Building Foundations for

Complex Thinking

The site of the Building Foundations for Complex Thinking Project


This project aims to conduct ground-breaking interdisciplinary work in developing and evaluating an innovative, and pragmatically relevant, transdisciplinary theoretical framework for complex thinking applied to managing change in complex systems.


Humanity’s pressing challenges call for urgent positive changes at different levels of organisation: from individuals, families and organisations, to small and large communities. The relations within and between these levels and their coupling to other natural, economic, social as well as physical and technological systems, sustain humanity. A positive future is dependent on our capacity to grasp the complexity of the whole interdependent co-arising system.

Following Ashby’s law of requisite variety (1958), we state that the potential of interventions in complex systems is dependent on the complexity of the intervenors themselves, namely their contributions for the coupling relationship with a system of interest. This complexity must be grounded in the modes of thinking that, constrained by (and constraining) our explanatory approaches and theoretical models, guide our actions (Morin, 1990): our modes of thinking need to be congruent and commensurate with the nature and complexity of the systems we seek to address. Notwithstanding the abundance of research on complex systems, the predominant modes of thought are still not, in themselves, complex (Morin, 1990, 2005; Byrne & Callaghan, 2013). Albeit related to complexity theory, and essential for understanding change in complex systems, complex thinking is distinct from both. Nevertheless, the literature on complex thinking remains scattered. There is a clear need for a clear operational definitions of complex thinking to guide its development and practice.

The project will review and integrate the literature, adopting an overall qualitative approach and make new proposals towards operationalising complex thinking and guiding practice. It will develop a new theoretical framework, oriented for practice. Addionally, with a focus on process, it will review and identify, create and evaluate templates and prototype tools and strategies to promote complex thinking. It will use a variety of methods and consult with experts in different domains. It will build capacity for future research.


  1. To develop and evaluate the pragmatic relevance of a new conceptual framework for the operationalisation, practice and evaluation of complex thinking applied to the understanding and management of change in ‘real world’ complex systems

  1. Operationalise properties of complex thinking through pragmatic strategies and heuristics

  1. To identify existing tools and resources used across different domains, exploring possibilities for inter/transdisciplinary interaction

  1. To develop new templates and prototype tools and meta, process-focused, resources to support the management of the complexity of the thinking, targeting the understanding and management of change in complex systems and real world challenges