Many authors have sought to summarize what they regard as the key features of “complexity”. Some concentrate on the complexity they see as existing in the world—on “ontological complexity”. Others highlight “cognitive complexity”—the complexity they see arising from the different interpretations of the world held by observers. Others recognize the added difficulties flowing from the interactions between “ontological” and “cognitive” complexity. Using the example of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, and the responses to it, the purpose of this paper is to show that the way we understand complexity makes a huge difference to how we respond to crises of this type. Inadequate conceptualizations of complexity lead to poor responses that can make matters worse. Different understandings of complexity are discussed and related to strategies proposed for combatting the pandemic. It is argued that a “critical systems thinking” approach to complexity provides the most appropriate understanding of the phenomenon and, at the same time, suggests which systems methodologies are best employed by decision makers in preparing for, and responding to, such crises.
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