**This is a blog post from the Global Scanning Network at The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies. For more information visit www.cifs.dk or contact us here.**

Chaos theory is the science of surprises. At the heart of chaos theory is the notion that all complex, uncertain, irregular phenomena are underpinned by simple patterns. This blog post discusses the basic ideas of chaos theory, how it surrounds us in everyday life, how it gives meaning to the apparent meaningless, and how beautiful it can be.

**Profits for prophets**

The forecasting business evolved into a science of its own. It gave the Oracle of Delphi its prominence, it provided jobs to prophets in ancient times and today it is being practised by professionals. Many theories, models and techniques have evolved around the idea of predicting and preparing for the future.

**The madness of methods**

Unlike the laws of physics, the number of factors determining human behaviour, and thus our future, are infinite and unpredictable. Even the ability to quantify future trends using statistical software backed by immense computer power, proves to be embarrassingly inaccurate when unforeseen variables enter the equation. Human events cannot be predicted by simply extrapolating past events. The science-of-society debate gave rise to many theories, but most of them are underpinned by the idea that human behaviour, in the past, present or the future, does not correspond to theoretical, physical principles. Whereas quantitative forecasts have traditionally carried more status, qualitative forecasts are gaining increasingly more importance. Complexity theory is one of them. Chaos theory is closely related.

**The methods in madness**

Chaos theory has its roots in the natural sciences, but it has also been explored by physicists, economists and social scientists. It states that there are universal patterns to complexity. Scientists found a resemblance in the erratic behaviour of a column of smoke, the variations in the stock market, laser fusion, the functioning of the human brain and several other phenomena. The idea is that regardless of the medium, the behaviour obeys the same laws.

**Simple is the new complex**

Chaos theory states that even irregular, complex, chaotic systems have an underlying order, pattern, and shape. Seemingly simple phenomena can disguise complex interactions, and simple systems can produce complex results. Take a fern leaf: identical shapes are organised on different levels. Each leaf consists of several other complete leaves identical to the original one. Each of those leaves consist of more leaves that look exactly the same as the previous ones and so on and so forth.

**Chaos is randomly organised**

Chaos and order can co-exist in the same system. Randomness and determinism are not mutually exclusive. There is a delicate play between determinism and free will.[i] Teenagers with messy rooms understand this principle. One boy’s response to his parents’ constant nagging to clean up his room was: “My stuff is neat and organised – just in a very random way”.

The human figure is another example where randomness and determinism co-exist in the same system, so are stock market behaviour and a lightning bolt. Nature simultaneously abhors and strives for symmetry and equilibrium. The idea is that disorder, irregularity and chaos unfold in distinct, identifiable patterns. Not the ones we know as simple triangles, circles or rectangles, rather multidimensional, ever-changing shapes.

**What Pythagoras did not know**

There is mathematics in chaos. It is called *fractals.* A fractal is a never-ending, infinitely complex pattern. Unlike simple mathematical shapes, an image of chaos exists of fractals. Where classical science stops, chaos begins. James Gleick said: “Simple shapes are inhuman. They fail to resonate with the way nature organises itself or with the way human perception sees the world”. [ii]

Fractal shapes are splintered, twisted and fractured with jagged edges and sudden leaps.[iii] Classical Euclidian geometry reflects symmetry, perfection and predictability. The closer one looks, the simpler it becomes. The geometry of chaos suggests the opposite. Fractal geometry suggests that the closer one looks, the more detail appears. Nature is full of fractals: coastlines, seashells, hurricanes, clouds, smoke columns and the human brain all exhibit fractal properties. Many of the systems in which we live exhibit complex, chaotic behavior, be it in a business organisation, a social system, a political regime, or the natural ecosystem. The future also resembles these principles.

Ultimately chaos is just several simple processes that repeat themselves across different scales, resulting in utterly complex systems with an infinite number of feedback loops.[iv]

Another principle of chaos theory is the so-called “butterfly-effect” – immense sensitivity to initial conditions, where small changes have vast effects that can lead to widely differing outcomes. At any given time, billions of small changes around us are playing out. However, their collective effect has no linear relation to the final outcome. One small change can change history…or the future.

**What Harry Potter knew**

Chaos theory expands behind full digit dimensions. JK Rowling made Harry Potter catch a train on platform nine-and-three-quarters. It might not have been as far fetched after all. Chaos theory stretches our imagination to think of non-integer dimensional space. These golf balls are two-and-a-half-dimensional:

**Consolation**

Is this another brave attempt to grasp the complexity of the world by quantifying it, moulding it into concrete models? Does this make hyper complex situations easier to predict? Chaos is a science of process rather than state, of becoming rather than being.[v] By understanding that our ecosystems, our social systems, and our economic systems are interconnected, we can hope to avoid actions which may end up being detrimental to our long-term well-being.[vi] This realisation is changing the way astronomers study the universe, politicians create strategies and business executives make investment decisions.

The value of models reflecting a complex reality often does not only lie in its accuracy. It makes us think differently, it introduces us to new paradigms and it reframes mental landscapes. The realisation that erratic, wicked phenomena are ultimately underpinned by simple patterns makes perceived complex situations become simpler. Often it gives comfort. Recognising the chaotic, fractal nature of our world can give us new insight, power, and wisdom. [vii] It makes us see pictures in stead of monsters, it creates mystery and wonder. After all, chaos is beautiful.

**Image via Flickr**

[i] Gleick, J. 1998. Chaos: the amazing science of the unpredictable. Vintage Publishers.

[ii] https://philipabenton.wordpress.com/tag/benoit-mandelbrot/

[iii] Gleick, J. 1998. Chaos: the amazing science of the unpredictable. Vintage Publishers.

[iv] http://fractalfoundation.org/resources/what-is-chaos-theory/

[v] Gleick, J. 1998. Chaos: the amazing science of the unpredictable. Vintage Publishers.

[vi] http://fractalfoundation.org/resources/what-is-chaos-theory/

[vii] http://fractalfoundation.org/resources/what-is-chaos-theory/