Public policy operates in, and on, exceedingly complex systems, ranging from telecommunication networks to financial markets and ecological or geophysical systems. Public policy institutions are themselves complex systems, as are the networks of institutions often assembled to provide multilateral or multi-stakeholder solutions to challenges of trade, security, or environment. Complex systems often surprise us. They exhibit unintended consequences and lack a single point of control. Outcomes can emerge from these systems that cannot be predicted or understood from local actions or a local perspective. These characteristics differ significantly from the traditional view of the world underlying much public policy analysis, planning, and management strategies.

Up to this point in time, the repertoire of conceptual and analytical tools available to policy makers to deal with these systems has remained rather limited. Though the science of complex adaptive systems has advanced, as have associated computational tools, applications to public policy problems have lagged behind applications in the business and scientific worlds.

This project, a collaboration between RAND and the Woodrow Wilson Center, is designed to educate public policy makers, and those who advise them, about emerging findings in complex adaptive systems and specific applications to public policy problems. Though we draw from research and work in other areas, our focus is on public policy, on improving its analytical and conceptual underpinnings, and, ultimately, its usefulness to decision makers.

A major part of this project consists of a seminar series entitled Decisonmaking in Complex Systems: Lessons for Public Policy. The series provides an introduction to complex adaptive systems and highlights actual applications in areas such as infrastructure planning, ecology, and budgeting. We have captured each seminar in an edited video file located in the Modules section of this web page. In addition, you will find a resource section that includes supplementary information and links to references. We hope you will find this material instructive.