Complex adaptive systems, fractals and Gaia

This is really intended as a side-bar to draw together a few related concepts: Gaia theory, fractals, and complex adaptive systems. If you’re already familiar with all three, you may want to skip this post and go read this, instead.


Benoît Mandelbrot famously coined the term fractal in 1975 to describe shapes or patterns which replicate at different scales, so that each part contains a representation of the whole.

It turns out lots of patterns in nature are fractal and lots of patterns in human behaviour and human organisations are also fractal.

For example, the process of project management is essentially fractal. The five main process groups for a project are defined in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK), as:

  • Initiating
  • Planning
  • Executing
  • Monitoring and controlling
  • Closing

And projects tend to be iterative, so we can apply these five process groups to any part of the project, as well as to the whole project.

As Dr Mandelbrot points out in the video above, a cauliflower is also fractal.

This does not imply that a project is a cauliflower, or vice versa.

Gaia theory

In his 1979 book, Gaia: a new look at life on earthJames Lovelock proposed a way of thinking of the earth as a complex collection of interdependent elements working together to maintain the planet in a healthy dynamic equilibrium.

In effect, this is very similar to thinking of the earth as a single living ecosystem or organism. Just as a body has organs, sensory systems, immune systems, neurological systems, all working together to keep the body healthy, so we can think of ecosystems in the same way.

Complex adaptive systems


Emergence from a complex system - the whole is more than the sum of its parts

The idea of a complex adaptive system (CAS) embraces some elements of Gaia theory and some elements of a fractal. The origin of the term is attributed to researchers at the Santa Fe Institute.

In it’s most basic form, if we think of a single animal or plant as a complex collection of cells, then we think of a large group of animals and plants together to form an ecosystem, we find that the single animal and the ecosystem both have quite a lot of characteristics in common – both may be described as a CAS.

Similarly, when large numbers of human beings group together to form an organisation, a market, a nation, or something bigger, that’s also a CAS.

Like fractals, people are now finding the idea of a CAS is useful to describe all sorts of natural and social phenomena, including languages, cultures, weather and galaxies.

It’s interesting to note all these theories emerged in the ’70s, within a few years of each other. Maybe this is an example of the 100th monkey phenomenon, or just an emergent property of going to rock concerts during the ’60s.

About Jonathan Smith

Turning strategy into reality
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3 Responses to Complex adaptive systems, fractals and Gaia

  1. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Bruce Lipton, but I think you’d really like his latest book where he teamed up with a comedian (Swami Beyondananda) to write a book called:

    Spontaneous Evolution.

    Don’t let the title steer you away (it almost did for me). It was one of the most important books I’ve read in quite some time. They do a fantastic job of tying together all kinds of information into a 300+ pages. It’s quite magnificent actually. Given some of the stuff that you seem to be interested in here, I really think you’d like it.

    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage

    • Thanks. I will go hunting and add that to the teetering pile of soon-to-be-read books beside my bed.

      I visited your site and there are some things I particularly like about it:

      – You have a finely honed talent for positive visualisation.
      – I love the way you start so many stories with the name of main character and the pronunciation. It’s quirky.

  2. Pingback: Mental health part two – supply and demand | Jonathan Smith

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