Journal of Information Technology

, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 1–19 | Cite as

Design theory for dynamic complexity in information infrastructures: the case of building internet

  • Ole Hanseth
  • Kalle Lyytinen
Research Article


We propose a design theory that tackles dynamic complexity in the design for Information Infrastructures (IIs) defined as a shared, open, heterogeneous and evolving socio-technical system of Information Technology (IT) capabilities. Examples of IIs include the Internet, or industry-wide Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) networks. IIs are recursively composed of other infrastructures, platforms, applications and IT capabilities and controlled by emergent, distributed and episodic forms of control. II's evolutionary dynamics are nonlinear, path dependent and influenced by network effects and unbounded user and designer learning. The proposed theory tackles tensions between two design problems related to the II design: (1) the bootstrap problem: IIs need to meet directly early users’ needs in order to be initiated; and (2) the adaptability problem: local designs need to recognize II's unbounded scale and functional uncertainty. We draw upon Complex Adaptive Systems theory to derive II design rules that address the bootstrap problem by generating early growth through simplicity and usefulness, and the adaptability problem by promoting modular and generative designs. We illustrate these principles by analyzing the history of Internet exegesis.


design theory Complex Adaptive Systems information infrastructure Internet historical case study 



The paper has benefited from the helpful comments of Nick Berente, Sean Hansen, David Tilson, Youngjin Yoo, Vallabh Sambamurthy, Bo Dahlbom, Eric Monteiro, Margunn Aanestad, Petter Nielsen, Lynne Markus and Omar El-Sawy, the senior editor Jannis Kallinikos and two reviewers for their constructive comments. We also thank faculties at the Helsinki School of Economics, Umea University, University of Oslo and Case Western Reserve University for constructive feedback. Finally, we want to thank all the people who participated in the study for sharing their experience and thoughts.


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© Association for Information Technology Trust 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of InformaticsUniversity of OsloNorway
  2. 2.Department of Information SystemsWeatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve UniversityClevelandUSA

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