Friday, February 20, 2009

What is Chaos Theory?


The Chaos Theory method from Lorenz and Poincaré is a technique that can be used for studying complex and dynamic systems to reveal patterns of order (non-chaos) out of seemingly chaotic behaviors.

"Chaos Theory is the qualitative study of unstable aperiodic behavior in deterministic nonlinear dynamical systems" (Kellert, 1993, p. 2). Aperiodic behavior is observed when there is no variable, describing the state of the system, that undergoes a regular repetition of values. Unstable aperiodic behavior is highly complex: it never repeats and it continues to manifest the effects of any small perturbation.

As per the current mathematical theory a chaotic system is defined as showing "sensitivity to initial conditions". In other words, to predict the future state of a system with certainty, you need to know the initial conditions with infinite accuracy, since errors increase rapidly with even the slightest inaccuracy.

This is why the weather is so difficult to forecast. The theory also has been applied to business cycles, and dynamics of animal populations, as well as in fluid motion, planetary orbits, electrical currents in semi-conductors, medical conditions (like epileptic seizures), and the modeling of arms races.

During the 1960s Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist at MIT, worked on a project to simulate weather patterns on a computer. He accidentally stumbled upon the butterfly effect after deviations in calculations off by thousandths greatly changed the simulations. The Butterfly Effect reflects how changes on the small scale, can influence things on the large scale. It is the classic example of chaos, where small changes may cause large changes. A butterfly, flapping its wings in Hong Kong, may change tornado patterns in Texas.

Chaos Theory regards organizations/businesses as complex, dynamic, non-linear, co-creative and far-from-equilibrium systems. Their future performance cannot be predicted by past and present events and actions. In a state of chaos, organizations behave in ways which are simultaneously both unpredictable (chaotic) and patterned (orderly).