About Dynamical Systems Theory
“Thinking systemically through a dynamical systems lens helps us to understand mediation, negotiation, and peace-building in a more comprehensive, holistic way. It encourages us to step back and see the constellation of forces that is at play and then move in and focus on specific elements.”
-Peter T. Coleman
Dynamical Systems Theory (DST) is based on decades of systemic research on war, aggression, and peace processes, and is inspired by physics and applied mathematics. It integrates traditional techniques with more adaptive approaches and emphasizes complexity and non-linear dynamics as essential processes for understanding our most challenging social problems.
The DST approach is being developed on multiple fronts to continue advancement of the science, practice and education that goes along with it. AC4 draws on the extraordinary educational and research facilities of Columbia University and facilitates the convening of scholars and practitioners from around the globe who are employing this approach.
The Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR) at Teachers College advances the research, conducting laboratory and applied research to empirically investigate social phenomena. The MD-ICCCR and the Masters in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (NECR) program at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies develop cutting-edge courses, workshops and trainings for current and future practitioners. NECR weaves DST insights throughout its masters curriculum, preparing students for the engagement with the ever increasing complexity of today’s world.
What is DST?
The Core of Dynamical Systems Theory (DST)
Peter Coleman, Ph. D., Co-Executive Director of AC4 and Director of MD-ICCCR (Bio/CV), leads thinking and research on DST, asking us to think of intractable conflicts and sustained peace as complex systems composed of networks of interconnected and continually interacting elements. Such elements include: a history of violence or practices of peacefully resolving disputes, structures that exclude or include, feelings of hatred or cooperation, and many others. Together through time, such elements form patterns of thinking and behavior that are repeated over and over becoming difficult to change. These patterns, also known as attractors, hold the system in place, resisting shifts from conflict to peace or peace to conflict.
In order to change the patterns, an understanding of the system and its dynamics is gained through identifying factors from multiple perspectives and exploring how they interact and effect distant, not directly connected, elements and relationships. Cause and effect relationships may be difficult or impossible to identify and isolate in these multiply determined environments; full knowledge and prediction impossible. Identifying key points of leverage and experimenting with changes to assess outcomes forms an appropriate approach to system change. Through these types of interventions, learning, and reassessment of our understanding of the system, we can work toward nudging the system to shift to more constructive patterns.
What is the research agenda for DST?
A New Approach to Addressing Conflict
Investigating conflict processes from the DST perspective is a paradigm shift in the field. Currently, the majority of empirical research on conflict from the interpersonal to the societal level has focused on identifying linear, cause and effect relationships between variables in a system. Our research takes a different approach, and asks for planning and intervention strategies that require a different set of core competencies.
For seven years, the DST team at the MD-ICCCR, in collaboration with a larger network of scholars, has worked to advance DST research by emphasizing complexity and patterns over time. Multiple research projects have been conducted or are currently underway investigating social phenomena from the perspectives of complexity and dynamical systems. These efforts include:
- interpersonal ideological conflicts,
- complexity of rules followed by negotiators,
- mediation dynamics,
- leadership competencies for fostering lasting social change,
- systems thinking ability,
- resonance and social change at multiple social levels,
- drivers and constraints on conflict and peace processes in Israel and Palestine,
- multilevel conflict processes in organizations, and
- the fundamental conditions and processes conducive to sustainable peace.
Our research agenda is much too ambitious to be fully described here – please follow the embedded links to learn more about our research and what we’ve learned so far!
A key component of the DST approach is the attractor landscape model, which refers to the range of possible states of the system that are the result of the evolution of the system over time.
Intractable conflicts, from this perspective, are understood as the emergent stable patterns of behaviors, thoughts and emotions of members of the system that have stabilized around a negative state, and have demonstrated strong resistance toward attempts to foster positive sustainable change.
What types of applied projects have employed DST?
Traditional large-scale social intervention approaches often embrace linear planning and intervention strategies that assume predictable cause and effect relationships between factors in the system. In contrast, this approach to intervention emphasizes examining the multiple interacting factors and corresponding feedback processes operating to hold complex social systems in chronically undesirable states, and then identifying leverage points in the system to encourage positive change.
Our applied programmatic activities are housed primarily at AC4 in the Dynamical Systems Theory of Practice (DSToP) project. One initiative is a partnership between AC4 and the World Bank Group in Colombia, which aims to support local groups in assessing the impact of memory and reconciliation activities on efforts to reduce violence and promote peace after more than 50 years of civil war. A second initiative focuses on strengthening the capacity for promotion of peace and harmony in cities where the lives of youth are disrupted by violence. Efforts of this Urban Violence Prevention project have focused to date on Medellin, Colombia and Newark, New Jersey.
Causal-loop diagramming is just one of many tools that we use to capture the complexity and dynamics of the system before moving to identify opportunities for change.
Network of Scholars and Practitioners
For over 15 years, Dr. Coleman has been exploring conflict through the lens of complexity science. With a group of interdisciplinary colleagues including Robin Vallacher, Andrzej Nowak, Andrea Bartoli, Lan Bui-Wrzosinska, Larry Liebovitch, Naira Musallam and Katharina Kugler he formed the Dynamics of Conflict working group to explore conflict dynamics through mathematics. Later, through the support of AC4 and partners Rob Ricigliano of The Omidyar Group and Danny Burns of the Institute of Development Studies along with others, Dr. Coleman established the Dynamical Systems Theory Innovation Lab convening thought leaders employing DST and related approaches in order to foster the exchange of ideas and inspire innovative work.
This interdisciplinary group of over 50 lab members from around the world includes scholars, practitioners and scholar–practitioners from a wide range of disciplines including psychology, law, anthropology, mathematics, biology, and economics, to name a few, each bringing their unique perspectives on understanding and addressing complexity and social change.
Mike Mohr of the Omidyar Group describes his experience during the 2014 DST Innovation Lab:
For seven years, the DST team at the MD-ICCCR, in collaboration with a larger network of scholars, has worked to advance DST research by emphasizing complexity and patterns over time. Multiple research projects have been conducted or are currently underway investigating social phenomena such as interpersonal ideological conflicts, complexity of rules followed by negotiators, mediation dynamics, leadership competencies for fostering lasting social change, systems thinking ability, resonance and social change at multiple social levels[NEED LINK], drivers and constraints on conflict and peace processes in Israel and Palestine, multilevel conflict processes in organizations, and the fundamental conditions and processes conducive to sustainable peace – all from the perspectives of complexity and dynamical systems.Our research agenda is much too ambitious to be fully described here. Follow the embedded links to learn more about our research and what we’ve learned so far!