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The Complexity Canvas

What is the Complexity Canvas and why is it useful?

The first complexity tool in our toolkit, “Cake Rocket Child”, is designed to shed light on the level of complexity within an issue. This tool, the Complexity Canvas, helps us to think in more detail about how those systems behave and why.

It describes five accepted characteristics of complex systems – Interdependent, Dynamic, Emergent, Non-Linear, and Adaptive – which are based on complexity theory.

Understanding these characteristics helps us see how they show up in the systems we are working with and how they impact on our interventions. This helps us design and implement strategies with a more nuanced understanding of their potential trajectory within such a complex environment.

What is a complex system?

Complex systems contain many dynamically interconnected parts. These parts are often themselves complex, thereby multiplying the level of complexity in the system. For example, the prison system is a highly complex system made up of many complex actors – institutions, individual prisons, individuals within those prisons – which are in continual, dynamic interaction with each other.

These actors are both autonomous and interdependent. This means that within the system what each part does will affect the others, yet those parts also operate independently according to their own needs, behaviours, and goals. For example, prison officers, prisoners, and Ministry of Justice politicians are all part of the prison system, but have their own needs and agendas. This also applies to actors that work within but are partially separate to those systems, such as the many social sector organisations that work in prisons. What each actor does affects others in multiple, dynamic ways. This fluid interdependence creates cause and effect relationships that are hard to predict and so require continual adaptation.

Most social sector interventions will take place in complex systems. They will be affected by the characteristics of those systems, so will need to understand and respond to how the system works if they are to succeed.

Interdependent, Dynamic, Emergent, Non-linear, Adaptive

This table suggests some ways in which each of the five complex systems characteristics might impact upon interventions.

Characteristic Meaning Implications
Interdependent The parts of the system (whether people, policies, beliefs, or behaviours) are all interlinked with each other. The parts of a system that an intervention is looking to affect will be connected to many other parts. These relationships need to be understood. If an intervention is seeking to change a situation, it should consider the many other factors connected to that situation.
Dynamic Changes in one element in the system lead to change in the parts it is connected to, and then the parts they are connected to etc. Systems aren’t static, therefore any intervention in that system must have a correspondingly dynamic approach. It's important to be aware of how the part of the system you are trying to influence is affected by other changes, and also what changes the intervention itself is creating. Social sector organisations are not separate from the system but a part of it, so what they do will also generate chains of cause and effect. Ignoring these could lead to unintended consequences.
Emergent Continuous interactions between parts of the system lead to new system behaviours or activities that are hard to predict. To be effective, social sector organisations should continually sense and respond to new and unexpected shifts in the system, working with what emerges.
Non-Linear Change does not follow linear rules of cause and effect. Effects can be indirect and disproportionate. Most social sector organisation interventions will be designed to impact a particular ‘target’ (i.e. an individual or group's behaviour). But many other forces and factors will also be impacting that same ‘target’, making it difficult to isolate the impact of one intervention. Interventions therefore need to think about ‘contribution’ to change rather than attribution (claiming credit).
Adaptive The above characteristics mean that whole systems (not just the parts) will be continually adapting in response to changes in the internal and the external environment. Their adaptive, changing nature makes it very difficult to control or manage these systems from top-down interventions. There is no single point of entry or control and every action will produce a plethora of unpredictable reactions. In the words of celebrated systems theorist, Donella Meadows: “We can’t control systems… but we can dance with them!”


We have created a ‘canvas’ (a simple graphic with space for accompanying text) to help you apply these characteristics to the system and intervention you are working on.

We have provided an example to show how this canvas works, focusing on the criminal justice system. We have considered how each of the five characteristics might show up in that system and how they might impact on an example policy.

We recommend you first read through the table above with definitions and descriptions, then our example canvas. Then use the blank version of the diagram to think about the ways in which these five complexity characteristics show up within a system you are working with, and how they might impact on the trajectory of a proposed (or current) project or intervention.

An example of the complexity canvas.

Systems Practice Toolkit

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