Global Governance Institute


“Governing Complexity”: GGI Research Published in International Studies Review (ISR)

14 October 2020

A new analytical essay by GGI Deputy Director Tom Pegram and GGI Researcher Julia Kreienkamp offers a novel design model for governing complex risks on a global scale.

Complexity Word Cloud

The article, entitled “Governing Complexity: Design Principles for the Governance of Complex Global Catastrophic Risks”, explores the implications of complexity thinking for governing large-scale global threats, from climate change and ecosystem collapse to parasitic artificial general intelligence or deadly pandemics. It argues that existing global governance structures, geared towards managing complicated problems, must be supplemented with design principles explicitly oriented to addressing complex problems. Complex problems are not just technically difficult and/or politically contentious but inherently systemic, making it hard, if not impossible, to isolate, predict, and control the risks they pose. Because some of these risks could be catastrophic, inflicting serious harm to human (and non-human) life on a global scale, it is imperative to build and strengthen governance structures capable of working with complexity, rather than against it.

The article joins other scholarship in International Relations seeking to invigorate a rigorous research agenda on complex system dynamics within world politics, highlighting the value of complexity theory, not simply as a contextual descriptor, but as a conceptual toolkit to inform governance research and action. Recognising that real-world global challenges are rarely purely complicated or purely complex, it takes seriously the implications of “restricted complexity” for updating the legacy governing toolkit – the assumptions, heuristics, models, and practices conventionally employed to solve international collective action problems. The authors also draw laterally upon design science to offer a novel, more adaptive design model for governing complex systems, with broad application across global policy domains. A case study of the COVID-19 pandemic response illustrates the shortcomings of inherited governance structures and the need to update old ways of thinking in light of an increasingly complex and globalised governance reality. This will involve both revisiting the design logics underlying how we build global governance structures, as well as pursuing a generative research agenda more capable of responding adequately to instability, surprise, and extraordinary change.

The advance article can be accessed via the ISR website. The authors would like to thank the Global Challenges Foundation for supporting this research.