The Project


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 [1]. A positive future is dependent on our capacity to embrace this complexity. Following Ashby’s law of requisite variety [2], we state that the potential of interventions in complex systems is dependent on the complexity of the intervenors. This complexity must be grounded in our modes of thinking [3,8,13] that, constrained by (and constraining) our explanatory approaches and theoretical models, guide our actions: our modes of thinking need to be congruent and commensurate with the nature and complexity of the systems we seek to address. Mismatches may lead to unexpected, unintended and, oftentimes, negative effects.

Systems thinking introduced a hallmark in the history of science and human thinking, embracing the interconnectedness of the physical, biological and social world [13, 14]. The ‘complexity turn’ [15] has continued this revolution, stretching the boundaries, models and methods of science to acknowledge the complex properties of the ‘real’ world. Despite the development of a ‘complexity science’, the dominant modes of thinking, are often, not, in themselves, complex: to a large extent, they have remained “restricted” [15], trapped in the habits and structures of a ‘normal’ reductionist and linear science, constrained in its own reduced reflexivity and capacity for change [16]. Science needs to be able to rethink itself by inspecting its modes of thinking [16]. By building tools for complex thinking it will be in a better position to meet its own internal challenges while guiding societal change. The literature of complex thinking is still scarce, scattered and limited by the constraints of disciplinary boundaries. The multiple uses of the notion of complex thinking, without a clear definition, generate confusion and prevent the advance of practice.

There is a need to distinguish and integrate notions of complex thinking with those of complexity itself or complex systems: albeit related they are different. Additionally, patterns of thinking cannot simply be taught or transmitted: they are a practice. Hence, the need for (i) building an integrative theoretical framework and (ii) strategies and tools to promote the practice of complex thinking.

This project aims to address such needs. For that it will build on the literature of complexity theory and complex systems research [3, 4, 5, 6, 7] and draw on a tradition of thinkers inspired by biological complexity and adopt a relational, process-based, and dialogical perspective [3, 8, 9, 10,11, 12, 13] to develop and evaluate a framework that aims to be theoretically sound and pragmatically relevant for practice.


This project will establish the foundations for a coherent, transdisciplinary framework for complex thinking that affords a clear definition of complex thinking, an operationalisation of its indicators and the development of process-focused strategies for practice. It will map the field, differentiate and relate different uses of the term, definitions and different perspective under an integrated framework. It will open a new transdisciplinary field for research and practice, in close relation to domains where change is urgent. Its innovation lies, to a large extent, in its process-focus (vs. traditional content-focused approaches). The project does not prescribe models or contents, but will propose a process of thinking through which will result in a coupling with a targeted system, both at a scientific and intervention level. In complex thinking, this coupling exhibits sufficient congruence for novel or meaningful insights to occur to guide the practice of change. Because complex thinking is not just a concept to be understood, but relates to a practice, this project will identify possible tools and strategies to promote it. It will design preliminary templates and prototype of tools (assessment scales; scripts for reflection; games; training materials) and strategies (e.g. heuristics; activities). It will review the literature, survey needs across domains, and identify extant approaches, in different fields, that may be used to promote the different properties of complex thinking. The project’s outputs will support positive interdisciplinary interactions and build synergies, through the integration of metaphors and methods and the building of a common process-focused language.

Theoretical novelty

This project will provide interventions aimed at promoting complex thinking in both scientific and practice contexts, built from an integrative theoretical framework for complex thinking that will provide the foundations for future research. The novelty of the theory lies, to a great extent, in its integrative and transdisciplinary character, in the added understanding and in the possibilities for action that derive from its applications. It will draw from contributions in a variety of disciplines and have applications in a variety of domains. Additionally, the framework will provide clear indicators of dimensions and processes involved in complex thinking so they can be intentionally targeted and evaluated through a variety of strategies. By engaging with experts in different domains, and relating to contexts of practice, the project will develop tools and strategies for support applied complex thinking in basic and applied research. The project aims at developing pragmatically relevant theory with a clear focus on practice i.e. interventions aiming at positive change in complex systems. To achieve this, it will adopt an co-evolutionary approach, where theory and tool developments will recursively feedback on each other to promote fitness.

General methodology

The project comprises a core team with particular domain (biological complexity; complex systems; family systems; change processes; interpersonal relationships; interdisciplinarity) and methodological (quantitative, qualitative, computational) expertise, and a team of expert consultants from different relevant domains (e.g. management/organisations; social justice and equality; poverty; well-being and global development; environmental changes; teaching/learning; evaluation; modelling complex systems). The core team has experience and in developing theoretical and practice strategies (including e.g. facilitation) to promote positive interdisciplinarity. They will immerse themselves into the literature of different disciplines, exploring themes related to complex thinking, and through critical reflection and synthesis, develop an integrative interdisciplinary framework for complex thinking. By affording periods of intensive, face-to-face pair work, this project will allow the core team to create a rich environment for the emergence of the kind of imaginative [17] and abductive leaps [18, 19] that lead to true scientific innovation and theoretical advance. They will use their expertise to build conditions for productive and creative interdisciplinary dialogue. Meetings and other interactions with expert consultants will play several key roles: providing advice on critical literature and practice references in their domains and feedback on the relevance and utility of the theoretical and pragmatic outputs. Experts will also be identified to participate in a series of surveys, interviews, Focus Groups and workshops, and form a reflecting team, offering insight on new perspectives and possibilities to be explored.

Work plan

This project will build on and expand existing contributions from the core team, namely a proposed operational definition and indicators for complex thinking, a heuristic relational thinking method and a general model to understand change in complex systems [20, 21]. The core team will conduct a series of activities to develop and evaluate an integrative theoretical framework for complex thinking and a set of general templates, prototypes tools and strategies to promote it. They will use a variety of methods (literature reviews and data mining, surveys, interviews , focus groups and workshops) for the collection of data [22, 23, 24, 30] that will be explored and integrated for the purpose of building a theoretical framework under a broader qualitative approach, under which the information will be organised and interpreted [25, 26, 27, 29]. The consultants will conduct a preliminary assessment of the research tools (e.g. via survey) and outputs in relation to their domains. The consultants will identify a network of initial expert participants to be expanded through snowball sampling [31]. The expert participants will participate in a series of surveys, focus groups and workshops aiming at: evaluating the theoretical framework and the operational definitions of the indicators of complex thinking; expanding and revising the framework; identifying relevant literature; identifying needs, strengths and vulnerabilities in their domains; evaluating templates, prototype tools and strategies. The work will be organised in two interrelated stages focused on theoretical development and intervention tools, incorporating cycles of: intensive collaborative work by the core team, consultations with experts, data collection and analyses. The core team will perform the intensive work to integrate within and between the different stages, to build a coherent framework.


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