Three complexity principles for convergence research

By Gemma Jiang

Gemma Jiang (biography)

How can principles adapted from complexity thinking be applied to convergence research? How can such principles help integrate knowledge, methods, and expertise from different disciplines to form novel frameworks that catalyze scientific discovery and innovation?

I present three principles from the complexity paradigm that are highly relevant to convergence research. I then describe three types of transformative containers that I have developed to create enabling conditions for applying complexity principles to convergence.

1. Ecosystem consciousness: An inversion of perspectives

Ecosystem consciousness is necessary because in complex systems the whole (ecosystem) is bigger than the sum of its parts; the wellbeing of the whole and the parts are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. A key leadership challenge in convergence research is to make a feasible whole out of what may be infeasible parts.

For convergence research, the point for all involved is the same societal challenge; each stakeholder examines their unique view from the same ecosystem consciousness. Instead of asking only questions that a single discipline has answers to, a convergence team asks questions of societal importance and works synergistically to find solutions.

2. Positive-sum game: the principle of multi-dimensionality

Complex systems are governed by the principle of multidimensionality, which maintains that opposing tendencies not only coexist and interact, but also form complementary relationships. This is a non-zero-sum formulation in which a loss for one side is not necessarily a gain for the other; on the contrary, both opposing tendencies can increase or decrease simultaneously. There is potential to create positive sum solutions.

The mutual interdependence of opposing tendencies is characterized by an ‘and’ instead of an ‘or’ relationship.

3. Emergence: global outcomes arising from local interactions

Complex systems operate in far-from-equilibrium conditions with latent potential for transformation. Change does not need to be imposed from external environments or top-down hierarchical power, as is traditionally understood.

Instead, change happens due to interaction between ‘agents’ in the system (often individuals in complex social systems) and the nonlinear feedback process characteristic of far-from-equilibrium conditions. Autonomous agents change in response to interaction, based only on the local information available to them.

Greater coordination, coherence and creativity emerge at the global level as a result. This process is also referred to as ‘self-organization’, the process of systems change in complex, nonlinear systems.

Hence, our approach to leading systemic change must change. Rather than introducing policies, rules or technologies to improve a system, we focus on creating the “enabling conditions for emergence”. Characteristics of such conditions include: interaction, interdependency, coherent social networks, shared vision, diversity of ideas and expertise, individual agency, and creative constraints.

Three types of transformative containers

I have developed three types of transformative containers to produce the enabling conditions for applying these complexity principles to convergence.

1. Container for whole person immersion

Purpose: To create experiences of interdependence that go beyond the mind.

One of the most effective paths to develop ecosystem awareness is for team members to experience the team as an organic whole. In the process of forming an organic whole that did not exist before, the boundaries between individuals are penetrated and gradually disappear. In order to achieve that, the boundary between the mind and body needs to disappear first. An experience, different from knowledge, involves the whole body.
The key is to recognize how boundaries between individuals stand in the way of true breakthrough innovation, and to hold the space to penetrate the boundary.

2. Container for small, intensive transdisciplinary research teams

Purpose: To hold intentional space for structures and processes for cross-disciplinary activities.

Such a container allows researchers from different disciplines to explore the unknown, feel psychologically safe to fail, and interact with the frequency and an intensity that will lead to the emergence of innovative outcomes. Despite their best intentions, large project teams with diverse stakeholders often fall back into their silos. Small, close-knit transdisciplinary teams form “cliques” where new ideas can be tried, and breakthrough innovations are likely to happen.

3. Container for affective relationships

Purpose: To provide opportunities for team members to experience each other beyond their research expertise.

The power of convergence research comes from leveraging diverse perspectives. However, integrating diverse perspectives will inevitably generate friction, which will, in turn, lead to interpersonal discomfort. Task-related conflicts build up pressure, and breakthrough innovation may happen due to that pressure. But too much pressure could break the team. We need lubricants to ease the stress from frictions and keep the group together and these can come from social relationships.

The interactive, nonlinear feedback process in complex social systems dictates that the search for greater productivity should not stop at only task-related relationships. The principle of multidimensionality maintains that different types of relationships could become complementary and create a synergy that leads to better outcomes. Results from network analysis research demonstrate that both task-related networks (such as information sharing and advice seeking), and affective networks (such as friendship, social, and trust) exert significant influence on outcomes (such as performance, innovation, change).


These three containers work to nurture and enable the space that feeds and fuels emergence for adaptive responses in a system. Such enabling conditions:

  • initiate and amplify support for novelty, innovation and change
  • use complexity thinking to catalyze and energize networked interactions
  • facilitate emergence and adaptability in an organization.

What has your experience been with convergence research? Have you found complexity thinking helpful? Are there other principles that you would apply? What about the transformative containers? Do these align with your experience?

This blog post is adapted from a longer version “Complexity Science and Convergence Research: A Match Made in Heaven?”. (Online – open access):


Funding for this research was provided by the U. S. National Science Foundation Award ID: 1934824, GCR: Collaborative Research: Convergence Around the Circular Economy.

Biography: Gemma Jiang PhD is the founding director of the Organizational Innovation Lab in the Swanson School of Engineering and the founding host of the Pitt u.lab hub, both at the University of Pittsburgh in the USA. She applies complexity leadership theory, social network analysis, and a suite of facilitation methods to enable transdisciplinary teams to converge upon solutions for challenges of societal importance.

27 thoughts on “Three complexity principles for convergence research”

  1. Gemma, thank you for your interesting article.

    Such articles stimulate thinking better than the problems we want to solve. This is important!

    I recently attended a conference of practitioners on Covid-19. Many doctors have reported their empirical results of treating this disease. The reports generated considerable discussion. However, I noticed that the appeals of some doctors went unnoticed. These doctors said that with Covid-19, it is dangerous to use general schemes in the treatment of specific patients. Therefore, these doctors spoke about the need to strengthen the empirical experience with the results of basic research. Is fundamental research required to combine knowledge, methods, and expertise from different disciplines to form a new framework that catalyzes scientific discovery and innovation? Is it possible to strengthen the concept of complex thinking with the results of basic research? Let me reflect a little on these questions.

    Any concept and methodology is based on the structure of axioms. Fundamental research and interpretation of their results takes place in the logical space of these axioms. Gemma probably uses the following axiom structure: the world is complex: the complex world needs to be known by complex science; complex science needs complex thinking; complex thinking forms complex convergence. This is logical. This is a logical structure of axioms. In this structure, all of Gemma’s statements and actions are true. However, the famous physicist Bohr told us that if we want to avoid delusions, we must apply the principle of complementarity to our own fundamental research. The application of this principle can either confirm or refute the augmented concept. What can be the result of the concept of knowledge? The world is simple; the simple world needs to be known by simple (unified) science; simple science needs simple (systemic) transdisciplinary thinking; simple (systemic) transdisciplinary thinking forms simple (systemic) convergence. I am sure that engineers and mechanics will confirm that a complex mechanism breaks down much more often than a simple mechanism. Therefore, if the known world was complex, then in 15 billion years it would have already broken down! However, simplicity is necessarily achieved through complexity. A well-known academic had only one book on his shelf in his office. When journalists asked him about it, he said that this book has everything he needs. But then he led the reporters into an adjoining room, which was filled from floor to ceiling with books. The academician said an important phrase: “In order for me to learn about this, I read all these many books.” In this case, to understand how simple the world and thinking are, you must first logically describe their maximum possible complexity. This difficult, but so necessary work for all the inhabitants of the scientific world is done by Gemma!

    Therefore, it needs to be given constructive support. In my opinion, she uses unfortunate stereotypes to justify her claims. The meaning of these stereotypes was formed at the dawn of philosophical and systemic thinking and worldview. Therefore, they need a modern reinterpretation. Perhaps I missed something and they have already been rethought. Then you will correct me.

    The first stereotype is: “in complex systems, the whole (ecosystem) is greater than the sum of its parts; the well-being of the whole and its parts are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.” Modern scientists continue to ignore the fact that there is still no strict definition of the term “whole”, there are no scientific identification features, there is no logical-geometric model that demonstrates that it is larger than its parts, etc. Therefore, one can only intuitively agree with the well-being of the whole. But, for the further use of this stereotype, a more convincing philosophical and conceptual justification is required.

    The second stereotype is: “At the global level, there is a lot of coordination, coherence and creativity. This process is also called “self-organization,” the process of changing a system in complex nonlinear systems.” In this case, there is a clear discrepancy between the nature of the process and its scientific definition. Self-organization is a natural process of assembling a modern aircraft in a landfill of parts. Self-organization is the process of sudden formation of a cell membrane in an aqueous solution of phospholipid molecules. It turns out that self-organization is called a visible (obvious), but completely unexplained process. Therefore, it is possible that in the study of complexity involving systems thinking, the term “system-forming factor” should be used. Perhaps it is this factor that “at the global level provokes greater coordination, coherence and creativity.” The types and identification features of the system-forming factor are more justified in the science of systems.

    In turn, rethinking the second stereotype will allow us to rethink the structure of the three types of transforming containers. Everything will depend on the content of the applied system-forming factor.

    Gemma can rethink these stereotypes herself, but I think that such work should be carried out in a group of like-minded people. What do you think?

    • Dear Vladimir, your post is deep, philosophical and calls for some contemplation. So I will chew on it for a while. However, I do want to acknowledge your point about complexity and simplicity. It has always been my view that simplicity is the back door to understand complexity, and vice versa. For example, in an organization that is designed based on complex principles, the behaviors are usually quite simple. For another example, “love” can be the most complex and the most simple topic at the same time. The reason I am emphasizing complexity is because for too long the innate interdependence among things have been overlooked, and complex systems have been treated as complicated or simple systems that can be broken to parts and studied separately. The complexity part of things need to be elevated and highlighted, and taken into consideration. Of course, the increased interaction and interdependence among people and things enabled by technology only makes this emphasis more necessary. Then that does not mean simplicity is out of the picture either, as you have so wisely pointed out.

  2. Thank you, Gemma, for such an inspiring article and for sharing your experiences. Exploring how to lead systemic change is so crucial because its characteristics vary from ways of leading that we are so much more familiar with. I think your 3 types of transformative containers to help produce enabling conditions are an excellent idea and certainly resonate with my experience.

    The only thing I might add is that researchers themselves would do well – where appropriate and timely – to include practitioners within their processes of research, to ensure that their converged aspirations remain grounded within the current realities of practice, helping with overall framing and positioning, and so making a move towards ‘the adjacent possible’ spaces a more favourable prospect.

    • Thank you, Catherine, for your kind comment. I completely agree with you on two fronts: 1) leading in complexity is so different from what we are familiar with. As a matter of fact, when my doctoral advisor Dr. Russ Marion coined the term “Complexity Leadership Theory”, he used this subtitle to signify the departure from our familiar conceptualization of leadership “A Shift of Leadership from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Era”. The shift is both theoretical and practical. 2) researchers absolutely need to work together with practitioners. I see central to my professional aspiration is to bridge the “knowing-doing gap”. For too long those who “know” (researchers) are separated from those who “do” (practitioners), resulting in loss in possibilities for major breakthroughs. Things need to change if humanity is to continue.

  3. This article looked interesting to me because I am working on the structure of a global ‘planning and policy-making discourse platform’ that I feel is needed to meet humanity’s global challenges. By its nature, this will have to include cooperation between different disciplines — whose silo jargon often turn out to hamper cooperation. To better understand your ideas and how they would apply to this admittedly preposterously huge project, I would like to see examples of actual application; not being familiar with the language of your discipline.

    Does the size of such a global project make some of your recommendations unrealistically difficult?

    Thorbjørn Mann

    • Thorbjørn, thank you for the question. I have to say these containers are made to be for medium sized teams (about 25 people in my case) over an extended period of time (5 years in my case). How many core partners does your global project involve, and how long are they supposed to work together? I can help you think things through once I have this information.

      • Thanks for your reply. WHat I am working on is this: the needed provisions for a potentially ‘global’ platform for humanity’s response to global challenges — of the kind summarized e.g. in Ban Ki Moon’s 2011 Davos address to the World Economic Forum. Problems that transcend regular geographic or other ‘jurisdictions’ and the traditional decision criteria (that also hamper the UN which is organized on the principle of those geographic entities). So the platform would have to be asynchronic, — online, with entry opportunities from all other channels — and without restrictions on entries (participants). I have several papers on (and on my WordPress blog on this — e.g. “Towards a Model for Survival’ or “P D S S – REVISED” that describe some of the ideas for this platform. Once a viable platform is developed, it could of course also be used for smaller local projects. I don’t know if this is a meaningful basis for your experience and potential comments. Does the difference between public and e.g. specific organization based (financed and thus somewhat controlled as to participants and approach) projects constitute a crucial difference for their design?

  4. What a rich post!
    I particularly like the way you framed the three principles, and find parallels with the strategy method of understanding the past to analyze the present and inform the future. The three containers are a brilliant way to ensure system change, and remind me of a recent book which basically describes a similar process for effective application of inclusion in organisations: – Indivisible, by Alison Maitland and Rebecca Steele.
    Thanks for a concise and useful post, I’m sure I’ll be referring to it again.

    • Dear Don,

      The two comments you have made on this blog post are both cryptic and therefore don’t do much to move thinking on this topic forward. It would be most helpful if you would expand on those comments. We all have a lot to learn from each other.

      We welcome constructive comments that contribute to understanding and improving the topic presented. You are welcome to question or argue with the content in a caring and practical way.

      Best wishes

      • Gabriele: This nonagenarian’s 5th-grade teacher beat him w/a yardstick every day, propelled by not dissimilar Bafflement (:-). He hopes readers of this Essential column will keep excavating til they reach the fundament [i.e., the ontological conundrum of Being]. En route thru impeding strata, admit mentation & volition are phantasms, as demo’d by Libet, Koch et alia. Indeed, Man can reach the stars only by abjuring Reality, but even such defiance can’t save him from ineluctable extinction. Multo graviora tulisti? Vide: Lucretius, Spinoza, Hume, Godel, Sartre. Meanwhile, the problem of Organization should be approached via Shannon’s informatics. Your rebuttal is awaited w/pleasure by respondent & teen dottir, stuck w/burden of publishing 27 volumes of his papers. Kung Fu-tse: “a jackass is famous but posthumously.”

  5. Hi Gemma,
    Thank you so much for your great post – I will be revisiting it and would be very interested in reading more of your work!
    Creating enabling conditions for emergence is also an interest of mine. I can very much relate to your three containers. I would add empathy, curiosity and humility as enablers for emergence. I explore affective relationships for transdisciplinary research in my book Producing Shared Understanding for Digital and Social Innovation.

    “Instead of asking only questions that a single discipline has answers to, a convergence team asks questions of societal importance and works synergistically to find solutions.” This point reminds us that for convergence and transdisciplinary research, multiple perspectives and ecosystem awareness are essential to refocus our natural tendency to ask questions of personal and disciplinary interest, towards societal interests and needs.

    • Thank you for the comment, Faye. I just downloaded a Kindle sample of your book. Cannot wait to delve into it! I am so interested in and committed to developing ecosystem awareness among my team members. It is the invisible force that keeps the whole team together in pursuit of a common goal. One of the best comments I got from my team about my role is “among all the different disciplines on the team, you gave us an unifying presence”. So my insight is that we not only need to develop ecosystem awareness among team members, but also have a person who stand for ecosystem awareness on the team. Usually it is the leader who does this, and it would be great if the leader has a leadership person to strength her. What do you think?

      • Hi Gemma,
        What a great compliment to have received! Yes, I think it is very important that transdisciplinary teams have roles dedicated to developing the unifying presence. In my research I have identified many current and potential roles for intermediary “bridgers” to complement project leaders or co-leaders. One of my favorite quotes from Dominique Barjolle on the roles of innovation brokers captures this: “Individuals whose highly developed understanding and perception provides a bridge (often customised) between knowledge producers and those who could benefit from the innovations enabled by that knowledge”.

  6. Hi Gemma–Very enjoyable and provocative article. I particularly enjoyed the openness to spirit as part of a transformative experience. Consider adding “trust” as one of the ideal conditions to engage in this sort of interaction. I am looking forward to reading the longer paper. Thank you for sharing your work. Jim

    • thank you, Jim. I really appreciate your feedback. Yes, absolutely, trust is essential for this sort of interaction. I kind of hinted on “trust” in the container for affective relationship, but i can definitely strengthen this aspect. Do you know which journals would be interested in theoretical papers like this? I look forward to your recommendations!

  7. Thanks for this interesting post! I’m reminded of the power of working with group values and principles when approaching systems change work. At the start of a systems change initiative there might be a rush to identify and scale evidence-based programs and practices (EBP) in service of improved outcomes, but, as your framing of multi-dimensionality points out, every EBP has been developed, implemented, and proven effective within the current state and might therefore be an unlikely systems change force. Slowing the initial press for change and facilitating exploration of shared values and principles (guidelines for behavior based on values) creates connections between people whose change experiences at the individual level can aggregate up to systems-level restructuring. I appreciate your focus on relationships and affective experiences and believe that generating and reflecting on values and principles can enhance the human realities of systems change.

    • Thank you, Kristen. I completely agree with you. In complexity, we stop talking about “best practices”, and start to think in terms of “reflexive practices”, which includes the contexts the change initiatives are in. The contexts always include shared values, and principles, which sometimes I use the analogy of “strange attractor” to refer to, because they are the core that give rise to complex adaptive behaviors. Human relationships become more important than ever in systems change, because eventually they are what make the change stick. My research methods are network analysis, and I often “track” the change by tracking the evolution of social network relationships among the agents in the system, and often times statistical significance can be found between network conditions and certain outcomes.

  8. Thank you, Gemma! Great post! I am going to incorporate your ideas into my work with teams and look forward to reading more!

  9. Hello Gemma, thank you for a great post. I love your three principles which capture what we are trying to achieve in transdisiplinary research. I work in regenerative agriculture where researchers are trying to “catch up” with the innovations that farmers are already implementing. This creates challenges for the researchers in terms of moving from reductionist approaches to complex adaptive systems thinking, as well as the persistent legacy of top-down approaches where researchers provide solutions to practitioners rather than it being a coproduction process. The biggest challenge here is usually for researchers, bound by disciplinary and institutional expectations and the challenge of introducing novel methodological framings.
    in our work, relationship building and trust is the first step, as well as a lot of patience, taking time to find the shared goals and beliefs which can bridge these seemingly impossible divides.
    i would be really interested to hear how you are implementing these principles.

    • Hi, Liz, thank you for the comment. Everything you said resonates with me. I would say we are only at the beginning of understanding how to apply these principles to enable transdisciplinary research. The application process is definitely highly contextual and entangled. I will have a follow up blog with concrete examples of implementation I am working with my team. Would you be interested in reading it?

      • Hi Gemma, yes indeed, I would be very interested to read your follow up blog, and any papers you have published. My organisation is also a laboratory for these approaches – you may be interested in engaging with our activities? Have been looking for a collaboration partner in this space.


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