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Photo credit: Hugo

Protests and other expressions of civil unrest often seem to outside observers to have arisen from out of nowhere. Even to people intimately connected to the issues, the speed at which a single event can tip into something much bigger may come as a surprise.

An article published by New Scientist and brought to our attention in a recent Southern Africa Horizon Scan newsletter  from our Searchlight partner the South Africa Node of the Millennium Project discusses how complexity theory can help us understand the incidence of protests like those in Brazil. The article cites the work of researchers including Dan Braha at the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI), who models the spread of civil unrest and compares it to other phenomena such as disease outbreaks and even forest fires. While the circumstances and variables affecting the spread vary, underlying stressors determine whether the vulnerability of an environment kindles or defuses an external spark.

The article also mentions research from the head of NECSI, Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam, who has studied the role of global food prices as underlying stressors. Bar-Yam has identified a threshold value of a global food price index that is associated with outbreaks of civil unrest. The article reports: “[The index] has been hovering around this value for some time, he warns – more price spikes may mean more riots.”

Link between global food index and outbreaks of civil unrest.

Last week, a group of staff at the Rockefeller Foundation had the chance to participate in a learning session on Resilience and Complexity with Dr. Bar-Yam. He began with a discussion of dependency, the key to beginning to understand a complex system. Vulnerabilities arise from dependencies, so understanding them is key to building resilience. “Once you can treat the dependencies,” Bar-Yam told the attendees, “the horizons expand.”

Using the common expression “You can’t see the forest for the trees” as an example, he urged session participants to look at both the forest and the trees. Understanding a complex system is not only abouteither the “big picture” or the minute details. It is about identifying and analyzing how the details relate to bigger actions, which is how to identify the key dependencies in a system. And if we take seriously Bar-Yam’s call to see both the forest and the trees, we can’t stop at having identified the dependency between food prices and unrest.

The more interconnected is our world, the more interdependent it is too.

There remain many other complex interdependencies that will determine the acceleration and persistence of these episodes of civil unrest. Bar-Yam, for example, is interested in the role of social media and other technology is increasing connectedness and contributing to the rise of leaderless networks. Because the more interconnected is our world, the more interdependent it is too.

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