based on the theories and models of chaos and complexity and tested by practice in multiple professions and cultures, the work of Human Systems Dynamics offers practical guidance for thriving in the midst of uncertainty.

Systems Thinking

Understanding systems thinking helps to understand the DST.  There are many books available on systems thinking, how it differs from the traditional reductionist, linear model and why the distinction is important to select the appropriate mental model to fit the situation and work toward sustainable, constructive change.  Here are three that we like:

Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Donella H. Meadows

Thinking in Systems

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Thinking in Systems is an accessible book exploring the implications of thinking in systems – how we understand things, create our mental models and subsequently take action to change the current status quo or escalating trends. Chapters 1 and 2 in particular offer a fine foundation in what it is, why it’s important and offers some skills to not only address current social issues but to consider our long term well-being on earth.[More…]

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations 
Dietrich Dörner

Dorner book cover

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This easily readable book further explores the idea of complexsystems and the challenges they pose through well thought out examples and experiments. Through the lens of cognitive behavior, Dörner shares why seemingly logical decisions don’t work in complex environments.

Dörner, D. (1996). The logic of failure: Recognizing and avoiding error in complex situations. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Systems Thinking for Social Change
David Peter Stroh

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Too often policy changes have the opposite effect of those intended, making things worse rather than better.  In this readily readable book directed at change agents and decision makers in the non-profit, public, corporate responsibility sectors, David Peter Stroh shares what systems thinking is, provides guidance for action, and case examples to illustrate ideas and concepts broadly applicable to social change.

Stroh, D. P. (2015). Systems thinking for social change: A practical guide to solving complex problems, avoiding unintended consequences, and achieving lasting results. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.


To continue learning about DST, please find more introductory resources to DST here!

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