Developing a Systems/Complexity Paradigm

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

October, 2016

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This short video introduces our "literature review section" of the seminar which will include separate videos on several of the leading books and articles that began developing a "systems paradigm" for peacebuilding. 

Discussion Questions: 

We have two over-arching questions which we pose for all of the entries in this unit.  They are:

(1) What ideas from the people we have talked about have you found to be particularly useful in your work?  Put another way, what are their core ideas that have influenced the way you work or think about conflict problems?

(2) What other people should we include in this "literature review" of the "founders" of the complexity-oriented approach to peacebuilding?  What key ideas of theirs have you found particularly useful or influential?  Can you give us citations to sources that talk about ideas?

Discuss both of these questions in D12.

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Full Transcript

Hi. This is Heidi Burgess. And in this video, I want to talk about how we and others in the conflict and peace field have begun to develop a systems and complexity paradigm. This video is a follow on to Guy's video on past peace and conflict paradigms.

You may remember that in that video, Guy talked about the anti-war movement; the non-violence paradigm; the negotiation, Getting-to-Yes-paradigm; and the peace-building paradigm as laid out in Boutrous-Boutrous Ghali's Agenda for Peace, among several others. All of these paradigms were useful for some things and made great strides from where we had been before. But, as Guy pointed out, they all have limits.

One of the major limits is that these paradigms tended to think of complex problems as complicated problems or complicated systems or sometimes even as simple systems. Now, two people in a protracted dispute, sitting down with a mediator, is still technically not a simple system. But it's way more simple than societal level conflicts of the kind that we are primarily looking at here. So if you assume that you can use the techniques that work for two people sitting at a table, such as principled negotiation, for complex problems such as Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Syria; or immigration or climate change; or inequality, or any of the problems that we're looking at, as being so very difficult or wicked these days, you can't have simple solutions.

So as Guy pointed out in his video, the next step is what he was calling a scale-and-complexity paradigm. Now, we need to acknowledge before I go further that this is not an idea that we came up with on our own. This idea has been broached in various ways by a lot of people over time.

One of the most important people who has most influenced us is Kenneth Boulding, who wrote an article in 1956, in Management Science, called “General Systems Theory, The Skeleton of Science.” In that article, Boulding laid out the notion that there were nine different levels of  systems, from very simple static systems, to the most advanced, which were social systems. This idea kind of got lost in the interim. But we will be bringing it back and using it quite heavily in our image of systemic peacebuilding.

Another idea that followed on that one, that we'll be using a lot, is the notion of wicked problems. That was actually developed first by Rittel and Webber in an article in 1973. But it wasn't applied to the field of peacebuilding until much, much later.

One of the early people to do that was a friend of ours, Chip, or officially Charles, Hauss, who wrote a book very recently, 2015, called Security 2.0, dealing with global wicked problems. One of the useful resources that he talks about in that book is a website,, that has a free book in it on wicked problems. The date of that isn't given. But if you look at all of the source material, a lot of it comes from 2011. So that book has to have been written in 2011, or likely after that. So the adoption of the notion of wicked problems is relatively recent. But the idea was developed in 1973.

Maire Dugan is another colleague of ours, who developed a very important notion of the nested theory of conflict in 1996. I'm not going to give details about that because I have a whole separate post on it. But again, her idea, which has been built upon heavily, is now 20 years old.

Also in 1996, Louise Diamond or John McDonald developed the notion of multi-track diplomacy, which led to the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, which is still operating. And there has been a lot of utilization of that concept in peacebuilding all over the world.

John Paul Lederach is another key figure in systems and complex conflict thinking, although he often doesn't get credit for that. I will have a separate video on what I always call Lederach's Pyramid or Lederach's Triangle, which is a very important early theoretical description of the way conflict systems work. A later one, which he developed in 2003, is the Big Picture of Conflict Transformation. And I'll be doing a video on that one as well.

Later yet is Bill Ury, who developed the idea and the book, The Third Side, that has 10 different roles that people can play to help resolve complex intractable conflicts.

And again, later than that, is Peter Coleman, who wrote a book called The Five Percent and came up with the notion of dynamical systems theory. That, too, is quite recent. But it has influenced our thinking about these problems. And I'll be talking about that in a separate video.

Shortly after that, Rob Ricigliano wrote a book called Making Peace Last, which has yet a different model for analyzing and interacting in complex systems.

And we're going to be putting all of that together, along with our own ideas, to try to come up with yet another iteration on complexity thinking as it relates to peacebuilding. So this unit is going to be kind of the literature review unit, where we look at what other people have done. And the next unit, we'll be taking that another step further and adding in our ideas about how all of this impacts both theory and practice in peacebuilding.

Referenced Resources

  • Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s Agenda For Peace. United Nations, 1992.  Accessible at:
  • Kenneth Boulding, “General Systems Theory, The Skeleton of Science.”Management Science, 1956 
  • Charles (Chip) Hauss Security 2.0. Roman and Littlefield, 2015.
  • Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin Webber, "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," Policy Sciences 4: 155-69. 1973.
  • Maire Dugan "A Nested Theory of Conflict"  A Leadership Journal: Women in Leadership--Sharing the Vision. 1:1 9-20. 1996. 
  • Louise Diamond and John McDonald. Multi-Track Diplomacy: A Systems Approach to Peace (Kumarian Press Books for a World That Works) 1996.
  • John Paul Lederach. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Socieites. United States Institute of Peace. 1998.
  • John Paul Lederach. "Conflict Transformation" in Beyond Intractability
  • William Ury. The Third Side.  Why We Fight and How We Can Stop. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2000.
  • Peter Coleman. The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts. Public Affairs 2011
  • Robert Ricigliano. Making Peace Last: A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding   Routledge 2015

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