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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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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Negotiations and ‘normative’ or ‘ethical’ power

By Lena Partzsch

lena-partzsch
Lena Partzsch (biography)

What can we learn from international relations about how ‘normative’ or ‘ethical’ power can be used in successful negotiations, for example, for pathways to sustainability? Here I build on Ian Manners’ (2002) concept of “Normative Power Europe”. He argues that the European Union’s specific history “pre‐disposes it to act in a normative way” (Manners 2002: 242) based on norms such as democracy, rule of law, social justice and respect for human rights. I explore the broader ramifications of the normative power concept for empirical studies and for practical negotiation and collaboration more generally.

First, the concept of normative power implies that the spread of particular norms is perceived as a principal policy goal, whether that relates to foreign policy, environmental policy or other kinds of policy.

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Structure matters: Real-world laboratories as a new type of large-scale research infrastructure

By Franziska Stelzer, Uwe Schneidewind, Karoline Augenstein and Matthias Wanner

What are real-world laboratories? How can we best grasp their transformative potential and their relationship to transdisciplinary projects and processes? Real-world laboratories are about more than knowledge integration and temporary interventions. They establish spaces for transformation and reflexive learning and are therefore best thought of as large-scale research infrastructure. How can we best get a handle on the structural dimensions of real-word laboratories?

What are real-world laboratories?

Real-world laboratories are a targeted set-up of a research “infrastructure“ or a “space“ in which scientific actors and actors from civil society cooperate in the joint production of knowledge in order to support a more sustainable development of society.

Although such a laboratory establishes a structure, most discussions about real-world laboratories focus on processes of co-design, co-production and co-evaluation of knowledge, as shown in the figure below. Surprisingly, the structural dimension has received little attention in the growing field of literature.

Overcoming structure as the blind spot

We want to raise awareness of the importance of the structural dimension of real-world laboratories, including physical infrastructure as well as interpretative schemes or social norms, as also shown in the figure below. A real-world laboratory can be understood as a structure for nurturing niche development, or a space for experimentation that interacts (and aims at changing) structural conditions at the regime level.

Apart from this theoretical perspective, we want to add a concrete “infrastructural” perspective, as well as a reflexive note on the role of science and researchers. Giddens’ use of the term ‘structure’ helps to emphasize that scientific activity is always based on rules (eg., rules of proper research and use of methods in different disciplines) and resources (eg., funding, laboratories, libraries).

The two key challenges of real-world laboratories are that:

  1. both scientists and civil society actors are involved in the process of knowledge production; and,
  2. knowledge production takes place in real-world environments instead of scientific laboratories.
Franziska Stelzer (biography)

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Uwe Schneidewind (biography)

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Karoline Augenstein (biography)

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Matthias Wanner (biography)

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Three schools of transformation thinking

By Uwe Schneidewind and Karoline Augenstein

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Uwe Schneidewind (biography)

‘Transformation’ has become a buzzword in debates about sustainable development. But while the term has become very popular, it is often unclear what is meant exactly by ‘transformation’.

The fuzziness of the concept can be seen as a strength, giving it metaphoric power and facilitating inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation. However, this fuzziness means there is also a danger of the transformation debate being co-opted by powerful actors and used strategically to impede societal change towards more sustainable pathways.

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Keys to transformation: Interactions of values, rules and knowledge

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.
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Figure adapted from original in Gordardd et al. (2016)

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.

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Russell Gorddard (biography)

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Matthew Colloff (biography)

russell-wise
Russell Wise (biography)

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Michael Dunlop (biography)

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Three theories to help overcome change resistance in service design implementation

By Ricardo Martins

ricardo-martins
Ricardo Martins (biography)

How can service designers improve implementation of their projects and overcome resistance to change?

According to the Service Design Network, “Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service to improve its quality and the interaction between the service provider and its customers. The purpose of service design methodologies is to design according to the needs of customers or participants, so that the service is user-friendly, competitive and relevant.”

Although service designers have hundreds of methods to map the current state of a service, to elicit requirements from stakeholders and to propose new processes for services, they often spend little effort on implementing the ideas they generate. Many service designers ignore the implementation challenges they will face, especially resistance to change.

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Whose side are we on and for whom do we write?

By Jon Warren and Kayleigh Garthwaite

Jon Warren (biography)

In 1967 Howard Becker posed the question – to academics – “Whose side are we on?.

Becker was discussing the question during the time of civil rights, the Vietnam war and widespread social change in the US. He sparked a debate about objectivity and value neutrality which had long featured as part of the social sciences’ methodological foundations and which has implications beyond the social sciences for all academics.

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Kayleigh Garthwaite (biography)

What relevance do these ideas have now, in an era when academics and their research are becoming increasingly commodified? Academics are increasingly pressured by their own institutions and fellow professionals to gain more funding, publish more papers and make more impact. Questions of social justice and professional integrity are at risk of being swamped by these forces allied to unscrupulous careerism.

We argue that the question now is not only who academics serve but also who we write for.

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Critical Back-Casting

By Gerald Midgley

gerald-midgley
Gerald Midgley (biography)

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.

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Five principles for achieving impact

By Mark Reed

Mark Reed (biography)

What key actions can help research have impact? Interviews with 32 researchers and stakeholders across 13 environmental management research projects lead to the five principles and key issues described below (Reed et al., 2014).

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Ten communication tips for translational scientists

By Sunshine Menezes

sunshine-menezes
Sunshine Menezes (biography)

As someone who works with scientists, journalists, advocates, regulators, and other types of communication practitioners, I see the need for translational scientists who can navigate productive, start-to-finish collaborations between such groups on a daily basis.

This translation involves the use of new, more integrated approaches toward scientific work to confront wicked environmental problems society faces.

In spite of this need, cross-boundary communication poses a major stumbling block for many researchers. Science communication requires engagement with potential beneficiaries, not just a one-way transfer of information.

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The interplay between knowledge and power / La interacción entre el conocimiento y el poder

By Cristina Zurbriggen

cristina-zurbriggen
Cristina Zurbriggen (biography)

An English version of this post is available

La mayoría de los recientes enfoques para abordar problemas complejos no incluyen la dimensión política. Por otra parte, la ciencia política, así como los estudios de política pública y de gobierno contemporáneo han realizado escasas contribuciones al tratamiento de los procesos de toma de decisiones desde dinámicas complejas.

¿Cómo podemos desarrollar marcos innovadores que incorporen la dimensión política?

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