A Complexity Approach to Communities

David Large – Complexity and Communities 2015

This work applies concepts from complexity science to the research and assessment of communities, in particular, ‘adaptability’, ‘attractors’, ‘emergence’, ‘interactions’ and ‘self-organisation’.
Communities are noted for their ability to self-organise and to adapt to local circumstances. What is not so clear is whether they are able to adapt as easily to changing national and international circumstances. For example, attractors are factors pulling towards a certain state in the future. If a community organisation has received regular council funding in the past it may bid for council funding in the future. Many attractors are persistent and hard to displace. If they are removed then the community organisation may be left in a state of uncertainty.
The situation for communities is constantly changing. Consider, for example, the impact of the recent government-imposed austerity reductions. The complexity approach can be used to examine the current ability of communities to adapt and to re-organise. To do this their interactions with their neighbourhood, their service-users, their funders or others are assessed and a number of factors will be found to emerge, both positive and negative. In analysing these factors patterns are sought and the attractors are identified.
To do this an innovative, two-stage interview methodology is developed. The first stage involves asking people involved about certain topics. Here the conversation is free but not unconstrained for certain cues are provided for guidance. The second stage takes the key points from the first conversation and asks the interviewee to reflect and comment on them focusing on the complexity factors present, for example ‘self-organisation’.
The case study material is analysed using the complexity approach devised – interactions are sought, subsequent iterations are studied. From this analysis emergent factors are identified. All of this is done in the terms used by those interviewed and involved.
In this way the approach is shown to understand communities in their own terms, to engage with the issues that are important for them and to stimulate positive ideas for future development.

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