This paper presents a successful policy initiative called the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, intended to protect the Lake Simcoe watershed in Ontario, Canada. Using complexity theory lenses, it explores the question of whether public servants or citizens involved with the initiative embraced and/or negated the complexity with which they were working.

Participants were involved with the process as public servants, local business owners, non-governmental group members, and youth workshop participants. Their experiences were probed through semi-structured interviews. Participants were not asked directly about systems or complexity theory concepts. In order to shed light on future policy work, the authors analyzed the 14 interview transcripts to explore connections—or lack thereof—with complexity theory.

The Research Context

The editors of this issue have acknowledged that the complexity of modern policy work demands more than an understanding of challenges and opportunities. It requires a comprehensive understanding of human and social processes, especially in parts of the world where elected officials espouse democratic principles and practices. A combination of analytical and public knowledge holds promise for better coherence amongst citizen expectations, scientific goals and political achievements. Yet it is rare for scientists and citizens to speak a common language, or even find forums where both voices are validated, as was the case with the Lake Simcoe initiative.

In this paper, we use the term Lake Simcoe Protection Plan—or simply Plan—as the umbrella term for the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, policy process and their outcomes.

We explored this case from a complexity perspective because 1) multi-stakeholder policy work is notoriously difficult and complex; 2) the approach to development of this plan was innovative and 3) the process was considered successful. Its distinctiveness and importance are summarized below:

  • Scarcity of clean, fresh water is a global issue; Lake Simcoe is a significant water body in one of the most water-rich countries in the world.

  • The Plan is Ontario’s first water policy that encompasses an entire watershed.

  • The Plan built on rich scientific data from 30 years of monitoring through the Lake Simcoe Environmental Management Strategy (LSEMS).

  • The Plan’s creation involved pressure from and robust dialogue with a variety of non-governmental participants, including citizens and First Nations communities.

  • Citizen voices were integral in the creation of policies, mandates and desired outcomes.

Background On The Policy Initiative

Beginning in the 1970s, the Lake Simcoe Conservation Authority and the provincial government monitored the health of the lake through LSEMS. However, citizens were increasingly concerned about the lack of enforceable mechanisms to protect the lake, especially with increased shoreline development. Citizen groups raised awareness through campaigns, outreach events, and meetings. They lobbied the Ontario government for legislation. In 2007, the Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, arrived at a rally for Lake Simcoe and announced that the government would create a Lake Simcoe Protection Act. This Act was passed in 2008. The Lake Simcoe Protection Plan was developed in 2009 for “implementing projects, highlighting targets of phosphorous reduction, putting forward limitations on new development and growth, and…voluntary and mandatory measures for the province and municipalities to protect Lake Simcoe” (Gallagher, 2012: 9).

Policy Context

Politically, Canada operates under the Westminster model of Parliament, without clear separation between the parts of government that create and implement laws. Some consider this model “a major achievement in social order and stability” reflecting a modernist or ordered view of reality (Geyer & Rihani, 2010: 23). Federal and provincial levels of government have ministries led by elected officials with titles such as Minister of the Environment. Canada’s provincial governments are responsible for most land-use decisions.

Evidence-based policy training—which can appear to conflict with complexity thinking–has become common. However, Warburton and Warburton (2004) note there may not be enough evidence, enough kinds of evidence, or the evidence may not complement important agendas such as Canada-U.S. relations (where water access can be controversial). Zussman (2003) describes one such mismatch from health policy: “Evidence also shows that cigarettes kill more people annually than does marijuana…What would be the impact of legalizing the possession of marijuana, for example, on our ability to cross the Canada-United States border at a time when the United States government has a no-tolerance attitude toward drug use?” Head (2008) describes shortcomings of evidence-based policy work for complex problems, including the many bases of evidence valued by different groups. Members of an Indigenous community might—for example—be skeptical when findings of a scientific study funded by the dominant culture appear to conflict with their experiential learning. Gerrits critiques anthropocentric and modernist undercurrents of public policy work. He notes the frequency with which it is “assumed that the decision-maker is in full control of the physical system” (2010: 19).

Scholars acknowledge the complexity of modern policy work (Dennard et al., 2008; Pawson et al., 2005). Runhaar et al., write that policy workers who deal with sustainability must be able to evaluate different policy approaches for multi-actor contexts and “produce knowledge that is scientifically valid, relevant to the policy debate, and accepted by stakeholders” (2005: 15). Pawson et al. point out that policy work deals with “complex social interventions which act on complex social systems,” and propose what they call a realist review process to “combine theoretical understanding and empirical evidence, and focus on explaining the relationship between the context in which the intervention is applied, the mechanisms by which it works and the outcomes which are produced. The aim is to enable decision-makers to reach a deeper understanding of the intervention and how it can be made to work most effectively” (2005: S1-21).

Challenges to evidence-based policy approaches relate not only to the nature of knowledge, but also to the importance of interactions in complex systems. Evidence-based policy grew out of evidence-based medicine, and is rooted in assumptions about rigorously defendable and transferable knowledge. Such assumptions become problematic as several systems come into play. Boulton (2010: 35) states that interactions are downplayed in the “prevailing mechanical, scientific worldview…Complexity thinking emphasizes that it is rare to be able to ignore the systemic nature of the world in which we live. And, of course, to connect policy makers and policy making is to challenge existing governance structures and power bases.”

These studies suggest the complexity of policy work is increasingly acknowledged, but the comfort of more ordered models remains alluring in the potentially tempestuous world of politics. To address this dilemma as either/or would negate lessons from complexity science. Geyer and Rihani (2010: 29) state that “orderly and disorderly frameworks are equally flawed” and that complexity theory “acts like a synthesis or bridge between these two.”



This study is qualitative and exploratory. It incorporates elements of grounded theory and phenomenography. Analyzed data came from semi-structured interviews with people who participated in the creation phase of the Plan. Some of the analysis done for the second author’s thesis were used in this paper, and are referred to as the “initial research.” The initial research examined environmental policy creation, and focused heavily on the success of the multi-stakeholder involvement in the creation phase of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan. New analysis was conducted for this paper from a complexity perspective.


In the 2010-2011 initial research through Royal Roads University, 16 participants were identified through Plan literature and were contacted by e-mail. Participants included actors from government, youth workshops, local businesses, interest groups, and non-governmental groups. Initially, 8 of the 16 responded and after a prompt, 3 more agreed. Through interviews, 7 other individuals were identified and 3 of them participated, resulting in a total of 14 interviews. No one explicitly refused to participate.

In the initial research, non-governmental groups were compared with government groups for two reasons: 1) government actors have a position of power and can strongly influence legislation creation, and 2) non-governmental individuals are typically motivated by factors outside of their professions. This categorization became helpful for analysis through a complexity lens as well.

Themes For New Analysis

The authors coded text with four pre-determined [complex] system-related themes:

  1. Systems explicitly referenced;

  2. Boundaries, with no preconceived notions of type;

  3. Initial starting conditions, and;

  4. Degree of predictability, including related strategies such as detailed planning vs. probes and observation.

Coding And Analysis

Interviews were transcribed verbatim. The text was first coded by participant and associated demographics. Color-coding was used to identify themes, and memos were used to note whether statements were coherent with a complexity perspective. For example, in the fourth theme, a participant might speak about the importance of detailed prediction and step-by-step planning, or describe limits of ordered methods in a complex and unpredictable environment. Phenomenography informed this exploration of variation in perspectives. A table was developed to show which participants spoke to each theme.


This section describes findings relating to the four themes above, as well as relevant findings from inductive analysis during the initial research.

Different participant groups are compared, but these categorizations are somewhat artificial. There are degrees of connectivity, where “in a social context, each individual belongs to many groups and different contexts and his/her contribution in each context depends partly on the other individuals within that group and the way they related to the individual in question” (Mitleton-Kelly, 2003: 6). In the Lake Simcoe process, some individuals were citizens as well as conservation authority employees. Some were cottagers on Lake Simcoe and also worked for environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs). Such overlapping and potentially conflicting roles added to the complexity.

Systems Referenced By Participants

Policy work is becoming more complex and decision makers need to consider “ways to incorporate a balance among economic, ecological, social, and cultural value creation into their business models” (Porter & Derry, 2012: 33).

This coding pass explored systems referenced by participants. Participants were not asked directly about systems and they rarely used systems concepts explicitly (although one participant did reference feedback loops). They all spoke about systems they cared for, or that needed attention in this policy creation process.

Citizen participants spoke most frequently about social, cultural and relational systems. They were also cognizant of the ecological systems that were at risk because of declining water quality. Residents’ identities were often tied to their homes on the lake. Citizen concerns stemmed from an intersection of ecological, social and cultural systems; they saw a complex collection of problems, which prompted them to act. In a sense, threats in the watershed were threats to their identities, which drove the passion behind many of their lobbying efforts to create an Act.

Government actors emphasized political and economic systems. Fisheries were in decline, and tourism was impacted by poor water quality. These issues, beach closures and questions about large development projects near Lake Simcoe—which could fuel the economy while damaging natural systems—were becoming hot issues in nearby municipalities. Participant 1 (P1) noted: “the fishery was key—it was being impacted, and was going down. There is a huge economic interest in the fishery. It wasn’t self-sustaining anymore, this got played up where it was almost viewed as an endangered species. On a local scale, this is not what you want happening in your watershed. This was a tipping point, it had to be now or never and gave a sense of urgency.” The intersecting economic and ecological concerns of a declining fishery exemplify the intersecting systems involved in the creation phase of the Plan.

Intersections of the citizen and government groups created spaces for learning, and enabled the creation of two multi-stakeholder committees to inform policy makers. Diverse perspectives and rich interactions nourished the creation of the Plan. Mitleton-Kelly notes that “it is more natural, or at least less ambiguous, to speak of complex behavior rather than complex systems. The study of such behavior will reveal certain common characteristics among different classes of systems and will allow us to arrive at a proper understanding of complexity.” (Mitleton-Kelly, 2003: 4). In the Lake Simcoe case, numerous complex behaviors illuminated an underlying shared concern about the health of Lake Simcoe. As P3 stated “even development and industry realized that the water needed to be improved.” This common concern became a touchstone for diverse groups.


We explored participants’ references to boundaries because the boundary concept is central to [complex] systems thinking and related decision-making (Midgley, 2000). Coding under the umbrella of boundaries was done without any preconceived notions of what the boundary-related sub-categories might be.

Administrative And Role-Related

Twelve of the fourteen participants spoke about boundaries related to roles, administrative units and jurisdictions. Most of those comments related to pressure from one or more groups shifting the ways in which other groups worked. Government employees frequently said things such as “there was a lot of pressure from citizen groups to be heard and make steps towards more effective protection of Lake Simcoe” (P7). They also spoke to cross-jurisdictional challenges. Citizens described how they had become involved, learned about lobbying, put pressure on government, and pushed government until they responded.

Disciplinary Boundaries

Many participants described work with an unusually broad range of conservation-related departments. Comments about the importance of the watershed were more comprehensive, and included tourism, agriculture, personal enjoyment and art. Several spoke about challenges of reaching consensus across boundaries. P5 described the artificiality of disciplinary boundaries: “Everything is in silos: environment, art, science, music, recreation; whereas in reality, these things are not separate.” Ruddick (1996: 132) describes this shift from systems as separate and distinct to intersecting, moving “scholarship away from arid, endless debates that attempted to identify which system was predominant. Public servants chose to sweep in a broader-than-typical range of government voices, yet—based on interview data—emphasize certain fields. It is not clear from the interviews whether these boundary choices were subconscious, designed for efficiency, or politically motivated. One person did mention a broad array of interested ministries within government, which suggests some were present without holding equal status.


Edge-effect is adapted from its ecological roots: one discipline behind the development of complexity science. The edges of intersecting habitats are often rich places for biodiversity. Estuaries are places where land, fresh water and saltwater habitats collide and are much more diverse and productive than the sum of the contributing habitats. The first author has developed the concept of intellectual estuaryTM where people from different experiential bases come together. P2 was among those who described powerful intersections: “There’s a symbiotic relationship between MOE [Ministry of Environment] and Campaign Lake Simcoe. The MOE can’t be political and even if they recognize that there is more funding needed, they can’t ask for more funding. They can’t be activists or advocates.”

Boundary Choices

Systems thinker C. West Churchman (1998) wrote about the impacts of boundary choices we make daily. People rarely reflect on the ethical implications of those choices, or even make them consciously. P7 was among those who mentioned boundary choices, saying that the plan’s “main objectives are environmental”.

Fig. 1: Figure 1

Illustration of the Habitat Squeeze Experienced by Lake Trout in Lake Simcoe During the 1980s and Early 1990s. Illustration from 2003 LSEMS Report

Communication from government websites often reflected this boundary choice.

P7 spoke about benefits of moving beyond the lake to a larger watershed boundary, and how he discouraged those who wanted to further broaden boundaries in ways that would have been too overwhelming. Another participant said it was helpful to have a strong focus on Lake Simcoe, even though “every watershed in the province needs help.”

Citizen groups pushed boundaries through initiatives such as the Ladies of the Lake Calendar. They decided to do something “completely off the wall” and discovered the calendar changed how people thought about the lake, raised one quarter million dollars, and helped citizens move from concern to a sense of responsibility and action (P5).

Boundary Critique

In Systemic Intervention (2000), Midgley describes tensions and rituals that develop when a powerful group sits at the core, with others outside the core boundary on the margins. He presents this as the theory of boundary critique.

Fig. 2: Figure 2

Image from the 2009 Ladies of the Lake Calendar. Photo by Jim Panou. Reproduced with permission by the Ladies of the Lake Conservation Association.

For the Plan, government formed the core. Core groups typically have well-developed cultures, which shape the knowledge that is valued and how communication takes place. The core can value or devalue a marginalized group. Midgley uses anthropologist Mary Douglas’s terms sacred and profane, for these value-based categories.

Early in the creation phase, citizen groups felt neglected and had to push hard to be heard. Public servants acknowledged the value of multiple perspectives, but had to overcome inertia. One citizen noted: “it seems like that was the dark ages… One of the principles of the LSPA is that the Minister responsible for the Act, would be advised from a committee made up of government and private sector” (P5). A government participant (P7) reflected: “I’ve been with MOE for 11 yrs and I’ve never seen anything like this, it’s really inspiring and it makes being part of it so exciting you actually get to talk to people on the ground who care and are interested.” Using the language of boundary critique, citizens were by definition outside the core, but their involvement became welcomed and could be labeled as sacred. Some citizens mused as to whether this [sacred] status was sustainable.

Initial Starting Conditions

Most participants emphasized LSEMS as a key foundation for data and communication. P4 noted that “[The Plan] was built over time from LSEMS, this was a partnership strategy together with the municipalities. LSEMS included stakeholders as well, that process had been going on for 15 years, there was lots of work already done, a good framework to build on.” Government groups were pushed by citizens; both agreed it was the right time to create the Plan. Mitleton-Kelly calls this coevolution in complexity theory. This is where the “evolution of one domain or entity is partially dependent on the evolution of other related domains or entities; or that one domain or entity changes in the context of others… In human systems, coevolution in the sense of the evolution of interactions places emphasis on the relationship between the coevolving entities” (Mitleton-Kelly, 2003: 7). Progress towards an Act was achieved through such coevolution. Such processes can “change the perspective and the assumptions that underlie much traditional management and systems theories” (Mitleton-Kelly, 2003: 7). Without LSEMS the evolution and policy work would have been much different.

Conn’s research complements Midgley’s by describing essential differences between vertical (government in core) and horizontal (citizens in margins) spheres. “The horizontal sphere cannot simply be a replication of how the vertical sphere operates, but rather engages [its own] methods and strengths.” Coevolving with—rather than adapting to—other stakeholders is important as “often civic engagement and inclusion tend to be on terms familiar and suitable to the vertical hierarchical [core government] dynamic” (2010: 9). This hierarchical approach changed over time in the Lake Simcoe context. Government actors included the horizontal sphere through dialogue, workshops, and other forums, which revealed diverse interests and strengths (Gallagher, 2012).

Degree Of Predictability: Detailed Planning Vs. Probes And Observation

There was considerable uncertainty during the Plan’s creation. Citizens did not know what would happen if they put their time, finances, and livelihoods on hold while they fought for the legislation. Government actors could not predict outcomes of a strong intra-governmental group and intense pairing with citizen and non-governmental groups.

Complexity theory tells us that “the search for a single ‘optimum’ strategy may neither be possible nor desirable” (Mitleton-Kelly, 2003: 14). Although government participants described a relatively ordered approach, they lowered their resistance to unordered and creative approaches used by non-governmental groups. They were able to progress through small adaptations and acknowledgements of the ‘other’. P1 noted “I was involved in taking [the Plan] through legislature—supporting readings and committee process, the standing committees were on par with what I have seen before in terms of how many people came out—what was different was the large number of citizens that were there.” The classic-planning module was followed, but significant citizen involvement added non-linear elements to a traditional system.

Geyer and Rihani (2010) acknowledge limits of knowledge and importance of learning as key elements of conscious, complex systems. In the Lake Simcoe case, diverse perspectives helped to illuminate knowledge gaps and the importance of learning from each other. Participants acknowledged that the degree of predictability was limited. This thinking led to the Plan being created in an adaptive management framework.

The creation of scientific and advisory committees made of government and non-government stakeholders was considered novel and effective. One government actor said “The committees were quite important to the [creation] process, the science committee may have been more important in the legislation phase, and then may have shifted to the other committee while developing the Plan. Having an independent science committee to produce facts and state of the art information went a long way to backing up arguments of the need for a Plan. There is a credibility there that benefited from the process” (P1). These new approaches were producing results.

While it would be easy to focus on citizens’ stories of inclusion, government actors were also positive about this multi-stakeholder environment. P7 stated: “it’s rare to see so many resources be pooled together in one project in the government. I attribute that to the Premier and the drive for a delivery date that was ambitious…I’ve never seen such engagement of stakeholders, and involvement with the committees…that was used with quick turn around and fed into cabinet.” Exploratory approaches that probed for results—rather than rigid processes—were implicit in such statements.


The complexity-related concept of resilience has emerged in many fields. A resilient ecosystem “can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary. Resilience in social systems has the added capacity of humans to anticipate and plan for the future” (Resilience Alliance). Resilient communities “draw mainly on local resources, knowledge, and expertise when faced with an incident or crisis. Resilience, in turn, contributes to a community’s organizational effectiveness and its ability to drive positive social and economic change over time” (Fournier, 2012: i).

Social resilience was an important theme for over half the citizen and government participants in the original research (Gallagher, 2012). For example, some citizens formed a cohesive unit to anticipate what would be needed to avoid future ecological disasters.


The theme of tangibility was emphasized by five government and three non-governmental participants in the original research. Non-governmental participants needed tangible research to support their claims about declining water quality, and to gain inclusion into the creation phase of the Plan. The role of science was emphasized in interviews. When citizens brought forward tangible issues and scientific data, it was easier for government actors to make the case

Fig. 3: Table 1

Themes emphasized by each participant (Note: The boundaries theme is not included because of the diversity of content).

* A = Agricultural B = Biological or Ecological. E = Economic. H = Human, Spiritual, Artistic. P = Political and Governance. R = Recreation and Tourism S = Social and Cultural. T = Science and Technology.

** O = relatively orderly approach, albeit with surprises. U = relatively unordered approach: more creative and responsive.

for a new Act: government was able to respond more effectively to non-governmental voices.


Table 1 shows which participants emphasized which themes. A blank cell indicates no emphasis.

Findings show that groups inside and outside government chose to gather around an environmental attractor for which scientific data had been gathered. Government groups opened up to new ways of working; non-government groups invested time and energy learning about how to push boundaries, develop patience without losing energy, engage in political processes, take on projects and galvanize action. Through interactions across many types of boundaries, an intellectual estuaryTM emerged. Coevolution enabled all groups to make progress with at least some of their concerns. This coevolution flowed into use of an adaptive management strategy for implementation of the plan, which was coherent with complexity thinking. Often “surprises” in government are to be avoided, but participants framed surprises in a positive light.

Discussion And Conclusions

Watersheds And Mega-Regions: Common Ground?

Use of a watershed boundary was a key innovation in this policy work. Watersheds include all rivers, streams and wetlands that drain into—or are connected to—a body of water. From an ecological perspective, this ensured that all systems associated with Lake Simcoe would be under regulation from the Plan. However, a watershed boundary was not an intuitive choice for many residents, nor was it a familiar landscape for policy work. Moreover, a watershed focus brings governance challenges because of multiple value sets, ministries, municipalities, and jurisdictions.

Similar challenges are faced in mega-regions where multiple municipalities are gradually connecting. They, too, share “interdependencies in their economies, infrastructure, natural resources, and the welfare of their citizens” and can be considered a “complex system without a public entity that focuses on the overall welfare” (Innes et al., 2011: 1).

The critical resource of fresh water can draw people into dialogue about governance. Innes and her coauthors conducted their complexity and governance research around two water-planning projects in California. There have been other forums such as: “A Water Gathering: Collaborative Watershed Governance in [British Columbia] and Beyond.” Also in British Columbia, the Cowichan Watershed Board is a “recent addition to this growing number of watershed governance organizations and agencies across the country” (Brandes & Brandes, 2012: 18).

This intersection of water policy, sustainability and complexity thinking forms an important edge, from which we can learn and adapt our planning and governance processes. Findings from the California and Lake Simcoe studies are similar. Innes et al. concluded that successes for complex governance in California were rooted in:

diverse, interdependent players; collaborative dialogue; joint knowledge development; creation of networks and social and political capital; and boundary spanning. They were largely self-organizing, building capacity and altering norms and practices to focus on questions beyond the parochial interests of players. They created new and often long-term working relationships and a collective ability to respond constructively to changes and stresses on the system. (p.55)

Was Complexity Embraced In Lake Simcoe Policy Work?

Geyer and Rihani contrast traditional orderly and emerging complexity public policy perspectives (2010: 33-34). As examples, an orderly perspective involves: “duplicating traditional scientific knowledge and methods is the primary justification of orderly public policy,” whereas a complexity perspective includes: “A flexible mix of traditional scientific and more qualitative, interpretive policy methods is the most effective strategy.” Strategic implications of the orderly perspective: “The creation of an improved and stable order” contrast with the complexity perspective: “The key isn’t to find the final order and implement it, but encourage the actors in the policy area to adapt and adjust to the continual evolutionary changes in their areas.”

Based on interview data, government actors were comfortable with ordered perspectives but moved towards complexity perspectives over time. Citizens were less bound by tradition, and brought complexity perspectives into the process. This pattern has been observed in many organizations and groups (MacGillivray, 2009) and can be framed using Midgley’s theory of boundary critique.

Fig. 4: Figure 3

Government as the Core, based on Midgley’s Theory of Boundary Critique.

To an extent, government actors were aware of the potential of complexity-based approaches. The eventual opening of the policy debate and inclusion of other viewpoints highlights the evolutionary change in the government sphere, and the gradual acceptance of new norms and methods of policy creation.

One strategy for boundary work between the core and margin is to generate adaptive tension (MacGillivray 2009: 181), which can “help people strive to problem-solve and improve” (189-190). Maguire and McKelvey (1999) describe adaptive tension as a gradient that can drive change from current to desired states. Tension therefore decreases with progress towards goals. Many participants described tensions around the primary boundary. Public servants were “getting a lot of pressure from various NGOs” (P1) and citizen groups (P2). Citizens were conscious of this: “Pressure from the public got the government to open up and move from the dark ages into opening the forum for public participation” (P5) and worked to raise awareness, media attention, energy and funds. These efforts were not only focused on legislation; citizens hoped for more complex outcomes including “stimulating innovation” (P2). Government realized over time that citizen involvement could enhance the quality of policy to the point where government aimed for a “gold standard” that could be “sold as a model” (P4).

Our interpretations of the data suggest that government did not approach this policy initiative from a complexity perspective, nor did the government participants proactively shift in that direction. But their approach did evolve. By way of contrast, many citizens had a complexity orientation from the start, as is typical with people operating in their private lives. They had to be tenacious, creative and resilient to be heard; using adaptive strategies that pushed the boundaries

Table 2

Patterns in Government and Citizen Policy Work.

The Core (Government) The Margins (Citizens)
Attractor Scientific research was extensive, familiar, measurable, ordered and easily defensible Scientific research might or might not best represent a citizen’s views but it was a solid way into the process
Strategy Somewhat ordered; inclusion of citizen groups introduced complexity Much more complex. Included probes, experiments and adaptive responses
Enablers Security of more direct communication with constituents. Precedent of [complex] adaptive management in ecological work Diversity of groups. Less need to be concerned about public perceptions of experiments
Implementation Passing of legislation could be interpreted as achievement of final order Citizens worried that their status and inclusion might not continue through evolutionary changes
Boundary strategy Government may be tempted to move on to next political/economic win Use of adaptive tension across primary boundary (MacGillivray, 2009) has been effective to date and may continue.
between their groups and government. The policy initiative began to manifest attributes of a complex system, including self-organization and emergence, leading to the creation of new order. Through this process citizens helped a new form of policy creation to emerge: government and citizens created new order together in a coevolutionary process. The perceived impacts of this evolution were very positive.

The application of inclusive, knowledge and communication-intensive complexity based approaches can enrich and even accelerate the policy creation process. Complexity approaches could potentially help overcome initial inertia and tensions often found in policy creation that includes multi-stakeholders and non-governmental participants.

Because government could default to more ordered policy perspectives, citizens were anxious to find ways to coevolve through implementation and monitoring processes. The emerging interest in governance across large geographic areas will provide opportunities to learn about possibilities for longer-term coevolution. Because some citizens are concerned that the emphasis for coevolution may wane within government, it will be important to give attention to ongoing learning. Given that the policy development process was exceedingly collaborative, the learning design could mimic that model. Initiatives such as Howard Rheingold’s (2012) evolving media map for social media learning could provide inspiration for collaborative, customized mapping and implementation.

In summary, the Lake Simcoe case study illustrates the positive outcomes that are possible when government defaults to less rigid boundaries, and is open to working without pre-determined outcomes and checkpoints. Geyer and Rihani (2010) describe how a complexity perspective shifts traditional beliefs:

In the public policy domain the dominant framework of the twentieth century was undoubtedly the traditional orderly perspective. With this perspective, states could show that they were acting in the best, most rational interests of their citizens and that citizens should do as they were told. Moreover, citizens could even convince themselves that they were being taken care of by experts who knew what to do. Hence, the populace could wash its hands of individual responsibility in the relaxing allure of belief in order. Complexity undermines both the dominance of elites and the passivity of local actors. (p. 186)

The Lake Simcoe Plan brought this concept to life, as described by P5: “In the past people thought something was wrong with the lake and the government should fix it. This added up to the lake being our responsibility.”