The concept of unknown unknowns highlights the importance of introspection in assessing knowledge. It suggests that finding our way in the set of known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-knowns and unknown-unknowns, reduces to asking:
how uncertain are we? and
how aware are we of uncertainty?
When a problem involves a decision-making team, rather than a single individual, we also need to ask:
how do context and perception affect what we know?
What are some of the key frameworks that can be used for transdisciplinary research? What are their particular strengths? How can you choose one that’s most suitable for your transdisciplinary project?
The nine frameworks described here were highlighted in a series for which I was the commissioning editor. The series was published in the scientific journal GAIA: Ecological Perspectives in Science and Society between mid-2017 and end-2019.
Choosing among them is not a matter of right or wrong, but of each being more or less helpful for a particular problem in a particular context.
As we enter a new decade with numerous looming social and environmental issues, what are the challenges and opportunities facing the scientific community to unlock the potential of socio-environmental systems modeling?
What is socio-environmental systems modelling?
Socio-environmental systems modelling:
involves developing and/or applying models to investigate complex problems arising from interactions among human (ie. social, economic) and natural (ie. biophysical, ecological, environmental) systems.
can be used to support multiple goals, such as informing decision making and actionable science, promoting learning, education and communication.
is based on a diverse set of computational modeling approaches, including system dynamics, Bayesian networks, agent-based models, dynamic stochastic equilibrium models, statistical microsimulation models and hybrid approaches.
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.
How can we best live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world? How can we shift from a worldview that looks to predict and control what is to be done through plans and strategies to being present and flexible in order to respond effectively as unexpected changes take place? How can we be open to not knowing what will emerge and embrace uncertainty as the opportunity to co-create and learn?
One powerful and promising way forward is Theory U, a change methodology developed by Otto Scharmer and illustrated below. Scharmer introduced the concept of “presencing”—learning from the emerging future. The concept of “presencing” blends “sensing” (feeling the future possibility) and “presence” (the state of being in the present moment). It acknowledges that we don’t know the answers. Staying at the bottom of the U until the best potential future starts emerging requires embracing uncertainty as fertile soil.
Why do very few people enjoy sitting comfortably with their unknown unknowns? Why is there an uncomfortable liminality ‘betwixt and between’ the known and unknown worlds?
How can we explore unknowns in a more speculative, playful, creative capacity, through our imaginations? How can we use lack of knowledge to learn about ourselves and let it teach us how to be comfortable and curious in the midst of unknowing?
The power and allure of unknown unknowns have long been recognised by creative practitioners as a holy grail for inspiration.
Improved resilience can contribute to the ability to deal with unknown unknowns. Dealing with uncertainty is also at the core of every planning activity. The argument put forward here is that planning processes should be considered a cornerstone for any given resilience approach. An outline of planning and resilience is given, before presenting fundamental aspects of planning that should be strengthened within a resilience strategy.
From attempting to do as much as possible within a day’s work, to launching rockets into space or managing a nation, everything requires planning.
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?
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.
What’s a productive way to think about undesirable outcomes and how to avoid them, especially in an unpredictable future full of unknown unknowns? Here I describe the technique of vulnerability analysis, which essentially has three steps:
Step 1: Identify undesirable outcomes, to be avoided
Step 2: Look for conditions that can lead to such outcomes, ie. vulnerabilities
Step 3: Manage the system to mitigate or adapt to vulnerable conditions.
The power of vulnerability analysis is that, by starting from outcomes, it avoids making assumptions about what led to the vulnerabilities.
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. In other cases, unknown unknowns emerge from unforeseen interactions among known elements of complex systems, such as product components, process activities, or software systems.
Do you use writing as a means of accessing your unconscious knowledge and understanding? The electric experience of things falling into place is a well-recorded outcome of ‘writing to find out what you want to say.’ E. L. Doctorow is credited with saying that writing a novel is “like driving at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (no formal reference identifiable, but see Quotation Celebration). There is a sense of allowing the unfolding journey to deliver you to your destination, and experiencing the energy rush when you arrive. It’s a matter of relinquishing control and being open to the unexpected.