Detecting non-linear change ‘inside-the-system’ and ‘out-of-the-blue’

Susan van ‘t Klooster and Marjolijn Haasnoot

Author - Susan van ‘t Klooster
Susan van ‘t Klooster (biography)

Change can be expected, envisioned and known, and even created, accelerated or stopped. But change does not always follow a linear and predictable path, nor is it always controllable. Novelty and surprise are inescapable features of life. Non-linear change can involve threats or opportunities.

Although it defines the world we live in, who we are, the outlooks we have and what we do, we often do not relate to non-linear change in a meaningful way. What is holding us back from engaging with it? How do we deal with non-linear change? And what are promising ways forward?

Author - marjolijn-haasnoot
Marjolijn Haasnoot (biography)

Why is thinking about and anticipating non-linear change difficult?

Generally speaking, non-linearity is difficult to define and conceptualize, because there are multiple interacting forces at the intersection of many domains, manifesting on different spatial and temporal scales and many different actors and (often conflicting) perspectives are involved. As a result, both the nature of change, its underlying causalities, potential chain reactions, and its potential effects are uncertain and at best partially knowable.

Non-linearity is also difficult to grasp because it is about processes and events that may or may not happen. Such processes and events are complex and uncertain and can lead to different perspectives and disagreement between stakeholders. When non-linearity occurs, it may come as a surprise or shock and may have a disruptive effect. It is no understatement to say that we are inexperienced with respect to non-linearity.

Instead, we are much more experienced in reasoning from some evolutionary development. As a result of this general tendency to focus on logical consequences of causal patterns in the past and the present, being confronted with non-linear change may generate insecurity, confusion and a general feeling of discomfort. These feelings can result in ignorance and paralysis of decision making. Thus, refraining from thinking about it makes us vulnerable.

We describe two different, but potentially synergetic, approaches in which detecting and monitoring seeds of change are key: ‘inside-the-system’ and ‘out-of-the-blue’, illustrated in the figure below. Both approaches share the idea that systems can become unstable beyond a critical value. Induced by fluctuations within a system and by external disturbances, a system can instantaneously change. In his book Earth in the Balance (2000), former US Vice President Al Gore uses the analogy of a pile of sand. Dropping one grain after another on a pile of grain does not budge the ‘grain system’. Instead, it slowly builds a stable cone. However, at some point, a critical value is reached, which causes the cone to collapse. Each approach discussed below has a different search light for finding system thresholds and changes.

vantklooster_detecting-non-linear-change_ inside-the-system-out-of-the-blue
Different search lights: ‘Inside-the-system’ and ‘Out-of-the-blue’ (Copyright: Susan van ‘t Klooster)

Finding seeds of non-linear change – ‘inside-the-system’

This approach searches primarily for system indicators that may be an early warning prelude to change and adaptation tipping points. Coherent and longitudinal monitoring of these indicators can help to:

  • create a deeper insight into the system’s dynamics;
  • signal changes that jeopardize (or provide opportunities) for achieving defined objectives in a timely manner;
  • change plans and strategies to continue to achieve the objectives under changed conditions;
  • implement actions not too early nor too late; and to avoid investing too much or too little (Haasnoot et al., 2018).

By focusing on those seeds of change we know relatively well because they are part of the current system – so-called ‘known unknowns’, – we become more conscious about potential new conditions and situations.

An example is adaptive planning in the context of Dutch delta management, where important change indicators include observed and projected sea-level rise along the coast, global mean sea-level rise, storm surge frequency and frequency of alarms to close storm surge barriers.

Finding seeds of non-linear change – ‘out-of-the-blue’

This approach searches for so-called ‘wild cards’: low-probability/high-impact events that may be a prelude to a major, sudden and disruptive break with the status-quo.

Signals of change are found beyond the dominant frames and outside the system. The focus here is on cross-cutting trends and events that may surprise us by coming ‘out-of-the-blue’. We do not know if they may happen, the rapidity with which they may unfold nor their potential effects.

It is, therefore, explicitly not the objective to predict and control such disruptive threats (or opportunities). Instead, this approach is aimed towards:

  • scaling down our blind spots towards our future;
  • becoming more literate in understanding the nature of potential disruptors;
  • being more prepared once our current systems are challenged;
  • avoiding a panic reaction and creating an information and strategic advantage.

These changes are considered ‘unknown unknowns’, but it is possible to imagine what some of these changes could be, such as energy becoming available in a limitless supply, the collapse of a major currency, average global life expectancy increasing to 120 years or a new pest that wipes out grain crops.

Strengths and weaknesses

Both approaches have their own strengths and weaknesses. A risk of the ‘inside-the-system’ approach is that signals that are outside ‘the system’ and that do not fit into a dominant mental frame, remain unnoticed. To avoid tunnel vision, it is important to actively search for signals that could change current paradigms (potential game changers) beyond the system.

A weakness related to the ‘out-of-the-blue’ approach is the difficulty of making a solid link with decision-making.

At the same time, both approaches can reinforce one another: The strength of the first lies in its solid systems knowledge and link with decision-making. The second approach has a strong imaginative potential, that can be used to avoid perceptive and interpretive biases.

Four questions we should ask ourselves to detect change

How can we better integrate both perspectives and create synergies between them? Synergy starts by asking the following four questions:

  • Descriptive: What emergent trends (‘inside-the-system’) and potentially disruptive events (‘out-of-the-blue’) do we see or can we imagine? This involves using both systems knowledge and imaginative power.
  • Estimative: How (un)certain are we? This involves embracing, explicating and using multivocality, instead of assuming consensus.
  • Generative: What is the relative impact? This involves focusing on both direct and indirect effects.
  • Responsive: What can we do in response? This involves linking analysis to action, eg., adapting a plan or strategy, preparatory action, installing/altering a monitoring system, communication about outcomes for awareness raising, and further research.

Monitoring both in and outside the system helps to detect and anticipate change and to prepare in a timely fashion if needed.

Final remarks

Do you have suggestions for other ways to deal with non-linearity? Do you have useful examples where ‘inside-the-system’ and ‘out-of the-blue’ approaches have been successfully used to deal with non-linearities?

References:
Gore, A. (2000). Earth in the balance. Ecology and the human spirit. Earthscan: New York, United States of America.

Haasnoot, M. van ’t Klooster, S. and van Alphen, J. (2018). Designing a monitoring system to detect signals to adapt to uncertain climate change. Global Environmental Change, 52: 273-285. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2018.08.003

Biography: Susan van ‘t Klooster PhD researches and advises strategic policy and decision-making processes as a freelance consultant in the Netherlands. She specializes in foresight methodology, practice and processes. Her research interests include evaluative foresight, evaluative risk assessment and anticipatory monitoring. Her research covers a wide range of areas, including adaptive water management, spatial planning, environmental policy, population health, education, (aviation) security, social security and employment and migration management.

Biography: Marjolijn Haasnoot PhD is a senior researcher/advisor at Deltares (an independent institute for applied research in the field of water and subsurface) and Associate Professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. She specializes in water management, climate adaptation, integrated assessment modeling and decision-making under deep uncertainty. Over the past 20 years she worked on international and national research and consultancy projects assessing impacts of climate change, sea level rise, socio-economic developments and alternative management options to develop robust and adaptive plans. She developed the Dynamic Adaptive Policy Pathways (DAPP) method to support decision making under uncertain change. She was one of the founders of the Society for Decision Making under Deep Uncertainty.

This blog post is part of a series on unknown unknowns as part of a collaboration between the Australian National University and Defence Science and Technology.

For the eight other blog posts already published in this series, see: https://i2insights.org/tag/partner-defence-science-and-technology/

Scheduled blog posts in the series:
January 28, 2020: How can resilience benefit from planning? by Pedro Ferreira
February 11, 2020: Why do we protect ourselves from unknown unknowns? by Bem Le Hunte
February 25, 2020: Theory U: a promising journey to embracing unknown unknowns by Vanesa Weyrauch

 

Stakeholder engagement in research: The research-modified IAP2 spectrum

By Gabriele Bammer

author - gabriele bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What options are available to researchers for engaging stakeholders in a research project? What responsibilities do researchers have to stakeholders over the course of that project?

Despite increasing inclusion of stakeholders in research, there seems to be little guidance on how to do this effectively. Here I have adapted a framework developed by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2 2018) for examining how the public are engaged in government decision making. The research-modified IAP2 spectrum, written from a researcher perspective, is shown in the figure below. The original IAP2 framework, for comparison, is shown in the figure at the end of this blog post.

Stakeholders are:

  • those affected by the problem under investigation (for example, community members or those in specific occupational groups), and
  • those in a position to do something about the problem (for example policy makers or service providers).

A major strength of the IAP2 framework is that it recognizes five types of engagement and these also work well in a research context:

  • Inform
    Researchers provide stakeholders with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the research.
  • Consult
    Researchers obtain stakeholder feedback on the research.
  • Involve
    Researchers work directly with stakeholders to ensure that stakeholder concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered in the research.
  • Collaborate
    Researchers partner with stakeholders for salient aspects of the research.
  • Empower
    Researchers assist stakeholders in conducting their own research.

Those developing the IAP2 framework suggested that no one type of engagement is privileged above the others. Instead they recognised that “differing levels of participation are legitimate and depend on the goals, time frames, resources, and levels of concern.” This also applies equally well in a research context.

A second major strength of the IAP2 framework, that also translates seamlessly into a research context, is that the engagement is seen as two-way, with an appropriate “promise” made to the stakeholder group for each type of participation. In the research context the promises are:

  • Inform promise
    We will keep you informed.
  • Consult promise
    We will keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge your concerns and aspirations and provide feedback on how your input influenced the research.
  • Involve promise
    We will work with you to ensure your concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the research and we will provide feedback on how your input influenced the research.
  • Collaborate promise
    We will look to you for advice and innovation in designing and conducting the research and incorporate your advice and recommendations to the maximum extent possible.
  • Empower promise
    We will provide advice and assistance as requested in line with your decisions for designing and conducting your research, as well as for implementing the findings.

In moving from ‘inform’ to ‘empower’ stakeholders have increasing influence on the research. The spectrum works for different kinds of stakeholder involvement in different projects, as well as for developing a relationship with the same group of stakeholders over time.

bammer_describing-stakeholder-participation-updated-research-spectrum
The research-modified International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) spectrum. Source: Gabriele Bammer

One notable modification was made for the research-modified IAP2 spectrum. The word ‘each’ in the original stakeholder participation goal for ‘collaboration’, was replaced with ‘salient’ as in “Researchers partner with stakeholders for salient aspects of the research.” While full collaboration may be possible on a straight-forward research question (with, for example, few stakeholder groups and one simple form of data collection), it is often not feasible for research on more complex problems, where there are multiple stakeholder groups and forms of data collection. In such cases stakeholders are unlikely to have the time (or even inclination) to be involved in all aspects of the research.

The research-modified IAP2 spectrum has two additional benefits:

  • It promotes deep thinking about the engagement
  • It provides a rationale for involving stakeholders in different ways in any project.

Encouraging deep thinking about which kind of engagement is most appropriate in any research project is important. Even if “collaboration” is the aim, the framework provides a rationale for thinking about whether collaboration is actually realistic (for example, when resources are very limited) and whether some other kind of engagement is more suitable in the circumstances. This can also help in more accurately describing the engagement that occurs; for example a process may claim to be empowerment, but is actually consultation.

In addition, in any one research project which includes multiple stakeholder groups, the spectrum provides a opening for considering whether different groups (separately or together) could be involved in different ways. Further, over the course of the study or in different aspects of the study, the same stakeholder group can also be involved in different ways. For example one stakeholder group may be consulted, while another group is informed. Further, the same stakeholder group may be involved in one aspect of the research and a collaborator on another.

bammer_describing-stakeholder-participation_december-2019-updated-IAP2-spectrum
The original International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) spectrum. Source: International Association for Public Participation (2018).

Does the research-modified IAP2 spectrum look relevant to your research? Would you suggest further additions or changes? Are there other advantages that you can identify? What about disadvantages?

To find out more:
Bammer, G. (2019). Key issues in co-creation with stakeholders when research problems are complex. Evidence and Policy, 15, 3: 423-435. (Online) (DOI – Open Access): https://doi.org/10.1332/174426419X15532579188099

Reference:
International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). (2018). IAP2’s public participation spectrum. (Online): https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.iap2.org/resource/resmgr/pillars/Spectrum_8.5x11_Print.pdf  (PDF 160KB). The quotation is taken from: https://www.iap2.org.au/About-Us/About-IAP2-Australasia-/Spectrum

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. 

Gabriele Bammer is a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange, which is in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.

Research integration and implementation: Building resources and community

By Gabriele Bammer

author - gabriele bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

This is the fourth annual “state of the blog” review.

For the past four years the blog has worked well, achieving significant growth. In 2020 we’re planning improvements, mainly to make specific resources easier to find and access. In 2019 there were a number of firsts, including surpassing 250 blog posts and 300 authors. Check out the nine blog posts published in 2019 that achieved more than 750 views. And if you are looking for something thought-provoking to read over, what for many, will be a holiday break, see below for a selection of gems. Continue reading

Good practice in community-based participatory processes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research

By Jan Chapman, Alyson Wright, Nadine Hunt and Bobby Maher

author - jan chapman
Jan Chapman (biography)

How can participatory process in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities be made adaptable and flexible? How can theoretical frameworks take into account the cultural and geographical complexities of communities and their contexts?

Here we provide five key principles that we have found useful in engaging communities in the Mayi Kuwayu Study (https://mkstudy.com.au/). These include: community decision-making; involvement in study governance; community capacity development; effective communications; and, long-term and multi-engagement processes. Continue reading

Yin-yang thinking – A solution to dealing with unknown unknowns?

By Christiane Prange and Alicia Hennig

author - christiane prange
Christiane Prange (biography)

Sometimes, we wonder why decisions in Asia are being made at gargantuan speed. How do Asians deal with uncertainty arising from unknown unknowns? Can yin-yang thinking that is typical for several Asian cultures provide a useful answer?

Let’s look at differences between Asian and Western thinking first. Western people tend to prefer strategic planning with linear extrapolation of things past. The underlying mantra is risk management to buffer the organization and to protect it from harmful consequences for the business. But juxtaposing risk and uncertainty is critical. Under conditions of uncertainty, linearity is at stake and risk management limited. Continue reading

Theoretical framework for open team science / オープンチームサイエンスという考え方

By Yasuhisa Kondo

A Japanese version of this post is available

author yasuhisa kondo
Yasuhisa Kondo (biography)

What is open team science? What challenges does it deal with and how?

What is open team science?

In our experience, projects are commonly disrupted by socio-psychological boundaries, particularly at the initial phase of team building. Such boundaries are often generated by asymmetric information, knowledge, wisdom (wise use of knowledge; Bellingen et al., 2004), values, socio-economic status, and power among actors.

We have developed a theoretical framework that considers open science as an open scientific knowledge production system, which can be interlinked with transdisciplinarity as a driver of boundary spanning to develop a new research paradigm. We call this open team science. Continue reading