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.
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.
We have all been there: something bad happens and somebody (maybe an innocent somebody) has their career ruined in order to prove that the problem has been fixed. When is blame appropriate? When is the blame game not only the wrong response, but damaging for long-term decision making?
In a complex and adapting world, errors and failure are not avoidable. The challenges decision-makers and organizations face are sometimes predictable but sometimes brand new. Adapting to surprises requires more flexibility, fewer unbreakable rules, more improvisation and deductive tinkering, and a lot more information about what’s going right and going wrong. But getting there is not easy because this challenges some very closely held assumptions about how the world works and our desire to control things.
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.
How can decision making on complex systems come to grips with irreducible, or deep, uncertainty? Such uncertainty has three sources:
Intrinsic limits to predictability in complex systems.
A variety of stakeholders with different perspectives on what the system is and what problem needs to be solved.
Complex systems are generally subject to dynamic change, and can never be completely understood.
Deep uncertainty means that the various parties to a decision do not know or cannot agree on how the system works, how likely various possible future states of the world are, and how important the various outcomes of interest are.
How can scientists whose careers were formed in an incentive system that cultivates competitive and territorial behaviors be helped to meet the expectations of collaborative research frameworks? A team-based approach that transcends disciplinary boundaries may be a tall order for scientists who “grew up” in a system where funding and promotion are based upon a proven record of individual contributions to a field of research. But that is the direction in which much of science is heading.
How can new or under-utilized healthcare practices be expanded and institutionalized to achieve audacious and diverse global health outcomes, ranging from eliminating polio to reversing the rise in non-communicable diseases? How can complex adaptive systems with diverse components and actors interacting in multiple ways with each other and the external environment best be dealt with? What makes for an effective scale-up effort?
Four in-depth case studies of scale-up efforts were used to explore if there were different pathways to positively change a complex adaptive system.
By Russell Gorddard, Matthew Colloff, Russell Wise and Michael Dunlop
Adapting to climate change can require profound alterations in environmental management and policy. However the social context of a decision process limits options and resists change, often dooming attempts to adapt to climate change even before they begin. How can decision makers in policy and management more effectively see the institutional and social water they swim in, in order to better drive change?
Values, rules and knowledge (vrk) provide a useful heuristic to help decision makers analyze how the social system shapes their decision context. Put simply, decisions require:
knowledge of options and their implications
values to assess the options
rules that enable implementation.
Viewing the decision context as an interconnected system of values, rules and knowledge can reveal limits to adaptation and suggest strategies for addressing them (Gorddard et al. 2016).
Values are the set of ethical precepts that determine the way people select actions and evaluate events.
Rules are both rules-in-use (norms, practices, habits, heuristics) and rules-in-form (regulations, laws, directives).
Knowledge is both evidence-based (scientific and technical) knowledge and experiential knowledge.
Decision context is the subset of interacting subsystems that are at play in a particular decision process. One core idea is that the decision context may exclude relevant values, knowledge or rules from being considered in decisions. Adaptation may therefore involve change in the decision context.
How can we design new services or strategies when the participation of marginalized stakeholders is vital to ethicality? How can we liberate people’s creativity so we can move from incremental improvements to more fundamental change?
To answer these questions, I have brought together insights from Russ Ackoff and Werner Ulrich to develop a new method that I call Critical Back-Casting.
Russ Ackoff, writing in the 1980s, is critical of organizations that focus on incremental improvements without ever asking whether they are doing the right thing in the first place. Thus, they are at risk of continually ‘improving’ the wrong thing, when they would be better off going for a more radical redesign. Ackoff makes two far-reaching prescriptions to tackle this problem.
How do we improve? In the context of sustainable development, we continually confront the question of how we can develop meaningful and positive actions towards a ‘better’ world (social, ecological, economic outcomes) despite inherent uncertainties about what the future holds.
Co-creation is one concept among several that seek to reorientate us from simplistic, largely linear ideas of progress towards more nuanced, subtle ideas that highlight that there are many different aspects of ‘progress’, and these can be deeply contested and challenging to reconcile. Enabling co-creation, then – or operationalizing it – means finding practical ways to work together, to deal with our different experiences, aspirations and expectations as well as the uncertainties of the future.
Co-creation sits within a learning paradigm that suggests engagement, social and mutual learning, adaptation and flexibility are key to enabling action in the face of uncertainty. But how do we think about learning?
Como conseguir que um grupo multidisciplinar integrado por economistas, climatologistas, geógrafos, antropólogos, biólogos, sociólogos, jornalistas, engenheiros químicos, engenheiros ambientais e advogados trabalhe de maneira mais interdisciplinar?
Esse foi o desafio encarado por um projeto de pesquisa sobre as percepções de agricultores familiares de quatro biomas brasileiros (a Amazônia, o Cerrado, o Pantanal e o Semiárido) sobre os impactos que as mudanças climáticas estão tendo nos seus modos de vida. Esse pequenos produtores, com baixa disponibilidade de capital, estão expostos a riscos naturais e socioeconômicos, e são extremadamente vulneráveis aos eventos climáticos extremos.
Um fator chave foi a demarcação do marco teórico do projeto, que incluiu a hipótese de que o sucesso das politicas de adaptação aumenta consideravelmente quando essas políticas se baseiam em um conhecimento de primeira mão das realidades cotidianas e das percepções das populações envolvidas.
O desenho da pesquisa foi guiado por três elementos básicos:
What kinds of change can implementation of research findings contribute to? Sometimes the aim is to make change happen, while at other times research implementation is in response to particular proposed or ongoing change.
Making change happen
Two ways of making change happen that are important for research impact are: 1) contributing to the on-going quest for improvement and 2) combatting practices or behaviours that have negative outcomes for individuals or society.