Complexity in Nexus Governance

Roger Strand

Whatever the water-energy-food-environment Nexus is, everybody tends to agree that it is complex. Unfortunately, nobody agrees what it means to be complex. In this piece, I claim that more time ought to be spent on serious discussion about what complexity is and what it entails for our possibilities to achieve some kind of governance of the Nexus. By serious discussion I mean not only that current knowledge on complexity theory and other relevant sciences are taken into account but also to be willing to admit when things are difficult and not going well, for instance when policy goals are far from reach or seem mutually contradictory.

Definitions of complexity abound. A useful approach to complexity is to define simplicity, which is easier (Strand 2002). A simple system consists of identifiable parts that interact with law-like regularity. The parts are stable and have a limited number of measurable properties, and their interactions are linear. There is no controversy on what counts as the borders of the system, the number and identity of their parts, and the number and identity of their relevant properties. This allows scientists and citizens to believe that the knowledge is objective. You may get to different concepts of complexity by negating different parts of the concept of simplicity, focussing on features such as nonlinearity, stochastics, fuzziness, radical openness or contextuality (Chu et al 2003). In post-normal science, one has often focussed on “emergent complex systems”, defined as systems that include intentional, sense-making agents (such as humans). Funtowicz and Ravetz (1994) showed how such systems in general are cannot be predicted and may have multiple legitimate descriptions that are in contradiction with each other.

When one tries to know something, one approach is to perform two conceptual partitions – literally, two mental operations. The first is to distinguish between “I” or “we” on one hand and everything else, “the external world” on the other. The second is to divide the external world into a “system” of interest and everything else, “the environment” on the other (Rosen 1994):

If the world were simple, this approach would have allowed us to obtain perfect, precise and objective knowledge of the external world. Indeed, this approach is known as “Modern Science” or the “Scientific Method”, celebrated in Europe and beyond for centuries. The only mystery that remains for it, is ourselves. Ever new sciences try to mentally externalize and objectify aspects of the “I” – body parts, genes, neural circuits, mental processes – to smoke the genie of out of the bottle and eliminate the mystery. Such a perfectly known world can also be perfectly governed. Francis Bacon (1620) famously pointed this out: “Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, for where the cause is not known, the effect cannot be produced.” A philosophical problem is the question of where that “I”, that human subject, resides, and if it can be trusted. When finally fully objectified, no human subject is left to rule the world and governance must be left to God or to a self-evolving Artificial Intelligence. Francis Bacon’s contemporary, René Descartes (1641), tinkered on the Christian (and Platonic) solution to this intellectual problem and located the immutable human soul (res cogitans) outside the physical universe and therefore beyond the scope of the Laws of Nature.

The Nexus, whatever it may be, is not simple. Some people think of the Nexus as something physical: The Nexus is the socio-ecological natural system of waterways, soils, aquifers, mountains, villages, acres, roads, food stores, kitchens, sewages, animals, plants and humans all interconnected in nonlinear ways, exchanging energy and matter but also information and meaning, as when episodes of water scarcity leads to political measures that again lead to anger, protests, conflict or perhaps even war, all with its own feedbacks into air, water and soil. The Nexus in this sense is nonlinear, stochastic, fuzzy and radically open and accordingly its future trajectory cannot be precisely predicted or governed by a command-and-control type of logic. It is also clearly an emergent complex system. However sophisticated the science, the Nexus will have multiple legitimate descriptions that depend on the framing of the system and its relevant and valuable properties. Accordingly, one should not expect consensus about the knowledge base. Indeed, as nicely demonstrated by the piece by Blackstock et al. in the Nexus Times, there is no “point of nowhere”, no neutral stance or position from which to observe and govern the Nexus. Both knowledge and action depends on the place (country, region, institution, location in the ecosystem) of the knowing and acting subject.

This leads us to a central insight: We are inside of the so-called external world and we are part of it. It is an illusion to believe in governance of complexity, or governance of the Nexus. What we actually can achieve, is governance in complexity (Rip 2006). It is to be expected that things don’t go well and that policy targets are not met. Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, Bacon insisted, and in complexity, inside the Nexus, there can be no perfect knowledge and hence no perfect power.

The lack of perfect power of a command-and-control type is not the same as powerlessness. We all know that, in our own lives as private individuals and family members. In the political institutions in modern states, however, the acknowledgement of imperfection is sometimes accompanied with a sense of disbelief, disempowerment and a peculiar type of dishonest, desperate optimism: If we only do some more research and some more expert groups, we are going to know what to do (Strand 2002). One pretends that scientific knowledge allows us to predict the consequences of public decisions and that things are “under control”. When things then go wrong, this is explained away with reference to external disturbances (which are ubiquitous, because the Nexus is radically open), or calling for more research, or more action. This is why I called above for a serious discussion on complexity. Over the years, I have talked to so many serious and reflective individuals inside of governmental institutions who are well aware of complexity but still find little room to articulate its implications within the institutional setting in which they work. Instead, they feel compelled to take part in policy discourses and practices that implicitly assume that the world is a simple system.



Bacon, F. (1620/1994) Novum Organum; with Other Parts of the Great Instauration, Chicago: Open Court Publishing.

Descartes, R. (1641/1971) Discourse on Method and the Meditations, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics 1971.

Chu D, Strand R & Fjelland R. (2003) “Theories of Complexity”, Complexity, 8:19-30.

Funtowicz, S & Ravetz, JR. (1994), “Emergent complex systems”, Futures, 26, 566-582.

Rip, A. (2006) “A co-evolutionary approach to reflexive governance - and its ironies” in J-P Voss, D Bauknecht, R Kemp (eds), Reflexive governance for sustainable development, pp 82-100, E Elgar.

Rosen, R. (1991), Life itself: a comprehensive inquiry into the nature, origin, and fabrication of life, New York: Columbia University Press.

Strand, R. (2002) “Complexity, Ideology and Governance”, Emergence, 4:164-183.