In This Issue
Winter Issue of The Bridge on Complex Unifiable Systems
December 15, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 4
The articles in this issue are a first step toward exploring the notion of unifiability, not merely as an engineering ethos but also as a broader cultural responsibility.

Complexities of Civic Life

Friday, December 18, 2020

Author: Peter Levine

Imagine that some college students have volunteered to serve meals at a homeless shelter. They love the experience because they are helping others. During the reflection session after the meal, one student remarks, “Serving the homeless was so great! I hope this shelter will still be open 50 years from now so that my grandchildren can also serve here.”

The progressive educator who has organized this experience is horrified and says, “No! Our goal must be to end homelessness. You must think about root causes, not treat the most superficial symptoms. What are the fundamental causes of homelessness?”

Chastened, the students debate the root causes. Some argue that homelessness results from poverty, which, in turn, is a byproduct of capitalism. Others counter that the root cause is the cost of real estate, which is inflated by -zoning laws. They are deep into a discussion of capitalism and the state when the Brazilian legal theorist and former cabinet minister Roberto Mangabeira Unger happens to walk by.

“Stop this!” cries Unger. “You are looking for fixed, simple, law-like causal relationships. We human beings have made the social world. What we have made, we can also change—not just the components, but also the many ways they fit together and affect each other.”

Unger (who is famous for long speeches) continues, “By looking for root causes, you are limiting your imaginations, assuming that the only important changes are the hardest ones to accomplish. Be more creative. What if we got rid of all zoning and rent control but also gave everyone a voucher for free rent? What if public buildings were retrofitted to allow people to sleep comfortably in them at night? What if houses were shared, and homeless people occupied the temporarily empty ones? What if…?”

The Myth of the Root Cause

I have invented this fable and Unger’s words, but I am paraphrasing portions of his False Necessity (2004) to support a serious point.

A root cause is a metaphor. The root is literally the vital part of a plant that is hidden from sight; digging it up will kill the whole organism. The word radical derives from the Latin word for root. The educator in my fable thinks he is radical because he directs his students to the deepest, least visible, and least tractable aspect of the problem, assuming that attacking a root is the way to a permanent solution.

But a social problem rarely has one root cause or leverage point. Many factors combine to determine results. The same variables that are outcomes are also inputs or causes. Virtuous and vicious circles and feedback loops are common phenomena that illustrate a broader point: any society is a complex network of causes and effects. Interventions are possible at multiple points.

Strategies and Skills for Networks of Causes

Like a root, a network is a metaphor (or mental model) for describing reality, but the difference is important. To improve a society viewed as a complex network requires particular skills and strategies—not those favored by would-be “radicals” who insist on focusing only on “the root.”

First, strategies should be tailored to an individual’s or organization’s location in the network. Management scholar Alnoor Ebrahim (2019) argues that organizations differ in how reliably they can predict outcomes in a system as a whole. They also differ in how much control they can exercise over their portions of the system.

These are two distinct dimensions. With low control but the ability to make reliable causal predictions, a wise strategy may be to identify a specific niche where the organization can operate effectively.

Ebrahim’s example is an Indian NGO called Ziqitza Healthcare Limited (ZHL) that focuses on transporting very poor patients to hospitals. Because it cannot control public health, ZHL limits its responsibility to free and rapid ambulance services, which it can predict. It has adopted a linear strategy, connecting just a few nodes within a much more complex social system. But if an organization can exercise wider control, then it should be more ambitious, mapping out a whole social system and addressing multiple linked components.

Second, objectives, targets, and demands should be appropriate to the system. For example, the heroic phase of the American civil rights movement began with the Montgomery bus boycott. The objective of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues in Montgomery was to dismantle white supremacy in the United States or even in the world. They chose as their target the local bus company, not because it was the worst offender (Montgomery’s police chief was an avowed racist) but because African American customers could boycott -buses. They chose as their demand a fairly modest change in the company’s seating policy because they believed they could achieve that. From their first victory, they went on to many more, without necessarily attacking what could be called a root cause. Indeed, leaders of the movement disagreed about the fundamental cause of white supremacy—drawing on Afrocentric, Christian, Marxist, and other sources—but they often shared targets and demands.

Third, institutions should value and develop system leaders, whose core capabilities include seeing the larger system, fostering reflection and more generative conversations, and “shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future,” as Peter Senge and colleagues (2015) have explained.

Finally, people should learn methods for combining their individual insights and experiences to form shared understandings of the complex social systems they face. Such methods can include face-to-face meetings in which groups physically diagram problems (an approach that is common in engineering design) or tools to derive system models from data provided by large numbers of people.

Civic Strength through Systems Approaches

People who organize and lead communities, associations, and social movements have always made informal mental maps of the complex social systems around them. The engineering of complex systems can be applied to make such analysis more sophisticated and explicit.

The practices and perspectives of complex systems engineering can be used to strengthen civic education so that young people learn to understand and intervene in their societies (understood as systems). Professional development can be enhanced for adults who play civic roles, whether they work for governments or nonprofits or simply participate in their own communities. And tools and processes can be developed for complex systems analysis to make civic leaders and organizations more effective.


Ebrahim A. 2019. Measuring Social Change: Performance and Accountability in a Complex World. Stanford Business Books.

Senge P, Hamilton H, Kania J. 2015. The dawn of system leader-ship. Stanford Social Innovation Review, winter.

Unger RM. 2004. False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy. London: Verso.

About the Author:Peter Levine is the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs and associate dean of academic affairs in the Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.