Solving hunger in Vermont is complex. Or is it complicated? Is there a difference?

I’ve been learning about ways to examine the difference between “complicated” and “complex” systems that can change our thinking about solving hunger and other symptoms of poverty.

A recipe is a simple system – with some basic skills, ingredients, and a little practice, it can be successfully followed by just about anyone. Space flight is a complicated system—it takes many experts, advanced engineering systems, and a strong central “mission control” to succeed. The classic example of a complex system is raising a child—a process that has many uncontrollable variables and in which no two turn out the same, no matter how good the plan.

Another complex system is solving hunger. It involves understanding organizational and socio-ecological environments in which formulas have limited application, expertise is helpful but does not ensure success, and success for one individual does not necessarily mean success for the next (1).

This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not possible to solve hunger. But it hasn’t worked to see hunger as a complicated problem that can be solved by having lots of smart people engineer a system that is centrally coordinated. We need a system that addresses complex problems for what they are, and not force them into a “complicated” solution and hope for the best.

Engineers and scientists look for a cause and then an effect. Economists assume a rational actor weighing all the data and making rational decisions. We all know that is not how most human interactions work.

The challenges here can be seen as ones of prediction and intervention.  If we can’t predict an outcome, we need to watch closely, all the time, and decide at what points it makes sense to intervene to influence the result.

It’s a whole different way of working: watching and adjusting constantly, even making small adjustments for one person or group of people that you don’t make for others. We must keep watching, keep learning, keep adjusting, and when something that seems to work emerges, test it again and again, making constant adjustments that lead us closer to our desired outcomes.

Sound complicated—or, should I say, complex?

My take-away is that the smartest people in the room can’t expect to sit down and write a plan to solve hunger, put the systems in place, and implement them—and expect to succeed. The system’s parts cannot, or will not, be controlled and are constantly changing and adapting. Looking for solutions means collectively interpreting feedback, supporting communities of action, showing results, and tightening the observe/orient/decide/act loop so that we can react rapidly to what is working now, build upon that success, and emerge with our neighbors finding their way out of poverty.

Your Foodbank helps feed our neighbors every day—153,000 each year. But your Foodbank is also working with community partners and our neighbors, engaging in creative thinking, and trying new ways to forge pathways out of poverty. Please support this work by giving generously.

Thank you,

John Sayles

Vermont Foodbank CEO


(1) Sparks For Change: Complicated or complex–knowing the difference is important. Read more here.