Fifteen characteristics of complex social systems

By Hamilton Carvalho

Author - Hamilton Carvalho
Hamilton Carvalho (biography)

What is it about complex social systems that keeps reproducing old problems, as well as adding new ones? How can public policy move away from what I call the Mencken Syndrome (in reference to a quotation from American journalist Henry Mencken) – that is, continually proposing clear and simple solutions to complex social problems – that are also wrong!

With this goal in mind, I have compiled a list of fifteen major characteristics of complex social systems based on the system dynamics and complexity sciences literatures, as well as my own research.

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How can expertise in research integration and implementation help tackle complex problems?

By Gabriele Bammer

author - gabriele bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What is expertise in research integration and implementation? What is its role in helping tackle complex societal and environmental problems, especially those dimensions that define complexity?

Expertise in research integration and implementation

Addressing complex societal and environmental problems requires specific expertise over and above that contributed by existing disciplines, but there is little formal recognition of what that expertise is or reward for contributing it to a research team’s efforts. In brief, such expertise includes the ability to:

  • identify relevant disciplinary and stakeholder inputs
  • effectively integrate them for a more comprehensive understanding of the problem
  • support more effective actions to ameliorate the problem.

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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?

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Looking in the right places to identify “unknown unknowns” in projects

Author - Tyson R. Browning
Tyson R. Browning (biography)

By Tyson R. Browning

Unknown unknowns pose a tremendous challenge as they are essentially to blame for many of the unwelcome surprises that pop up to derail projects. However, many, perhaps even most, of these so-called unknown unknowns were actually knowable in advance, if project managers had merely looked in the right places.

For example, investigations following major catastrophes (such as space shuttle disasters, train derailments, and terrorist attacks), and project cost and schedule overruns, commonly identify instances where a key bit of knowledge was in fact known by someone working on that project—but failed to be communicated to the project’s top decision makers.

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Four patterns of thought for effective group decisions

By George P. Richardson and David F. Andersen

authors_george-richardson_david-andersen
1. George P. Richardson (biography)
2. David F. Andersen (biography)

What can you do if you are in a group that is trying to deal with problems that are developing over time, where:

  • root causes of the dynamics aren’t clear;
  • different stakeholders have different perceptions;
  • past solutions haven’t worked;
  • solutions must take into account how the system will respond; and,
  • implementing change will require aligning powerful stakeholders around policies that they agree have the highest likelihood of long-term success?

The fields of systems thinking and system dynamics modelling bring four important patterns of thought to such a group decision and negotiation:

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Linking collective impact to the characteristics of open living systems

By Lewis Atkinson

Lewis Atkinson (biography)

How can communities most effectively achieve collective impact, moving from fragmented action and results to collective action and deep, durable systems change? In particular, what can those seeking to understand the characteristics required for collective impact learn from the characteristics of open living systems?

In this blog post I link five characteristics for collective impact, based on Cabaj and Weaver (2016) with 12 characteristics of open living systems drawn from Haines (2018, building on the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy).

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Adaptive social learning for systemic leadership

By Catherine Hobbs

Catherine Hobbs (biography)

What’s involved in developing human capacity to address complexity, taking a mid- to longer-term viewpoint than is usual? How can we create the conditions in which people can cope with the daily challenges of living in a complex world and flourish? What form of leadership is required to inspire and catalyse this transformation?

Framework for adaptive social learning

The need for systems thinking is often referred to, but rarely considered, as a rich and comprehensive resource which could be developed further and applied.

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Achieving transformational change

By Steve Waddell

Steve Waddell (biography)

Realizing the Sustainable Development Goals presents probably the most audacious human organizing challenge ever. Their number, global scale, range of issues, timeline, and number of actors involved is surely unparalleled. They require transformational change. But what is transformational change? How does it differ from other forms of change? What’s required to achieve it?

Colleagues and I have created the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Transformations Forum to address these questions. In this blog post I first explore three types of change: incremental, reform and transformation, summarized in the figure below. 

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Strengthening the ecosystem for effective team science: A case study from University of California, Irvine, USA

By Dan Stokols, Judith S. Olson, Maritza Salazar and Gary M. Olson

authors_dan-stokols_judith-olson_maritza-salazar_gary-olson
1. Dan Stokols (biography)
2. Judith S. Olson (biography)
3. Maritza Salazar (biography)
4. Gary M. Olson (biography)

How can an ecosystem approach help in understanding and improving team science? How can this work in practice?

An Ecosystem Approach

Collaborations among scholars from different fields and their community partners are embedded in a multi-layered ecosystem ranging from micro to macro scales, and from local to more remote regions. Ecosystem levels include:

  • individual members of teams;
  • the teams to which they belong viewed as organizational units;
  • the broader institutional contexts (eg., universities, research institutes) that support multi-team systems; and,
  • their community and societal milieus (eg., science policies and priorities established by national and international agencies and foundations).

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Transforming transdisciplinarity: Interweaving the philosophical with the pragmatic to move beyond either/or thinking

By Katie Ross and Cynthia Mitchell

authors_katie-ross_cynthia-mitchell
1. Katie Ross (biography)
2. Cynthia Mitchell (biography)

Can a dive into the philosophical depths of transdisciplinarity provide an orientation to the fundamental purpose and need for transdisciplinarity?

The earlier philosophers of transdisciplinarity – such as Erich Jantsch (1980), Basarab Nicolescu (2002), and Edgar Morin (2008) – all aim to stretch or transcend the dominant Western paradigm, which arises in part from Aristotle’s rules of good thought. Aristotle’s rules of good thought, or his epistemology, state essentially that to make meaning in the world, we must see in terms of difference; we must make sense in terms of black and white, or dualistic and reductive thinking.

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Twelve ways to kill research translation

By Lewis Atkinson

lewis-atkinson
Lewis Atkinson (biography)

Want to reduce the likelihood that your research will produce policy and practice change? Here are 12 anti-rules to prevent research translation.

Anti-rule #1: ONLY FOCUS ON YOUR PART OF THE PROBLEM. Avoid seeing the problem as a whole to limit the intervention possibilities. Acknowledge the translational “gap” but be ambivalent about who owns it. Contest it with others and perpetuate confusion with a range of definitions for what research translation means.

Anti-rule #2: CLOSE OFF THE FLOW OF INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE. Keep a tight lid on who is involved and what knowledge is seen to be relevant. Do not share your data or allow access to your sources of data. Minimise the rate of data exchange within and among various research and non-research partners.

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Using Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework to set context for transdisciplinary research: A case study

By Maria Helena Guimarães

maria-helena-guimaraes
Maria Helena Guimarães (biography)

How can Elinor Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework help transdisciplinary research? I propose that this framework can provide an understanding of the system in which the transdisciplinary research problem is being co-defined.

Understanding the system is a first step and is necessary for adequate problem framing, engagement of participants, connecting knowledge and structuring the collaboration between researchers and non-academics. It leads to a holistic understanding of the problem or question to be dealt with. It allows the problem framing to start with a fair representation of the issues, values and interests that can influence the research outcomes. It also identifies critical gaps as our case study below illustrates.

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