Is Poverty a Complexity Problem?

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Poverty: A problem of complexity?

Poverty is a global problem that affects our civilisation on a large scale. However, what is poverty? This is an important question, since very often the very definition of a problem guides the process of finding solutions and informs the type of the solutions that are considered.

For the problem of poverty, there are many definitions. Very often these definitions tend to focus on income and money. One only has to look at the opening sentence on Wikipedia to see that poverty is commonly cast in material and economic terms:

“Poverty is the scarcity or the lack of a certain (variant) amount of material possessions or money.”

Poverty and Economics

The World Bank defines poverty relative purchasing power and the “poverty line” which is currently pegged at $1.25 per day per person.

Various countries define their own poverty lines, but again, these are generally defined in terms of currency and earning, while being normalised against the local economy.

The United Kingdom decided to redefine poverty relative to whether or not a family is working (in the economy) or not — however, with no reference to a basic income which then has its own negative implications.

There are also various relative measures for poverty, that define poverty of one person relative to the well being of other people in a given context e.g. Gini Coefficient or Theil Index. Again, these tend to substitute “well being” with income, or other monetary measures.

Beyond the above more quantitative definitions, there are also various qualitative measures that tend to focus on characteristics of poverty: hunger, shelter, violence, education, etc. These definitions probably do more to get to the heart of the symptoms experienced in poverty stricken areas and cover the human experiences that we would wish to improve.

Poverty and Complexity

The difficulty with the above definitions is that they don’t seem to lend themselves to driving towards sustainable solutions to poverty. The purely monetary based definitions seem to often overlook the lived experience of poverty with an implied view that if we simply work towards a situation where everyone obtains a given income then the problem has been addressed, be that passing the “poverty line” or be that passing a “basic living wage line.”

Further, these definitions seem to suggest that the solution to poverty is to institute a “basic income” as the solution since, again, we tend to rely ideas of access to resources as being relative to money. In fact, as with reference above, the notion of a “basic income” is generally touted in more well off regions of the world and relative to growing concerns of the disruption of widespread automation on back of the dawning realisation that we have created an odd dependency between money, effort and survival — whereas, our inventions and engineering efforts could quite possibly ensure our well being and survival without the same levels of effort and potentially without clinging to the technology “money.”

But before we get caught up in the issues of economies and money (a technology which, ironically, many people still do not, in fact, have access to), lets pull our focus back to the issue if poverty.

We can do this be focusing on the problem of poverty from the point of view of systems thinking, rather than from an economic point of view. Here, we attempt to look at elements in context and relative to the interactions between the elements and their environment.

Our starting point will be a quote from “Complexity Rising” by Yaneer Bar-Yam:

“Human civilization continues to face internal and environmental challenges. In this context it is important to recognize that the complexity of a system’s behavior is fundamentally related to the complexity of challenges that it can effectively overcome.”

This paper goes on to introduce the notion of a “complexity profile” which essentially captures the notion of the scale at which activity takes place in a system. With these notions in mind the paper goes on to state:

“In particular, the complexity of the environmental demands must be less than the complexity of the system behavior for organisms that are likely to survive.”

Now, while not intending to dehumanise the suffering caused by poverty in the rather mater-of-fact language used above, this seems to be potentially the heart of the issue of poverty.

That is, poverty could really be seen as the lack of access to sufficiently complex mechanisms and processes within our society that then prevents the affected people from being able to adequately survive in a complex environment.

Poverty and Context

One way of seeing how this manifests is to consider the following thought experiment that paraphrases events that have occurred many times throughout the history of human civilisation as a result of colonisation or similar events:

In these scenarios we have two distinct groups of people that are living quite adequately withing their current environments. Both groups posses the technology, in terms of mechanisms and processes, that enable them to command a level of complexity that is higher then their environments, and therefore to survive and thrive (in qualitative terms, neither group is poor). However, one group then, generally through varying levels of force, moves into the environment of the other group.

This group then imposes their context on the other group, thereby changing the context of the other group. The invaded group suddenly is faced with a new environment that includes the imposing group and the technologies, mechanisms and processes of the imposing group.

Immediately the invaded group is in a situation where its inherent technologies, mechanisms and processes do not enable it to command a level of complexity that is suitable for this new environment. And, immediately the invaded group begins to struggle in this new context and is qualitatively seen to progress towards a state of poverty.

The key point here is that poverty was not an absolute state of affairs. Nor was poverty an economic state of affairs (the two groups may have both had economies that were thriving). Rather, the poverty is induced by a mismatch in the complexity that the one group has the knowledge and resources to command, relative to, the complexity demanded by the contextual changes imposed on the other group, which in turn, does not possess equivalent but necessary mechanisms and processes.

Driving Complexity

Now, if we rather define poverty as a mismatch between an individual’s or group’s ability to engage with and harness sufficiently complex mechanisms and processes relative to the complexity of their environment, then possibly we can start to look for better solutions.

Firstly, as with any problem space, we could start to define better measures of poverty. We could potentially start to derive or leverage more formal and quantitative definitions of complexity profiles.

With these definitions we could start to create better networks and instruments for gathering data that helps to measure the poverty within human social systems at different scales.

With objective measurements of complexity being gathered from a wide range of populations we can apply the tools of scientific methods to running experiments so as to tease out the most effective interventions.

Interestingly, this may lead us to literally needing to grow complexity within impoverished communities. This could, in naive and abstract terms, follow along the lines of facilitating better coordination of efforts amongst small groups of people within these regions. Then it could proceed by guiding different groups towards performing more specialised activities, so that we start to see a larger range of mechanisms and processes at a given scale within the poverty stricken populace. From here we might help people to build networks between these different groups. In in this way we could literally bootstrap complexity into the fabric of these impoverished groups.


Very often solutions to problems come about be recasting the definition of the problem. This opens up new avenues of exploration and invites ideas from a new and wider cross section of our global society.

In the case of poverty, we could possibly encourage a fresh look at this crucial problem be recasting the issue as one of a lack of opportunity and support in growing internal complexity.

Written by Stewart Gebbie