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Conference Report: Chaos Theory and the Arts in the Context of
Social, Economic and Organisational Development

18-21 March, 2001

Overview | Report on the Meeting | List of Participants

A. Context
Chaos theory has attracted wide attention as a new source of scientific insights into the functioning of life in its different manifestations. A description of large complex systems -- everything from weather to ecology to populations of neurons and the growth of cities -- Chaos Theory appears to have important lessons to teach us about how large groups interact in patterns, create new forms or get stuck in old configurations. Chaos is a physicist's description of life processes at cosmological as well as at micro-molecular levels. It attempts to capture the phenomenon of transformation-in-motion. In curious ways, Chaos Theory has much in common with the arts and the creative process.

Some organizational consultants and social thinkers have felt that there must be important applications of Chaos Theory to the arts and creativity in general and to the "practical" world of business and society in particular. These new insights are of special attraction as an antidote to the increasing amorality and "soul-lessness", as David Whyte calls it, of modern economic, business and social forms.

The comparison between the creative processes of the arts and the unfolding process of organizational and societal transformation also offers apt in capturing a more holistic picture of "transformation in motion". In capturing the fluidity of the change process and its non-linear progression, Chaos Theory offers a provides an alternative perspective to the concept of conventional wisdom of how to conduct change programs within a firm or a society. It legitimizes the demands for providing more space and time to pattern formation within any given organizational change process. The attraction of Chaos Theory and approaches based on artistic creativity is its challenge to the conventional hierarchical model of organization prevalent in most mainstream institutions.

However, it is not entirely clear how one may apply Chaos Theory and artistic creativity to business and society. More work needs to be done to identify potential application of Chaos Theory and artistic creativity to the process of organization development and societal transformation. It is in this context that Center for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development, in collaboration with the Pari Center for New Learning organized a three-day international conference in Pari, Italy.

B. The Organizers
The meeting was organized by Center for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development (CSEND) and the Pari Center for New Learning. The, Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development (CSEND), is a not-for-profit organisation specializing in change process design for large and complex systems and in capacity development to support the change processes. More information on CSEND is available at

Organization Committee
Prof. John Briggs, Western Connecticut State University
Dr. David Peat, Pari Center for New Learning
Dr. Raymond Saner, Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development
Dr. Lichia Yiu, Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development
Dr. Lynda Keen, Plectics Consulting

C. The Participants
A total of fifteen participants representing seven different nationalities were present at this international conference. Participants were from the following countries: USA (5), Italy (3), UK (2), Switzerland (2), ROC (1), Japan (1), Mexico (1).

D. Highlights of Discussions
Presentations were made by John Briggs and David Peat on the key concepts of Chaos Theory and the Theory of Creativity. Ensuing discussions and case analysis were based on the key concepts and insights of these two knowledgeable speakers.

1. Theme of the Conference
1.1. The key question of inquiry throughout this three-day conference is "How does Chaos Theory help us to understand organisations better or differently?"
1.2. As scientific metaphors, does Chaos theory allow us to perceive organisations or the world differently?
1.3. Creativity is defined as an art of renewal and recreation. Chaos theory allows one to see the additional dimension, i.e., the constant process of creation. How can this be applied to organisation development?

2. Underpinning Principles of Chaos Theory: Self-regulation and Non-linear Systems

2.1. Non-linear theory

2.1.1. Catastrophe Theory, which preceded Chaos Theory and was popular in France thanks to the mathematician Rene Thom, addresses the nature of change - sudden and discontinuous versus gradual change.
2.1.2. Linear systems offer predictability into the future, while non-linear systems put a limit to prediction and control. Predictability of a non-linear system could only be extrapolated in a limited context. A landscape is a good example of such non-linear system -- patterned, non-patterned.

2.1.3. Feedback. There are two kinds of feedback: 1) positive feedback which spirals to accelerate, e.g., sound system feedback into a hall; 2) negative feedback such as the thermostat connected to a furnace that checks the process. Non-linear systems consist of multiple coupled "positive" and "negative" feedback loops, hence both stable and dynamic. Creativity is a process containing both "positive" and "negative" feedback loops, allows a living system constantly recreating itself. "Auto-poesis" is a term used by Francisco Varella to describe living systems, which constantly recreate themselves. In other words, chaos system recreates itself. Energy is CONTINUOUSLY being transformed by living system. It maintains certain patterns.

2.1.4. Chaotic systems are governed by strange attractors (which have a fractal structure). Strange attractors are associated with patterns for self-similarity but do not produce exact repetition of the old. They are patterns or tendencies yet with an unpredictable quality, e.g., Beethoven's fifth symphony, a mountain range, waves in the ocean. Presented in a photo/image by J. Briggs, it captured the patterns of the self-similarity in several natural forms. Fractals are the initial conditions of a non-linear system. "Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose!" In contrast to the strange attactors, there also exists the mechanical-type attractors known as limit cycles... Creativity is an integral part of the living system. It is not an add-on to a mechanical system. Living system constantly recreates itself. In constantly recreating itself and maintaining its basic pattern/shape, a living system adapts to its changing environment. Higher order system, or lower order, is measured by the level of complexity.
2.1.5. Non-linear systems are also paradoxical and holistic systems. Through feedback, everything is interconnected. There is an inherent order and a process of "unfolding" from the initial conditions. Initial conditions are embedded in the system, constantly being replayed. Chaos system was born out of high energy situations involving both "positive" and "negative" feedback.

2.2. What is Chaos?
2.2.1. Chaos theory provides an understanding of the interaction between the "control" (i.e., plan) and the "non-controllable".
2.2.2. Chaos represents the extreme high order of complexity, which cannot be described in detail, but can be described generally. The absence of order is simultaneous with the extreme order. It is an aesthetic approach to see the system.

2.3. Movement from chaos to order and visa-versa
2.3.1. If chaos is already in place, it is extremely resilient. Unless there is a stress to the system which pushes it beyond a threshold or bifurcation point. A bifurcation point may branch the system into collapse. For example, if climate change were to stress the temperatures enough, the gulf stream would change its direction or even disappear, causing major disturbances throughout the Atlantic. Mechanical "fixes" are inadequate to such complex systems.
2.3.2. The implosion of organisations and societies could be described in the same manner e.g., USSR's sudden implosion (catastrophe theory). It had reached a bifurcation point, which no one predicted.

2.4. Self-regulation of a self-organised system
2.4.1. Chaos, or self-regulation, could be the new orientation in organising social systems.
2.4.2. When there is no chaotic flow of energy, there is no self-organisation. 2nd law of thermodynamics is that energy is eventually dissipated into the surrounding environment. Chaos Theory describes situations in which this law is, at least temporarily, held at bay. Chaos system takes in energy and transforms it and throws out the unusable.
2.4.3. Independent existence can only be possible by virtue of authenticity. Authenticity represents an open system that energy is derived from an individual perspective. Self organized systems have an authenticity, which constantly is recreated. When they become mechanical, they become rigid and increasingly inauthentic and maladaptive. At that point, stresses may break them apart.
2.4.4. Social systems as a whole derive from the interaction between individual and collective perspectives.

2.5. Questions:
2.5.1. How to sustain the energy of a given system and overcome entropy.
2.5.2. The answer lies in the diversity and creativity of individuals.
3. Key Concepts Used in Chaos Theory and Creativity Theory

3.1. Chaos Theory
¨ Initial Conditions
¨ Linear - Non-linear
¨ Human Consciousness
¨ Readiness to Participate
¨ Self-regulation
¨ Positive and Negative Feedback
¨ Feed-forward
¨ Bifurcation Point
¨ Fractals
¨ Self-similarity
¨ Strange Attractor
¨ Adaptive (a term associated with chaos's theory sister, complexity theory)

3.2 Creativity Theory
¨ Germ
¨ Incubation
¨ Aha!
¨ Network of Enterprise
¨ Unpredictability (Mystery)
¨ Omnivalence
¨ Unfolding
¨ Order between the Viewer and Artist
¨ Discomfort
¨ Trust
¨ Flow
¨ Patience
¨ Self-similarity/self-difference
4. Application of Chaos Theory to Real OD Cases
4.1. Concepts that are immediately applicable
4.1.1. Initial conditions
4.1.2. Self-similarity
4.1.3. Bifurcation points
4.1.4. Consultant's choice of joining the system
4.1.5. Making a part of the recommendations linear-mechanical while other parts of the recommendation are non-linear- to allow the trickster to work. Trickster is the creative element of the system. It could be a person, a process, or information. Organisation consists both linear and non-linear parts. For the non-linear part, it is to maximise internal energy to self-organising. The role of the consultant is to be a co-facilitator of creative energies or perhaps a trickster.
4.1.6. Fractals, traces left by dynamic systems at work, as the entry point for organisational intervention. How to detect fractals in organisation?
¨ Story telling as a tool to identify fractals
¨ Norms - the unwritten rules
4.2. Questions to be elaborated further
4.2.1. What are the conditions for social system to change? What are the conditions to ensure lasting change?
4.2.2. What types of organisational behaviour facilitate change and learning?
4.2.3. Can human interactions be sufficient as the catalyst of change? (JB: unfolding the energy, "the presence".)
4.2.4. What are the roles of dreams, creativity and collaborative actions in the OD process?
4.2.5. In what ways does Chaos Theory offer meaningful alternatives to current management and leadership practices?
4.2.6. How to design purposeful changes based on Chaos Theory and Theory of Creativity?

4.2.7. Could there be development throughout diversity without the intentionality of a single individual group (JB: Within organisation, there are interactions between intentions. This is a tenet of complexity theory.)
4.2.8. How do the boundary conditions define the change process?
5. Final Reflection
5.1. There is a need to rethink the concepts of Chaos Theory and Artistic Creativity in light of their potential application to organisations and social systems and processes.
5.2. This conference was a first step toward translating Chaos Theory and Artistic Creativity into OD practices, of merging different perspectives, of breaking disciplinary boundaries.
5.3. There is interest and commitment by the organisers to continue this initial dialogue and to explore the possibility of a follow up conference in 2002.
5.4. It is no coincident that this conference was held in Pari, a medieval village in the heart of Tuscany. As part of Pari's process of transformation, the conference participants had the opportunity to experience the welcome of a community of warm-hearted people and to appreciate their aspiration for a meaningful future. As a group, we hope that our presence and energy contributed in a small way the unfolding of Pari as a centre of learning and connecting.


Reflections of Lichia Yiu:
In the context of organisation, Chaos theory could perhaps facilitate the development of assessment tools in 2 areas: 1) health of organisation regarding its ability for learning and self-organisation/ adaptation/recreating; 2) "space" as defined as sphere to play out the tension/paradox.
What is the different accents put on the following terms: (1) Self-regulating system, (2) Self-recreating system, and (3) adaptive system? It seems to me that (1) comes from Chaos theory, (2) from Creativity theory, (3) from management literature. Your comments, John and David?

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