Alice MacGillivray

Complexity refers to the character of a system with parts that interact in many diverse ways, making the future behaviours of that system relatively unpredictable.

Alice MacGillivray is interested in the natural world, complex systems and leadership. She is an independent consultant and works with Royal Roads University graduate programs. Her PhD is in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University. In her personal life, she lives in a straw bale home on Gabriola Island, BC and spends time on sandstone beaches and forest trails on her Norwegian Fjordhorse or with her spunky Australian Terrier.

My friend is injured and the ferry’s not running!

Increasingly, we see and hear the term complexity, but why is it important? Researchers in different disciplines became interested in complexity in the 1990s because of common challenges they faced at different scales. Many challenges cannot be explained or solved using familiar tools and processes. Complexity theory can help us work in new ways with important, messy problems such as poverty, equity, and sustainability.

What makes something complex? Perhaps the most important criterion is that complex systems exhibit emergence. As system components interact, they produce unexpected results. Complex systems are different from complicated systems, such as a vintage Volkswagen Beetle. If you were one of the 2,000,000+ people who picked up a copy of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (Muir, 1969), you could follow the right repair steps and get the right result. (This is an example of linearity.) But what if your parents gave you a vintage Beetle, and you loved it so much that it became a stepping stone to an automotive design career? Or what if you got into an accident the first day you drive the car? Or if your father learned the Beetle was his own dream, not your dream, and your family dynamics shift. This outcomes are part of the realm of complexity.

In science communities, some scholars believe that the value of complexity comes from computer modelling, physics, and non-linear mathematics. Others see value in the principles of complexity applied for social progress. Richardson (2011) suggests complexity thinking as a fertile middle ground in which one tries to be true to the science but not in narrow or reductionist ways. In some ways, complexity thinking overlaps with Indigenous ways of knowing, in that there is a strong focus on relationships rather than on objects, facts, and definitions.

The following story comes from Gabriola Island, British Columbia, in Western Canada. It is based on personal knowledge and excerpts from Our Clinic, a book by Bruce Mason (2012) that tells an “informative, entertaining and eminently satisfying story of how 4,000 Island residents rallied to avert a life and death crisis by building their own, much-needed, multi-million dollar Gabriola Community Health Centre” (back cover).

The island is part of the ancestral lands of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, though their villages are now gone. Most residents are English-speaking and of European ancestry. There are people from all age groups, with a large percentage of people over the age of 65. Formal education levels are high; median income levels are lower than for the rest of the province. Some people are homeless. Many residents have an active interest in the arts, alternative medicine, and organic food production. Residents are known for being opinionated; Gabriola is sometimes referred to as 4,000 opinions surrounded by water. Predictably, some residents thought their medical services were in crisis, some thought the status quo was fine, and some thought improvements should come from the government or wealthy doctors.

Initial starting conditions are important in complex systems. They can strongly influence ways in which change occurs and even tiny interventions can lead to big changes. A physician described the Gabriola starting conditions through stories. “I remember one winter night in 2005 when we managed to get a frightened, seriously ill, bleeding patient down a steep incline, into an ambulance to a private dock, and then into a small open boat. After hooking up an IV, we covered the patient with a sheet of plastic for protection while being transported over rough, frigid waters to Nanaimo. There was no room for the doctor onboard” (Mason 2012, pp. 2–3). Vivid memories of this event pushed a core group of people into action, despite unknowns about funds, land, government, zoning, and community support.

Relations with the government were also rocky. Culture is a huge element of social complexity; Gabriola’s reputation for advocacy repeatedly surfaced. For example, when the provincial government took over the ambulance service in the 1970s, it took as long as a year for them to fulfill related financial obligations. They also insisted paramedics be paid, although the existing volunteers said they would quit before accepting money. When stipends eventually arrived, the paramedics donated them to the fundraising society and used them to fight the government on issues such as two-way radios and homecare nursing (p. 22).

Through hard work and an ongoing series of twists and turns, a permanent clinic seemed increasingly possible. Residents created attractors: a term used in social complexity to describe small probes (a complexity term for little experiments) that might galvanize progress. As one example, a group prepared an application for a large grant, which involved online voting with comments. Although the proposal wasn’t quite successful, it became an attractor. People read inspirational quotes from around the world, and this galvanized community networks. Fundraising ranged from a massive garage sale to donation drives, collectively raising over one million dollars. Four acres of land were donated by a retired veterinarian, who envisioned a space required for future needs and insisted on an integrated, team approach to medical care (p. 117). Local tradespeople worked tirelessly. A nurse wanted to learn to use a palm-nailer (similar to a small, precise nail gun) and that became her specialty. People brought meals to the construction site. An auxiliary raised money for medical equipment. Volunteers in their 70s became increasingly fit. A new doctor moved to the island.

Diversity is an asset in complex systems. In ecology, think of healthy estuaries (where the tide meets the flow of a river). They are some of the most productive places on the planet, because of interrelationships between land/sea and salt/freshwater ecosystems. One success factor for the Gabriola clinic was the islanders’ diverse talents. “They stepped forward with many technical and professional skills, magically just when that skill was needed” (p. 58). Newcomers to the island are frequently astonished by who has chosen to live there. People found meaning in unlikely roles: one new islander with a successful career in the software industry volunteered to serve cones at the ice cream stand. He found it a fabulous way to get to know community members.

There were a million reasons why the clinic couldn’t happen, and a million relationships that allowed it to emerge. That’s the magic of complex systems.


aerial view of the Gabriola Island medical clinic with many people standing around outside
Figure 1: A valuable community clinic created through emergence and relationships. (photo: Dr. Don Butt. Used with permission.)


Discussion Questions

  • Consider the statement, People work well with complexity in their personal lives, but less so in their professional lives. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  • Choose a key issue or opportunity for improvement in your school or home community. Imagine you want to spark change this week. How would you describe the initial starting conditions? What is one thing you might try to leverage improvements?

Additional Resources

Muir, J. (1969). How to keep your Volkswagen alive: A manual of step by step procedures for the complete idiot. John Muir Publications Inc.

Pade-Khene, C., Luton, R., Jordaan, T., Hildbrand, S., Proches, C. G., Sitshaluza, A., Dominy, J., Ntshinga, W., & Moloto, N. (2013). Complexity of stakeholder interaction in applied research. Ecology and Society18(2).

Mason, B. (2012). Our Clinic: Visionary health care, fundraising and community building on Gabriola Island. Words at Work.

Mason, B. (2013, January 3). Creating a community miracle. Common Ground.

Richardson, K. (2011). Complexity and management: A pluralistic view. In P. Allen, S. Maguire, & B. McKelvey, (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of complexity and management (pp. 366-381). SAGE.


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