DST at Columbia University

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Thinking systemically through a dynamical systems lens helps us to understand mediation, negotiation, and peace-building in a more comprehensive, holistic way. It encourages us to step back and see the constellation of forces that is at play and then move in and focus on specific elements.

Peter T. Coleman


We believe that the complex challenges facing society today can be effectively addressed by integrating traditional techniques with more adaptive approaches made possible through Dynamical Systems Theory (DST). Building upon decades of systemic research on war, aggression, and peace processes, the DST approach, inspired by physics and applied mathematics, emphasizes complexity and non-linear dynamics as essential processes for understanding our most challenging social problems.

We see an increasing need for novel approaches to solving problems that reflect the complexity of the world today – approaches that avoid the traps and unintended consequences plaguing well-intentioned “fixes” that ultimately fail. In support of this, we are working on multiple fronts to advance the science, practice and education of DST. The Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR) is working to advance, conducting laboratory and applied research to empirically investigate social phenomena from this perspective. The Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) is advancing multiple field projects, and facilitates the convening of scholars and practitioners from around the globe employing this approach. The Masters in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (NECR) program at Columbia is weaving DST insights into the entire curriculum, and is partnering with the MD-ICCCR and AC4 to develop cutting-edge courses, workshops and trainings for current and future practitioners.Interested in learning more? Continue reading or follow the links in the text to learn more about our work!

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Learn more about the Columbia Dynamical Systems Theory approach in this radio interview with Peter T. Coleman, PhD. In this interview, Coleman describes the essence of approach, how it is applied to research and practice, current education initiatives, and ongoing efforts to share and expand this work through a network of “Innovation Lab” members.


Investigating conflict processes from the perspective of DST is a paradigm shift in the field. Currently, the majority of empirical research on conflict from the interpersonal to the societal level has focused on identifying linear, cause and effect relationships between variables in a system. Our research takes a different approach.

For seven years, the DST team at the MD-ICCCR, in collaboration with a larger network of scholars, has worked to advance DST research by emphasizing complexity and patterns over time. Multiple research projects have been conducted or are currently underway investigating social phenomena such as interpersonal ideological conflicts, complexity of rules followed by negotiators, mediation dynamics, leadership competencies for fostering lasting social change, systems thinking ability, resonance and social change at multiple social levels[NEED LINK], drivers and constraints on conflict and peace processes in Israel and Palestine, multilevel conflict processes in organizations, and the fundamental conditions and processes conducive to sustainable peace – all from the perspectives of complexity and dynamical systems.Our research agenda is much too ambitious to be fully described here. Follow the embedded links to learn more about our research and what we’ve learned so far!

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A key component of the DST approach is the attractor landscape model, which refers to the range of possible states of the system that are the result of the evolution of the system over time.

Intractable conflicts, from this perspective, are understood as the emergent stable patterns of behaviors, thoughts and emotions of members of the system that have stabilized around a negative state, and have demonstrated strong resistance toward attempts to foster positive sustainable change.


Traditional large-scale social intervention approaches often embrace linear planning and intervention strategies that assume predictable cause and effect relationships between factors in the system. We propose a different approach to intervention, informed by DST, which emphasizes examining the multiple interacting factors and corresponding feedback processes operating to hold complex social systems in chronically undesirable states, and then identifying leverage points in the system to encourage positive change.

Our applied programmatic activities are housed primarily at AC4 in the Dynamical Systems Theory of Practice (DSToP) project. One initiative is a partnership between AC4 and the World Bank Group in Colombia, which aims to support local groups in assessing the impact of memory and reconciliation activities on efforts to reduce violence and promote peace after more than 50 years of civil war. A second initiative focuses on strengthening the capacity for promotion of peace and harmony in cities where the lives of youth are disrupted by violence. Efforts of this Urban Violence Prevention project have focused to date on Medellin, Colombia and Newark, New Jersey. This work follows prior initiatives in Burma – Myanmar carried out in partnership with the MD-ICCCR.Follow the embedded links to learn more about our DST-informed practice projects!

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Causal-loop diagramming is just one of many tools that we use to capture the complexity and dynamics of the system before moving to identify opportunities for change.


Through the support of AC4 and partners Rob Ricigliano of The Omidyar Group and Danny Burns of the Institute of Development Studies along with others, the Dynamical Systems Theory Innovation Lab convenes thought leaders employing DST and related approaches in order to foster the exchange of ideas and inspire innovative work.

This interdisciplinary group of over 50 lab members from around the world includes scholars, practitioners and scholar–practitioners from a wide range of disciplines including psychology, law, anthropology, mathematics, biology, and economics, to name a few, each bringing their unique perspectives on understanding and addressing complexity and social change. Concept papers, working group briefs and a series of “Ted-like” talks presented under the banner of Big Ideas on Complexity Science and Social Change are just some of the shared products that have been developed. Planning for convening the Lab group in New York City in 2016 is currently underway.Be sure to visit the Dynamical Systems Innovation Lab website to learn more about this network!

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Mike Mohr of the Omidyar Group describes his experience during the 2014 DST Innovation Lab:


Education is a top priority for the DST team, with a primary goal of introducing new ideas and providing practical tools for those working to foster positive social change. Initiatives in this area span a broad range of activities from academic courses and professional trainings, to books and articles, videos and online resources.

Currently, the NECR program is working to integrate DST concepts into the core curriculum. Additionally, AC4 is partnering with NECR and the MD-ICCCR to develop a four-course certification on DST and practice, which will build on our popular Conflict and Complexity course.In addition to coursework and trainings, the team is constantly developing new educational materials. Following the success of Peter T. Coleman’s The Five Percent, a series of videos was created to illustrate key concepts, and a TEDx talk was presented to highlight the relevance of DST to political intractability. As described above, we convened experts to create a series of short videos of Big Ideas on Complexity Science and Social Change as part of our Innovation Lab. Finally, multiple academic articles describing DST theory and practice, as well op-eds and blogs have been published to bring these insights to a larger audience.Moving forward, the team will be publishing a fieldbook for applying DST concepts in the field, a new book on leadership and problem-solving in complex systems, academic articles further clarifying the approach, and case studies of relevant applied projects.

Follow the links above to access these resources for learning, practicing and teaching DST!

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We strive to make DST concepts and practices available to a wide audience of scholars, practitioners and students through multiple formats, and to build a network of connected change-makers to further this work on multiple fronts.


We have published numerous scholarly and practical books, chapters, and articles on DST applications to social processes. Key books on the value of DST approaches for researching and addressing intractable social conflicts include The Five Percent by Peter T. Coleman, and Attracted to Conflict by Robin Vallacher, Peter T. Coleman, and colleagues. A recent article in American Psychologist describes DST as a foundation for advancing theory and research on intractable conflict. Additionally, we have published multiple academic articles as well as op-eds on this topic – these are provided in a repository maintained by the MD-ICCCR.

Finally, we highly recommend that interested readers review our list of works we admire [ADD LINK], which lists multiple publications we believe are essential contributions for applying concepts from DST and complexity science to complex social problems.

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