Dynamical Systems Theory

“Thinking systemically through a dynamical systems lens helps us to understand mediation, negotiation, and peace-building in a more comprehensive, holistic way. It encourages us to step back and see the constellation of forces that is at play and then move in and focus on specific elements.”

-Peter T. Coleman

Dynamical Systems Theory (DST) is based on decades of systemic research on war, aggression, and peace processes, and is inspired by physics and applied mathematics. It integrates traditional techniques with more adaptive approaches and emphasizes complexity and non-linear dynamics as essential processes for understanding our most challenging social problems.

The DST approach is being developed on multiple fronts to continue advancement of the science, practice and education that goes along with it. AC4 draws on the extraordinary educational and research facilities of Columbia University and facilitates the convening of scholars and practitioners from around the globe who are employing this approach.

The Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR) at Teachers College advances the research, conducting laboratory and applied research to empirically investigate social phenomena. The MD-ICCCR and the Masters in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (NECR) program at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies develop cutting-edge courses, workshops and trainings for current and future practitioners. NECR weaves DST insights throughout its masters curriculum, preparing students for the engagement with the ever increasing complexity of today’s world.

DST: A New Approach to Addressing Conflict

This approach asks us to think of intractable conflicts and sustained peace as complex systems composed of networks of interconnected and continually interacting elements. Such elements include: a history of violence or practices of peacefully resolving disputes, structures that exclude or include, feelings of hatred or cooperation, and many others. Together through time, such elements form patterns of thinking and behavior that are repeated over and over becoming difficult to change. These patterns, also known as attractors, hold the system in place, resisting shifts from conflict to peace or peace to conflict.

We utilize the attractor landscape model as a way to identify patterns in the system and to see the range of possible states that are the result of the evolution of the system over time.


Image: The attractor landscape model refers to the range of possible states of the system that are the result of the evolution of the system over time.

In order to change the patterns, an understanding of the system and its dynamics is gained through identifying factors from multiple perspectives and exploring how they interact and effect distant, not directly connected, elements and relationships. Cause and effect relationships may be difficult or impossible to identify and isolate in these multiply determined environments. Identifying key points of leverage and experimenting with changes to assess outcomes forms an appropriate approach to system change. Through these types of interventions, with continual learning and reassessment on our understanding of the system, we can work toward nudging the system to shift to more constructive patterns.

With collaboration from our partners and network of scholars and practitioners, we use and support the development of tools for DST. Causal-loop diagramming is one of these tools employed to capture the complexity and dynamics of the system before moving to identify opportunities for change.


Photo: Causal-loop diagramming being used to capture the complexity and dynamics of the system before moving to identify opportunities for change.

Research Agenda

Multiple projects have been conducted or are currently underway that investigate into social phenomena from the perspectives of complexity and dynamical systems. Over the past seven years, these projects have been led by the DST Team at the MD-ICCCR, in collaboration with a larger network of scholars. These efforts include:

Please visit the projects listed above and contact our partners at the MD-ICCCR to learn more and discover what we’ve learned so far!


DST Introduction: An Online Library

Explore our collection of resources on DST, including videos and interviews with Peter T. Coleman, a list of his writing on the topic and other introductory resources and book recommendations. These resources are provided to further your explorations into DST and to show you what makes intractable social problems different and why we need this different mental model.

In addition to introductory resources, you can find some journal articles and selected case studies that show the foundation from complexity science and psychology that informs our insights into understanding, thinking about and engaging with intractable conflict, complex social systems and sustainable peace: here.

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