Systems- and Complexity-informed Evaluation Week: A Systems Thinking and Complexity Science Principles-based Framework Aiming to Enhance Evaluation Practice by Maria Bustamente, Lauren Baker, and Pablo Vidueira

Hello! I am María Bustamante Liria, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate on food systems evaluation at the Technical University of Madrid. I am happy to share with you a Systems Thinking and Complexity Science principles-based framework that I had the pleasure to develop with Lauren Baker and Pablo Vidueira, both from the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. This research was part of New Directions for Evaluation Special Issue: “Systems and Complexity-Informed Evaluation: Insights from Practice”, published in Summer 2021.

We found that, despite the increasing literature, applications, and discussions over the last 15 years on the use of Systems Thinking and Complexity Science (STCS) in evaluation, there are remaining questions about how to bring the different concepts, methods, and tools coming from both fields to meaningfully enhance evaluation practice. To bridge that gap, our research focused on identifying key STCS insights and translating them into a principles-based framework to support those engaged in evaluation in bringing STCS to their practice.

Through the review of academic and gray literature on the use of STCS in evaluation, we identified key STCS insights, as well as the paradigms and assumptions behind them. We decided to frame the STCS insights through a principles-based approach, because we found principles as the most suitable way to achieve our purpose. Considering the GUIDE framework proposed by Patton for effective principles, we aim for principles that (a) provide meaningful guidance on the use of STCS in different evaluation activities and for different evaluation roles; (b) support better decisions in embracing STCS in evaluation and; (c) inspire evaluation researchers, practitioners and commissioners to acknowledge and further explore how STCS can improve their practice; (d) be context-sensitive, adaptable and enduring,; and (e) be evaluable in whether they are being followed, useful, and effective. 

Furthermore, to bring together STCS insights from different paradigms and present them as complementary in the STCS principles-based framework, we applied a multimethodological approach as proposed by Mingers & Brocklesby in their paper “Multimethodology: Towards a framework from mixing methodologies”.

 Rad Resource:

The STCS principles-based framework includes ten overarching principles organized around three dimensions to better deal with complex situations:

  1. exploring and making sense of the big picture,
  2. understanding the dynamics of the system, and
  3. acknowledging the role of agents in framing situations and proposing actions to improve them.

The framework also includes operating principles that provide specific guidance on the implementation, adaptation, and evaluation of each overarching principles from conceptual and methodological perspectives.

Having the three dimensions and ten overarching principles as the backbone of the STCS principles-based framework, the operating principles can be adapted to specific purposes.

We hope you find it useful!

Rad Resource:

In the supporting information of the chapter you can find the annotated literature used to build the proposed STCS principles-based framework. Our proposed STCS principles-based framework aims to support critical reflections, assessments, and adaptation on how STCS enhances evaluation going beyond the four STCS concepts of boundaries, interrelationships, perspectives, and dynamics

Lesson Learned:

The application of the proposed STCS principles-based framework to TEEB AgriFood – a framework to assess food systems interventions – shed light on how TEEB included numerous STCS concepts, but excluded several principles derived from complexity sciences that consider dynamics of systems over time. Potentially such principles could support program theory for achieving systems change.


The American Evaluation Association is hosting Systems- and Complexity-informed Evaluation Week. The contributions to AEA365 this week are all related to this theme. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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