Visualisation of Complex Adaptive Systems

  • Joachim P. Sturmberg


In complex adaptive systems function determines structure. While interactions constantly change, these changes generally will maintain the system’s overall function and structure.

In general terms, the interdependent nature between function and structure of complex adaptive systems can be best understood looking at visual representations. This book uses three images to illustrate different aspects of the system characteristics:
  • A vortex is a helpful metaphorical representation of the dynamics that define the function and structure of a complex adaptive system.

    A vortex illustrates the key features of a complex adaptive system:
    • a complex adaptive system cannot emerge without a central focus (for a bathtub vortex to emerge one needs a plug hole)

    • the central focus provides the bottom-up energy for the function of the system

    • as the system evolves it builds different structures, i.e. subsystems, which have their own dynamic characteristics

    • while the system looks different at different organisational levels, its overall function is seamless and “controlled” by its central focus

    • disturbing the structure of a complex adaptive system will temporarily alter its dynamics and structure

    • only a change in the nature of the central focus will change the system permanently (or rather it allows its agents to reorganise themselves into a “new system”).

  • Drawing system maps and multiple cause diagrams are formal ways to describe the linkages between the agents of a system and their potential dynamic relationships.

  • The “Cynefin framework” helps to understand the different dynamic behaviours in a complex adaptive organisational system based on the strength of relationship between its agents.


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    Sterman J (2000) Business dynamics. Systems thinking and modelling for a complex world. McGraw-Hill, BostonGoogle Scholar
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    Kurtz CF, Snowden DJ (2003) The new dynamics of strategy: sense-making in a complex and complicated world. IBM Syst J 42(3):462–483CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joachim P. Sturmberg
    • 1
  1. 1.University of NewcastleWamberalAustralia

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