Welcome to the "Swirly Goodness" page. Why "swirly goodness," you wonder? Read on!

In response to a call for papers issued by the organizers of the upcoming Conference on Social Entrepreneurship, Systems Thinking and Complexity, the Communiplexity Initiative has drafted and submitted an abstract, with the hope that developing a presentation for the conference will itself serve as a means of facilitating our ability to reflect upon and articulate our Initiative.

The version of the abstract that was submitted for the conference on February 16 is available here:

Below is a "living" abstract, which we will continue to co-develop. The one constraint: the abstract limit is four pages. The simple rule, then, is that we revise the abstract to optimally communicate the nature of our Initiative, with regard to Social Entrepreneurship and Complexity, within this page limit. We invite you to help refine it, and also to help flesh out the full-length paper, which can be accessed by clicking here. Feel free to check out some preliminary stream-of-consciousness written noodlings on communiplexity that might (or might not) inform the paper & presentation here. We look forward to co-creating this work with all of you!

The Communiplexity Initiative: A “Swirly Goodness” Approach to Community Sustainabililty

Authored by the Community and Complexity Initiative
including but not limited to
Allison Pinto, Heather Curry, Timothy Dutton, Michael Gibbons, Peter Gorski and Gregory Teague

How might a complexity approach to community sustainability itself become a living example of social entrepreneurship? Just as the successful entrepreneurship of Pinkberry is now creating a cross-country frozen yogurt phenomenon (whimsically termed “swirly goodness”), is it possible for a complexity approach (with its emphasis on iterative, recursive “swirls” of theory, research, practice, and civic participation) to generate a seriously playful potentiating environment for broad-scale social good? This working paper will develop a description of the Community & Complexity Initiative (a.k.a. the “Communiplexity Initiative”) as a means of exploring this question. After presenting its purpose, design, and approach, the Initiative will analyze itself in context, from both a social entrepreneurship perspective and a complexity perspective. Learning and other changes that appear associated with the Initiative then will be identified and described, and as the writing of this paper continues, implications for communities, complexity, and social entrepreneurship will be explored. These insights in turn will be analyzed from both social entrepreneurship and complexity perspectives, with the hope of generating a perpetual swirl of ideas, emotions and actions for multi-dimensional, cross-scale community sustainability.

A Social Entrepreneurial Approach to Scholarship
The concept of “social entrepreneurship” (much like “complexity”) is still being clarified and articulated. Almost a decade ago, Dees (1998) identified a desire for increased clarity and more recently, Martin and Osberg (2007) advocated for yet clearer articulation, noting that a more “rigorous” definition is needed so that the concept of social entrepreneurship itself might realize its potential to activate social change, with “lasting, transformational benefit to society.”

While these authors advocate for definitional clarity and promote conceptual reflexivity (by proposing that “social entrepreneurship” become an example of itself), the articles are not themselves living manifestations of social entrepreneurship. The essays do not question the status quo with respect to the ways scholarship might facilitate transformative, societal change.

What if we not only examine the Communiplexity Initiative, but also explore the development, submission and presentation of this paper as a means of developing a complexity / social entrepreneurial approach to community well-being? What might be learned and changed as we reflect on that which is manifesting as this effort evolves?

Describing the Communiplexity Initiative
To begin, we offer a brief description of the Communiplexity Initiative. This Initiative was created in the Sarasota-Tampa Bay region of Florida in 2007 to enable local, naturally emerging university-community collaborations regarding complexity approaches to community sustainability to connect, inter-relate, and mutually inform one another. The Initiative set out to become a loosely coupled network, to include individuals affiliated with five institutions in the region: the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County (a taxing district focused on promoting the healthy development and well-being of all children and families in Tampa and the surrounding county), MacDill Air Force Base Family Advocacy and Outreach (a Department of Defense program committed to facilitating the overall well-being of military members and families stationed at MacDill AFB), SCOPE (a non-profit organization that connects and inspires citizens of Sarasota County to create a better community), Sarasota County Government, and the University of South Florida (including the departments of Management, Communication, Mental Health Studies, Government / International Affairs, Women’s Studies, Anthropology, Architecture/Urban Design, and Public Health).

The Initiative began with the following perspective: When a community is conceptualized as a complex adaptive system, it is recognized as a dynamic network of diverse agents interacting with one another and the environment to co-evolve over time. “Agents” are the people or entities that have the capacity to change intentionally and thereby influence one another and the evolution of a system. Complexity emphasizes processes of self-organization among agents as the central means of fostering the ongoing health, resilience and hardiness of a system, whether that system is a family, an organization, or a community. A complexity approach assumes that cause-effect pathways are numerous and multi-directional and a whole system is more than a sum of its parts. For these reasons, and because agents have free will in an environment that is continually changing, individual and system behaviors are often unpredictable and uncontrollable. Facilitating the ongoing health and sustainability of a system therefore involves facilitating its ability to self-organize in continually adaptive, flexible and responsive ways, and community sustainability is about cultivating relationships, assets, strengths, and capital to enable perpetual goodness of fit (Agar, 2004, 2005; Capra, Juarrero, & Sotolongo, 2007; Maguire, McKelvey, Mirabeau, and Oztas, 2006; Olson & Eoyang, 2001; Stacey, 2003).

Informed by this perspective, a preliminary statement of the Initiative’s purpose was proposed: “In response to community desires (which means we need ways of paying close attention and noticing these desires as they change over time), we will develop inter-related theory, research, practice, and teaching regarding complexity and community sustainability so that: 1) more people (ourselves included) are skilled at and conscious of complex systems thinking relative to community sustainability, 2) the communities of Sarasota and Hillsborough counties are better tomorrow than they are today (in ways that matter to local citizens), and 3) complexity theory/science/thinking/approaches are better tomorrow than they are today.” This statement attempts to articulate a set of considerations that might explain the general pattern of decisions and actions that have emerged to date in the efforts of the Initiative.

A Social Entrepreneurship Perspective on the Communiplexity Initiative
How might this Initiative be understood in relation to the concept of social entrepreneurship? Consider the recent definition proposed by Martin and Osberg (2007). According to these authors, social entrepreneurship involves:

1) Identifying a stable but suboptimal social equilibrium;

2) Identifying and pursuing an opportunity for transformative social change through the individual characteristics of inspiration, creativity, action, courage and fortitude; and

3) Enabling the establishment of a new stable equilibrium that secures permanent benefits for society through processes of appropriation and replication that spawn a host of efforts like that of the initial pursuit.

On the basis of this definition, the Communiplexity Initiative seems to qualify as an example of “aspiring” social entrepreneurship. It has formed in response to growing awareness of a variety of suboptimal states in social systems. Namely, while trans-disciplinary initiatives and approaches are frequently espoused, they are not often vibrant and successful within the university, and have been challenging to maintain at the University of South Florida, in particular. Similarly, university-community collaborations are idealized (especially by universities) yet can wind up being superficial, if not explicitly harmful to local communities (as confirmed by community organizations in both Sarasota and Hillsborough counties). Finally, while government, social service and civic organizations aim to improve community well-being, they can nevertheless unintentionally reinforce the very disparities they intend to reduce (a frustration recently expressed by citizens in Sarasota and Hillsborough in relation to efforts to address early childhood development and cultural diversity locally).

The Communiplexity Initiative offers a new way of responding to these challenges: a complexity approach to systems / community change. Communiplexity aspires to become a modern-day systems approach that transforms academia, government, social services, and civil society such that these function in coordinated, ever-evolving ways for continual learning and social good (as self-defined by each local community). It is too early to know whether this Initiative will successfully affect societal change; however, by paying close attention as the efforts develop, it soon might be possible to begin detecting signals of such transformation.

A Complexity Perspective on Social Entrepreneurship
While the definition offered by Martin and Osberg (2007) is useful in providing an initial orientation to the concept of social entrepreneurship, it rests on several assumptions that we question, given our perspective on complexity and community sustainability. First, the definition assumes that stable states of equilibrium typify communities and society. Also, it assumes that qualities such as inspiration, creativity, action, courage and fortitude are solely individual characteristics, and that those individuals manifesting such characteristics are the creators of any (positive) change that occurs. Finally, it assumes that when widespread societal change occurs, it is achieved through processes of appropriation and replication.

From a complexity perspective, and from lived experience in our communities, it seems more realistic to recognize that although steady states might occur, they are relatively rare and fleeting. Usually communities experience dynamic states characterized by constant non-linear changes within a space of local possibilities (Agar, 2006). As such, rather than focusing on states of equilibrium, we might benefit from defining opportunities within the multi-dimensional "attractor space" that exists at various scales within inter-related systems, which seems more typical of communities. Furthermore, rather than assuming that qualities such as inspiration, creativity, and courage are merely personal characteristics of one or several heroic innovators, we might benefit from defining these qualities as emergent, cross-scale properties (i.e. dynamics) of the system that are necessary for optimally recognizing and responding to opportunities (Lichtenstein, Uhl-Bien, Marion, Seers, Orton, and Schreiber, 2006). Finally, rather than assuming that efforts are spawned through replication, we might benefit from a conceptualization of community-wide change as a complex, emergent process involving multiple agents interacting in and with a changing environment in response to an initial action, which may yield patterns of self-similiarity in the community. These are often described in complexity as “butterfly effects” generating a re-organization of the attractor space as revealed in fractal patterns throughout the system (Kauffman, 1993; Holland, 1995; MacGuire, et al., 2006).

Furthermore, a complexity perspective suggests that leadership and social innovation, like social entrepreneurship, are optimally defined as ex post terms. Like the qualities of courage and creativity, leadership and social innovation can be understood as dynamics, rather than as uni-directional efforts manifesting exclusively at the scale of individual agents (Uhl-Bien, Marion, and McKelvey, 2007). Reorienting to these concepts from a complexity perspective enables us to explore the inter-relatedness of processes and dynamics within communities, which might have profound implications relating to community sustainability.

Efforts to Date and Associated Learning
A brief description of the Initiative’s efforts to date and associated learning is offered with the acknowledgement that this is a formative process. The first six months have yielded a clearer recognition of the particular social networks, patterns, and opportunities that exist in the two local communities of Sarasota and Hillsborough Counties. These became clearer as a group identity emerged within each of the county-specific “communiplexity teams” that formed among interested students, faculty, and employees of local government / organizations, who themselves are residents of the local communities. Desires to promote healthy child development and harness the power of local diversity have grown increasingly noticeable in both communities, corresponding with recognition of current suboptimal functioning in each of these domains. It is also quite evident that a range of potentially entrepreneurial efforts have already been identified by citizens of both counties, and high levels of motivation (e.g. inspiration, creativity and courage) exist among a variety of community members across scales in both counties to address the local desires and activate community-wide change. Learning about the particularities of local community functioning in Sarasota and Hillsborough Counties has facilitated the development of a more coherent complexity-informed approach to studying and promoting community sustainability. This includes the development of methods for tracking the iterative, recursive swirls of theorizing, data tracking (through gathering, representation and communication, analysis, and interpretation), decision-making and action at various scales, in context, over time. Community realities and complexity-informed methods tailored to the community scale have been shared with the group of individuals meeting weekly to read and discuss the growing body of literature in the emerging field of complexity. This has facilitated relationships among and between students, faculty and other community members, and ideas as well as resources are being exchanged for the co-generation of knowledge. A learning community “hub” related to complexity and community sustainability now seems to be forming. As the writing of this paper continues, further implications for communities, complexity, and social entrepreneurship will be explored.

In keeping with the notion of scholarship-as-social-innovation, rather than only submitting a static abstract for consideration by the reviewers, this Initiative is also submitting a link to the wiki where the abstract and working paper are evolving. To review the latest versions, please go to: http://communiplexity.wikispaces.com and click on “Swirly Goodness” within the navigation menu.


Agar, M. (2005, March). Turning the complicated into the complex: how the “new science” changes social research and organizational development. Plenary lecture delivered at The 18th Annual Research Conference: A System of Care for Children’s Mental Health: Expanding the Research Base, March 6 – 9, 2005, Tampa, Florida.

Agar, M. (2004). We have met the other and we’re all nonlinear: Ethnography as a nonlinear dynamic system. Complexity, 10(2), 16 – 24.

Agar, M. (2006). An Ethnography by Any other name. Forum: Qualitative Research, 7(4), Art. 36. Retrieved April 1, 2007 from http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/4-06/06-4-36-e.pdf

Capra, F., Juarrero, A. & Sotolongo, P. (Eds). (2007). Reframing Complexity: Perspectives from the North and South. Mansfield, MA: ISCE Publishing.

Dees, J.G. (1998, October 31). The meaning of “social entrepreneurship.” Retrieved February 14, 2008 from www.fuqua.duke.edu/centers/case/documents/dees_SE.pdf

Holland, J. H. 1995. Hidden Order. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

Kauffman, S. A. 1993. The Origins of Order. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lichtenstein, B., Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., Seers, A., Orton, J.D. and Schreiber, C. (2006). Complexity leadership theory: An interactive perspective on leading in complex adaptive systems. E:CO, 8(4), 2-12.

Maguire, S., McKelvey, B., Mirabeau, L. & Oztas, N. (2006), “Complexity science and organization studies”, Clegg, S., Hardy, C., Lawrence, T. and Nord, W. (Eds.), Handbook of Organization Studies, London, Sage, pp. 165-214.

Martin, R.L. and Osberg, S. (2007) Social entrepreneurship: the case for definition. Stanford Social Innovation Review (Spring 2007), 29 – 39.

Olson, E.E. & Eoyang, G. H. (2001). Facilitating Organization Change: Lessons from Complexity Science. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Stacey, R. D. (2003). Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: The Challenge of Complexity: Fourth Edition. London: Prentice Hall.

Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 298 – 318.