Photo of Joachim Sturmberg - Foundation President
Joachim Sturmberg
Foundation President

Introduction to Complexity Science

When I was 14 or 15 I had a history teacher who decided the semester would be devoted to studying Limits to Growth by Dennis Meadows et. al. This book describes the interconnectedness and consequences of our current pace of resources utilization in relation to our economic and population growth. By the end of the semester most of my classmates thought “that’s crap,” and I thought “that makes perfect sense.” That experience was not named complexity science, but it was my introduction to seeing that interconnectedness.

Medical school exclusively focused and mechanisms and technology of disease, nothing about the nature of health, you could call it indoctrination. It was a one way road to practice, basically, if anything [patients health] goes wrong, it was you [the doctor].

On my first day in general practice I remember telling my boss “well, it is ok to fire me, I saw 20 people and didn’t find anything wrong with them.” He sat me down and highlighted the important distinction between disease and illness – most people visiting their general practitioner experience dis-ease, only at times caused by a definable disease. Over time I came to understand the subtle interconnectedness between the many different factors that result in the experience of good and bad health. Health in fact means “wholeness”, and health care is about restoring the patient’s experience of wholeness.

My research into complexities started with trying to better understand the interdependencies of the ongoing doctor-patient relationship. My simple model of appreciating that two people – the doctor and the patient – meet in the consultation, their interaction results in some outcomes that influence each of them through feedback, and that all of this is influenced by the local and the political environment was interesting, but I was told in no uncertain terms that research is focusing on one aspect only. I wasn’t interested and did it my way – outside of the constraining academic silos.

Does Complexity Science influence your day to day experience?


  • Context is everything; if you don’t understand what you see you could try to untangle – or make visible- the strings that contribute to what you see.
  • I try to share my insights about what I’m “untangling” with my patients so it becomes another tool they can use to aid self-healing.
  • I believe variability is what makes us able to adapt and survive.
  • I try to approach health with a cultural understanding and ask how the environment is influencing health.

If you had to create a Complexity Science public service announcement, what would you say?

Always try to see the context. Context influences everything. Complex systems are layered: top down or bottom up there is constant interaction between the levels. That interaction creates feedback that loops back to influence the whole system. Feedback is everywhere.

What would you ask a group of Complexity Scientists if you had them around a table?

How do we make people change their mindset to see and appreciate the multidimensional interconnectedness that makes up their world?