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Examples of complexity

In this video Professor Derek Raine discusses the link between sustainability and complexity.

In this video we look at the link between sustainability and complexity to understand what it means to say that sustainability is a complex problem. I begin by introducing the 19th century geographer, naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, who was the first to warn of the dangers of distorting or destroying Nature for the benefit of humans, even though he was unaware of the scale on which this would subsequently happen. His vision of the danger was based on an appreciation of the complexity of interactions in Nature – the way in which the natural world is linked together – links that could not be wilfully disturbed without unintended consequences.

I look next at a project where, from a natural disaster – the floods in Maas in the Netherlands in 1995 – we have learnt how to work with Nature, not against it. Here we see that a simple engineering solution failed and a more nuanced approach to the complexities of flood defences was required.

On the other hand, something like a nuclear reactor is complicated but is not complex in a technical sense. One of the important learning outcomes of this week will be to understand the difference. It is partly that in principle, we understand every detail of a reactor and how every element is designed to work. Its safety relies on this. Complex systems on the other hand work to no such master-plan.

When we try to put together a natural system from scratch in the hope that we understand every detail, we may fail. Biosphere 2 was just such a project.


Watch the video and, in the discussion area, share your understanding of the difference between ‘complicated’ and the technical sense of ‘complex’.

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Concepts in Sustainable Development: An Introduction to the Key Issues

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