Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Society's Problems from the Bottom Up

Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Society's Problems from the Bottom Up

by David Colander, Roland Kupers


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How ideas in complexity can be used to develop more effective public policy

Complexity science—made possible by modern analytical and computational advances—is changing the way we think about social systems and social theory. Unfortunately, economists' policy models have not kept up and are stuck in either a market fundamentalist or government control narrative. While these standard narratives are useful in some cases, they are damaging in others, directing thinking away from creative, innovative policy solutions. Complexity and the Art of Public Policy outlines a new, more flexible policy narrative, which envisions society as a complex evolving system that is uncontrollable but can be influenced.

David Colander and Roland Kupers describe how economists and society became locked into the current policy framework, and lay out fresh alternatives for framing policy questions. Offering original solutions to stubborn problems, the complexity narrative builds on broader philosophical traditions, such as those in the work of John Stuart Mill, to suggest initiatives that the authors call "activist laissez-faire" policies. Colander and Kupers develop innovative bottom-up solutions that, through new institutional structures such as for-benefit corporations, channel individuals’ social instincts into solving societal problems, making profits a tool for change rather than a goal. They argue that a central role for government in this complexity framework is to foster an ecostructure within which diverse forms of social entrepreneurship can emerge and blossom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691169132
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/16/2016
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

David Colander is professor of economics at Middlebury College and the author of The Making of an Economist, Redux (Princeton). Roland Kupers is an associate fellow in the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He is the coauthor of The Essence of Scenarios: Learning from the Shell Experience.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii


Chapter 1. Twin Peaks 3

Chapter 2. Government With, Not Versus, the Market 19

Chapter 3. I Pencil Revisited: Beyond Market Fundamentalism 31

Chapter 4. The Complexity Policy Frame 44


Chapter 5. How Economics Lost the Complexity Vision 67

Chapter 6. How Macroeconomics Lost the Complexity Vision 89

Chapter 7. Complexity: A New Kind of Science? 109

Chapter 8: A New Kind of Complexity Economics? 131

Chapter 9. Nudging toward a Complexity Policy Frame 156


Chapter 10. The Economics of Influence 179

Chapter 11. Implementing Influence Policy 195

Chapter 12. Laissez-Faire Activism 214

Chapter 13. Getting the Ecostructure of Government Right 237


Chapter 14. Getting the Ecostructure of Social Science Education Right 259

Chapter 15. The Lost Agenda 270

Notes 281

Bibliography 291

Index 301

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"We live in an increasingly interconnected world that generates hugely wicked problems—managing this complexity will be the hallmark of good governments. In this book, Colander and Kupers show how complexity is relevant to policymaking and present a rich menu of ideas for governments wanting to function better in today's intricate operating environment. It deserves to be read by all policymakers."—Peter Ho, Centre for Strategic Futures, Singapore

"This accessible and well-researched book argues that the world in which our leaders govern has become increasingly complex and interconnected, with the potential for unexpected, harmful events, such as market crashes and political uprisings. Complexity, though, should not be avoided. Properly harnessed, the drivers of complexity can produce constant innovation while maintaining system-level robustness. Achieving those ends requires an understanding of the bottom-up thinking so engagingly presented in this book."—Scott Page, University of Michigan

"Easily one of the best policy and economics books I've read in a long time. It should be widely read and studied by policymakers, students of public policy, and the informed public alike."—David W. Orr, Oberlin College and the Cleveland Foundation

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