By Gemma Jiang
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): https://gemmajiang.medium.com/complexity-science-and-convergence-research-a-match-made-in-heaven-2fc780c8ae1c
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.