By Christoph E. Mandl, IIASA alumnus and Senior Lecturer at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna

Apprehensive about ever growing crises of corporate and political governance, I wrote a book titled, Managing complexity in social systems: Leverage points for policy and strategy, that addresses these crises and appropriate actions from a complex systems, system dynamics, and systems thinking perspective. The premise of the book is that more and more policies and strategies tend to fail and it is based on my personal experiences and the stories of many policymakers.

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In her disconcerting booklet, The collapse of Western civilization: A view from the future Naomi Oreskes stated: “Analysts agree that the people of Western civilizations knew what was happening to them but were unable to stop it. Indeed, the most startling aspect of this collapse is just how much these people knew, and how unable they were to act upon what they knew.”

So, what can be done about this? How can the complexity of modern societies be managed? Naturally, answers to these questions are anything but trivial. Insights from complexity science, system dynamics, system theory, and systems thinking may not give a full answer but could perhaps point us in the right direction.

In writing my book aimed at closing these societal knowing-doing gaps, four IIASA alumni shaped and influenced my thinking:

The first was Thomas Schelling, who was key for me in showing how, in the context of segregation, a social system’s macro-behavior emerges that is quite different to the micro-motives of the individuals.

Brian Arthur’s book, Increasing returns and path dependence in the economy, revealed to me a totally new perspective on the dynamics of social systems where disequilibrium is not only possible, but normal.

Through John Sterman’s article Bathtub dynamics: Initial results of a systems thinking inventory, I understood how important the distinction between stocks and flows is for decision making in dynamic environments.

Lastly, when I first came across Donella Meadows’ article, Places to intervene in a system, its impact on me was profound. In my view, it was the first publication that addressed decision making from a strictly dynamic point of view. This article and her publication Chicken Little, Cassandra, and the real wolf, forever changed and inspired my thinking about what it means to manage and to make decisions.

Without the insights of these four outstanding IIASA alumni, my book would never have been written. Thank you, IIASA, for bringing them all to Laxenburg!

More updates from IIASA alumni or information on the IIASA network may be found here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

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