Circularity and Systems

Complex Systems

Systems are called complex when they consist of a large number of elements each following relatively simple rules with no central control; their collective actions, however, allow for changing patterns of behavior to occur. Mitchell (2009) uses two definitions:

a system in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behaviour, sophisticated information processing, and adaptation via learning or evolution.

And in addition,

a system that exhibits nontrivial emergent and self-organizing behaviours.

Complex systems change behavior to improve their chances of success and/or survival through learning or evolutionary processes. Phenomena of changing behavior are called emergent. These are hard to predict as complex systems produce information and signals from both their internal and external environments. When no internal or external controller exists, complex systems are called self-organizing.

Defining complexity is not an easy task; and therefore, many notions both temporal and structural are used. Most prominent are the notions of:

  • Self-organization, and thus the capacity of a system to make its own structure more complex. It produces heterogeneity and unpredictability.
  • Hierarchy, and thus the capacity of systems to form bottom-up sub-systems where central control is limited to coordinating towards the large system goal
  • Resilience, as in a system’s capacity to survive and persist within a variable environment through continuous feedback loops

Another notion inherent in complex systems is non-linearity. In the next video, Andrej will explain the fallacies of linear thinking and the virtues of non-linear thinking. 

Further Reading

  • Tom Bosschaert – Symbiosis in Development, Making New Futures Possible. FutureLearn
  • Mitchell, M. (2009). Complexity: A guided tour. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Morin, E. (2006). Restricted Complexity, General ComplexityIn Worldviews, Science and Us, edited by Carlod Gershenson, Diederik Aerts and Bruce Edmonds, 5–29. University of Liverpool, UK: World Scientific, 2007.


Interested to read how the notion of complexity affects learning? Or how complexity has influenced architecture? Read through the first part of ‘Our Position Paper on Education’ here.


Olga Ioannou
Olga Ioannou
Assistant Professor

Dr. Ing. Olga Ioannou is Assistant Professor at the Department of Architectural Engineering and Technology of TU Delft. She works for the chair of Building Product Innovation. She is in the steering committee of the Circular Built Environment Hub at TU Delft and a member of the Architectural Facades & Products (AF+P) group. Her expertise lies in architectural education, network learning and knowledge creation within the extended communities of knowledge. This is why she is now actively involved in developing programs for integrating circularity in the A+BE faculty curricula across all departments and levels of education.   

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Circularity for Educators

The platform is intended to provide with content on either circularity or pedagogy for and about circularity. It is one of the outcomes of the Circular Impulse Initiative (CII), a project intending to enhance the integration of circularity in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment education. The platform mainly aims to help tutors get better acquainted with circularity in the built environment by providing a series of resources on this subject that they can either view to get better informed or directly share with their students in class or online. A large number of the Faculty's professors and researchers have contributed substantially both in creating a coherent narrative for circularity in the built environment as well as further elaborating on different aspects of it. Besides this one, a new platform for interaction and direct exchange was also established in parallel that we call ‘Educators for Circularity‘. This one offers the opportunity for all of us to meet and share our experiences and learn from one another.

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