Food System Transformation #10: Complex adaptive systems, networks & their dynamics

Systems thinking? The circular economy? Phrases such as these have shifted thinking markedly on from discussion about the food ‘chain’. But have they shifted our thinking a radically enough for the transformation we need?

Here I argue that we need ‘network’ thinking.

Over the last 20-30 years a new vocabulary has emerged to help us describe and therefore better understand complex adaptive systems and networks, as I pointed out in this earlier blogpost, #8: The geometry of the box [we need to think outside of].


The notion of networks when considering the food system is not a new idea. Way back in 2014, for example, Defra published the Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks.*

Over two years ago, I wrote this blogpost: Why we need to think differently about our food system, in which I argued that network theory had a lot to offer, both in concepts and, as importantly, the words to describe what is going on in our food supply system.

So it was quite an ah-ha moment for me when Henry Dimbleby in his Oxford Farming Conference speech mentioned the brilliant physicist, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and his book Linked, which I’d bought on the day it was published in 2002 knowing it’d inform my thinking and work.

Judging from the speech itself, Dimbleby’s request just before Christmas on twitter (see screengrab) led to the pair of them getting in touch.

You’ll see from Barabasi’s original tweet that he’s using his expertise in network dynamics  to ‘map out the dark matter of nutrition and its impact on health‘. (For more and fascinating detailed on that work, see his paper in the first edition of Nature Food: The unmapped chemical complexity of our diet in January.)


Our intuitions about networks and their dynamics are usually wrong
The challenge we have is that our intuitions about complex adaptive systems, including networks, are often wildly wrong.

The reason why is because we’re primates. And, like all primates, our visual system is very important to us. (If you’re blind or  visually impaired, you’ve still had to learn to navigate a world constructed and described by sighted humans. It’s a moot point as to how far your perceptions of complex adaptive systems are qualitatively different from those of sighted people. I suspect, for the most part, they’re not.)

And many really important features of a complex adaptive system are beyond our sight, indeed beyond all of our senses.

  • Hence, our intuitions about dynamic networks, such as the food supply system, are often wrong.
  • Our intuition is a fast, non-conscious, gut-feeling. It’s only right to trust this feeling with certain categories of judgment, those upon which Darwinian forces have honed our forebears’ survival chances over millennia upon millennia.
    For example:

    • Refusing to eat food that smells, looks or tastes, well yuk.
    • Also: “Can I trust you?”
      When my granddaughter aged 15 months stayed with me for a few days without her parents, she refused point blank to eat blueberries, a fruit she’d never seen before. That is, until I ate some. Then she copied me, and loves ’em to this day.

  • Yet, whether our intuition is right or wrong, it feels the same. And it’s nearly always wrong about network characteristics such as probabilities, possibilities and the significance of events and patterns within the network.
    • But (and it’s a big BUT), like many (all?) living creatures, we’re always searching for patterns and, worrying, we often find them when they’re not actually there.


We don’t describe what we see, we see what we describe
This axiom was behind an earlier blogpost: The language of small worlds: Useful words for entities & properties we cannot ‘see’.

The proposition behind it is that the language of complex adaptive systems and networks and the concepts behind these words will help us better understand what we can’t see but exists within our food supply system.

It ends with a great TED-Ed three and a half minutes’ worth of Marc Samet using brilliant animation to explain key stuff about network theory, including how small worlds work:

As well as the blogpost about small worlds, there will later blogposts on useful concepts in network theory, along with illustrations of how these concepts can enable better understanding of the food supply system:

  • A re-introduction of the notion of phase space (aka “possibility space’), first mentioned in the blogpost linked above: Why we need to think differently about our food system.
  • Kinds of networks very much in the news at the moment: Epidemics and epidemiological models.
  • Scaling, and the properties of scale-free networks.


The Elliott Review: By the bye, we (as The New Optimists then) got more than the final word in this HMG tome, actually the final few pages. But that’s another story and one which led to The Hand That Feeds: A musical about food crime . . .


The previous blogposts in this series are:

#9: The role of STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics

#8: The geometry of the box [we need think out of]

#7: Loaves don’t grow on trees

#6: The fresh produce supply chain

#5: The scale needed for our five-a-day

#4: A new corporate order?

#3: The economic burden

#2: Close to the planet’s carrying capacity

#1: Why this blogpost series

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