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The domain of Anthro-complexity, a subset[1] of Naturalising sense-making, is the world of homo-faber, homo-ludens and homo-narrans: of those who make things, play and tell stories - of beings who "are not ants, or birds." As such, the domain has been navigated and reflected upon for as long as direct perception has been shaped by distinctively human modes of sense-making.

The 21st Century school of Anthro-Complexity is an associated body of theory and practice which draws on natural science informed philosophical thinking (including, but not limited to, complex adaptive systems theory) in order to address questions of how humanity makes sense of this world in order to act within it. The term was coined as a contrast with computational complexity, the use of agent based models. Such approaches are seen as complimentary


"It is probably no coincidence that a lot of us working in complexity reference Daoism as encompassing much of what we know about complex systems" - Dave Snowden, 2016

The praxis of complexity in human systems

Anthro-complexity is a way of framing the ordinary, everyday landscape of human interaction. As such, the domain is rooted in the sense-making realms within which ordinary people, everywhere, have always navigated (and may always continue to navigate) their ordinary, everyday lives. All associated "naturalised sense-making" theory and practice is expected to respect this level of self-understanding and to accept that many "system" mechanisms will neither be explained by the workings of all constituent elements (at a level below) nor grasped as a whole from an exterior vantage point (at a level above)[1].

Dave Snowden references complexity as the "science of common sense" underscore the school’s commitment to the "ordinariness" of lived anthro-complexity[2]. Against a backdrop of "dealing with uncertainty," practitioners have consistently sought to give "a theoretical understanding of what anyone with experience already knew." By understanding the why of what works we can scale the how.

Whence, where, where next…

Where has Anthro-Complexity come from?

Dave Snowden has repeatedly noted how "dealing with uncertainty" was a key driver for his development of theory around Anthro-Complexity. He references work within the World Council of Churches in Australia, African and Latin America, "including early work in Liberation Theology," and also experiences in a series of business roles. Crucially, this was as one of "a merry band of mavericks from many different backgrounds" and was amid growing concerns about excessive reliance on engineering metaphors in management science[3]. More recently, the Cynefin® Centre has become the focus of this work to make a difference - as outlined in Cynefin®21 – The importance of social research and on the new Cynefin® Centre website.

With hindsight, Brian Castellani’s Map situates Dave Snowden's work on Anthro-Complexity within in relation to diverse trajectories within complexity science[4]. The latter's Twelvetide 20:07 blog on Early complexity influences shows that this is at least part of the story, from early influences such as Axelrod and Cohen’s Harnessing Complexity and Paul Cilliers' Complexity and Post Modernism to slightly later influences such as Alicia Juarrero of Dynamics in Action fame. In practice, the development was also shaped significantly by disagreement (e.g. with Ralph Stacey) and through "conversations and conference explorations through speaking, answering questions, dealing with objections, and discussions over beer, coffee, and gin!"[5]

Complexity for beings who are "not ants, or birds"

"Complexity science is there and important, but so to are the cognitive sciences, aspects of biology such as epigenetic, string and constructor theory in physics and several others […] human systems are different, and that symbolic language is a critical aspect of that difference which links back into the narrative and other work that is so much a part of what we do" - Dave Snowden, 2015

The 3Is of Anthro-Complexity

Anthro-complexity starts with homo-faber (the maker), homo-ludens (the player) and homo-narrans (the storytelling animal). At the very least, this means addressing the 3Is:

  • Intelligence - because no matter where we stand on human cognition being embodied, embedded, enculturated and enabling, and perhaps also enacted and extended, we need to allow for reflection on experience, for abstraction from experience, and for all else that we associate with higher levels of cognition.
  • Intentionality - because in recognising that how humans are attracted to different opportunities for action goes beyond responding to stimuli, Anthro-Complexity foregrounds matters relating to purpose (or priorities) in ways which highlight our facility with abstraction and which introduces deliberative choice and goal setting.
  • Identity - because our awareness of the fluidity in how we “show up” in different contexts, and of the way we hold lightly or tightly to any coherence we perceive in how we take things as unfolding, means those of us navigating Anthro-Complexity must delve into notions of recognition, respect and dignity in ways which we commonly find difficult to convey outside of our narratives.

Relationship to computational complexity and cybernetics

Traditional Complexity Science institutions, such as The Sante Fe Institute, tend to focus on more computational complexity so often rely on mathematical and agent-based modelling in their enquiry. For example, in Boid's Distributed Behaviour Model, birds flocking behaviour was simulated to explore how individual behaviour is influenced by nearby flockmates. This is typical of computational complexity which often uses, insects, birds or chemical reactions as the central agents of the model.


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  1. D. Snowden in "The Cynefin Wiki Announcement - Cynefin Community", Cynefin Community (YouTube video)