Chaos Theory and the Arts in the Context of Social, Economic and Organizational Development

18-21 March, 2000, Pari, Italy

A. Context

Chaos theory has attracted wide attention as a new source of scientific insights into the functioning of life in its different manifestations.  As a description of large complex systems — everything from weather to ecology to populations of neurons and the growth of cities — Chaos Theory has important lessons to teach us about how large groups interact in patterns, create new forms or get stuck in old configurations.  Chaos is a physicist’s description of life processes at cosmological as well as at micro-molecular levels.  It attempts to capture the phenomenon of transformation-in-motion.  In curious ways, Chaos Theory has much in common with the arts and the creative process.

Some organizational consultants and social thinkers have felt that there must be important applications of Chaos Theory to the arts and creativity in general and to the “practical” world of business and society in particular.  These new insights are of special attraction as an antidote to the increasing amorality and “soul-lessness”, as David Whyte calls it, of modern economic, business and social forms.

The analogy between the creative processes of the arts and the unfolding process of organizational and societal transformation also offers a more holistic picture of “transformation in motion”.  In capturing the fluidity of the change process and its non-linear progression, Chaos Theory provides an alternative perspective to the conventional wisdom of how to conduct change programs within a firm or a society.  It legitimizes the concerns for space and time in pattern formation within any given organizational change process.  The conventional hierarchical model of organization so prevalent in many mainstream institutions is also challenged by institutions based on artistic creativity and by several tenets of chaos theory– therein lies its attraction.

However, attempts to apply Chaos Theory and artistic creativity to business and society are not entirely clear nor easily.  More work needs to be done to identify potential application of Chaos Theory and artistic creativity to the process of organization development and societal transformation.  It is in this context that Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development, in collaboration with the Pari Center for New Learning organized a three-day international conference in Pari, Italy.

B. The Organiser

Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development (CSEND), a not-for-profit organisation specialising in change process design for large and complex systems and in capacity development to support the change processes.  More informatin on CSEND is available at

Prof. John Briggs, Western Connecticut State University


  • Dr. David Peat, Pari Center for New Learning
  • Dr. Raymond Saner, Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development
  • Dr. Lichia Yiu, Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development
  • Dr. Lynda Keen, Plectics Consulting

The local host organization was the Pari Center for New Learning. Pari Center for New Learning, Via Gonfienzo 14, 58040 Pari, (GR) Italia.  More information is available at


C. The Participants

A total number of fifteen participants representing seven different nationalities were present at this international conference.  Participants were from the following countries: USA (5), Italy (3), UK (2), Switzerland (2), ROC (1), Japan (1), and Mexico (1).

D. Highlights of Discussions

Presentations were made by John Briggs and David Peat on the key concepts of Chaos Theory and the Theory of Creativity.  Ensuing discussions and case analysis were based on the key concepts and insights of these two knowledgeable speakers.


1.    Theme of the Conference

  • The key question of inquiry throughout this three-day conference is “How does Chaos Theory help us to understand organizations better or differently?”
  • As scientific metaphors, does Chaos theory allow us to perceive organizations or the world differently?
  • Creativity is defined as an art of renewal and re-creation, how can this be applied to organization development?

2.    Underpinning Principles of Chaos Theory: Self-regulation and Non-linear Systems

2.1. Non-linear theory

  • Catastrophe Theory, which preceded Chaos Theory and was popular in France, addressed the nature of change – discontinuous versus gradual change
  • A linear system offers predictability into the future, while a non-linear system puts a limit to prediction and control.Predictability of a non-linear systems could only be extrapolated in a limited context.A landscape is a good example of such non-linear system — patterned, non-patterned.
  • Feedback, or advanced feedback, offers repetition and limited feedback cycle.It maintains certain patterns and has no memory of history (i.e., transfer)
  • Strange attractors (having a fractal structure) underlie patterns having self-similarity but avoid exact repetition of the old.They are fixed patterns yet with unpredictable quality, e.g., Beethoven’s fifth symphony is based on initial themes yet with unexpected variations.
  • Non-linear systems are also paradoxical and holistic systems.There is an inherent order and a process of “unfolding” from the initial conditions.

2.2. What is Chaos?

  • Chaos theory provides an understanding of the interaction between the “control” (i.e., plan) and the “non-controllable”.
  • Chaos represents the extreme high order of complexity, which cannot be described in any finite way.The absence of order is simultaneous with the extreme order.

2.3. Movement from chaos to order and vice-versa

  • If chaos is already in place, it is extremely resilient.It stresses the system to a “threshold” point (can’t be predicted), when the system will be broken up.For example, the Gulf Stream and climate change, a new order emerges.
  • The implosion of organizations and societies could be described in the same manner.

2.4. Self-regulation

  • Self-regulation could be the new regime in organizing social systems.
  • When there is no energy, there is no self-organization (initial conditions)
  • Independent existence can only be possible by virtue of authenticity. Authenticity represents an open system that energy is derived from an individual perspective.
  • Social system as a whole derives from the interaction between individual and collective perspectives.

2.5. Question:

  • How to sustain the energy of a given system and to avoid atrophy?


3.   Contrasting the Chaos Theory with Theory of Creativity

3.1. Key Concepts

Chaos Theory Theory of Creativity
¨     Initial Conditions

¨     Linear – Non-linear

¨     Human Consciousness

¨     Readiness to Participation

¨     Self-regulation

¨     Positive and Negative Feedback

¨     Feed-forward

¨     Bifurcation Point

¨     Fractals

¨     Self-similarity

¨     Strange Attractor

¨     Levy Strauss’ Structuralism

¨     Cognitive Strategies

¨     Adaptiveness

¨     Germ

¨     Incubation

¨     Aha!

¨     Network of Enterprise

¨     Unpredictability (Mystery)

¨     Omnivalence

¨     Unfolding

¨     Order between the Viewer and Artist

¨     Discomfort

¨     Trust

¨     Flow

¨     Patience

¨     Self-similarity/self-difference


4.    Application of Chaos Theory to Real OD Cases

4.1. Concepts that are immediately applicable

  • Initial conditions
  • Self-similarity
  • Bifurcation points
  • Consultant’s choice of joining the system
  • Making a part of the recommendations linear-mechanic while the other part of the recommendation non-linear-mechanic to allow the trickster to work.
  • Fractals, traces left by dynamic systems at work, as the entry point for organizational intervention

4.2. Questions to be elaborated further

  • What are the conditions for a social system to change?What are the conditions to ensure lasting change?
  • Can human interactions be sufficient as the catalyst of change?
  • What are the roles of dreams, creativity and collaborative actions in the OD process?
  • Does Chaos Theory offer meaningful alternatives to current management and leadership practices?
  • How to design purposeful changes based on Chaos Theory and Theory of Creativity?
  • Is “creativity” always positive?
  • Could there be development without intentionality (diversity)?
  • How do boundary conditions define the change process?

5.   Final Reflection

  • There is a need to rethink the concepts of Chaos Theory and Artistic Creativity in light of their potential application to organizations, social systems and processes.
  • This conference was a first step toward translating Chaos Theory and Artistic Creativity into OD practices, of merging different perspectives, of breaking disciplinary boundaries.There is interest and commitment by the organizers to continue this initial dialogue and to explore the possibility of a follow up conference in 2002.
  • It is no coincident that this conference was held in Pari, a medieval village in the heart of Tuscany.As part of Pari’s process of transformation, the conference participants had the opportunity to experience the welcome of a community of warm-hearted people and to appreciate their aspiration for a meaningful future.  As a group, we hope that our presence and energy contributed in a small way the unfolding of Pari as a center of learning and connecting.