Complexity, by its very nature, is not a simple concept to communicate, yet it is increasingly becoming one that will define our times and may be the key to ensuring human survival and wellbeing in the years to come. If society is to respond to complex challenges the meaning of complexity needs to be communicated to the world in a manner that is understandable to a wide audience. This is the first in a series of posts that are looking at the concept of complexity and the challenges and opportunities with marketing it to the world.
Across North America this week the temperatures are vastly exceeding normal levels into ranges more akin to places like India or East Africa. The climate is changing and regardless of what the causes are the complexities that this introduces require changes in our thinking and actions or human health and wellbeing will be at risk. To follow Einstein’s famous quote:
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”
Many U.S. States are suffering hurricane-like after-effects from a Derecho that hit last week, knocking out power at a time when temperatures are into the high 90′s and low 100′s. Derechos are rapid moving hot air systems that are difficult to predict and can only be anticipated under certain conditions. The heat wave combined with the lack of air conditioning and supplies left 13 dead, maybe more. The heat wave is continuing and is expected to last throughout the weekend.
But this post is not really about the weather, but the challenges with complexity that it represents and how we need to be better understanding what complexity is and how to work with it if we are to survive and thrive in the years to come.
It’s ironic that this post was delayed by blackout. I live in Toronto, Canada and we have a remarkably stable power supply, yet last night and through this morning I was without power due to suspected overheated circuits attributed to high air conditioning use, shutting down my Internet and everything else with it. In many parts of the world, this kind of blackout is commonplace and a fact of daily living, but not here…yet. This fortuitous bit of timing illustrates the fragility of many of our systems given the reliance on power to fuel much of what we do (e.g., cooking, food storage, Internet, traffic signals, lighting, etc..).
Virtually all of the infrastructure of modern life (here and increasingly globally) is tied to electricity. If you’re interested in imagining what would happen if it all shuts off, I’d highly recommend reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Weisman uses a complexity scientist and futurists’ tool called a thought experiment to craft a book about what New York City would look like if humans suddenly disappeared. The book illustrates how nature might take over, how the underground subways would flood and collapse because of the millions of litres of water needed to be pumped out of it each day, and how certain human-built structures would decay over time (some far faster than we might hope).
Thought experiments take data from things that have happened already, theories, and conjecture and project scenarios into the future based on the amalgam of these. It provides some grounded means of anticipating possible futures to guide present action.
From present delays to future/tense
The Guardian asked a number of scientists working on climate about whether this current spate of extreme weather events is attributable to global warming. The scientists offered a range of answers that (not surprisingly) lacked a definitive statement around cause-and-effect, yet the comments hint at a deep concern. These anomalous conditions are starting to move further towards the end of the normal curve, meaning that they are becoming less statistically plausible to be caused by chance. What this means for the weather, for climate, for our economies is not known; all we have is thought experiments and scenarios. But the future is coming and we may want to be prepared by helping create one we want, not just one we get.
Unfortunately, we cannot wait for the data to confirm that global warming is happening or determine that we are contributing to it and to what degree. This is not just a weather issue; the same situation is playing itself out with issues worldwide ranging from healthcare funding to immigration policies and migration patterns. Interconnected, interdependent and diverse agents and information forms are interacting to create, emergent patterns of activity.
It is for this reason that weather patterns — despite being one of the most monitored and studied phenomenon — can’t be accurately predicted outside of a few hours in advance, if at all. There is too much information coming together between air flows, humidity, land forms, physical structure and human intervention (e.g., airplane contrails) interacting simultaneously in a dynamic manner to create a reliable model of the data. David Orrell’s book Apollo’s Arrow is a terrific read if you want to understand complexity in relation to weather (and more) or see his talk at TEDX on YouTube.
Two’s company, three’s complexity (and other analogies)
The above heading is taken from a title of another book on complexity and tries to simply point to how adding just a little bit of information (another person to a conversation perhaps) can radically alter the experience from being simple or complicated to complex. Just thinking about planning a night out with two people vs. three and you’ll know a little of what this means.
Analogies and metaphors are ways in which complexity scholars commonly seek to convey how the differences in conditions represent varying states of order. Brenda Zimmerman and others write about putting a rocket to the moon as being complicated and raising a child as being complex. One of my favourites is Dave Snowden‘s video on How to Organize a Children’s Party. One of the reasons we resort to analogies is that we need a narrative that fits with their experience. All of us were children and some of us have had them as parents so we can relate to Zimmerman and Snowden’s ideas because we’ve experienced it firsthand.
We haven’t experienced anything like what is anticipated from global warming. In the Americas, parts of Europe and Asia we are enormously fortunate to have entire generations that don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, have no healthcare, be without electricity, or have no access to safe water and proper sanitations. Stories about children’s parties might not bring these scenarios home. It is why Weisman’s book is so clever: it makes a plausible scenario fiction.
Science fact as science fiction
The role of fiction might be the key to opening the marketing vault to complexity. Scott Smith and others have been exploring how the use of science fiction helped pave the way for some of today’s modern technologies and innovations. By weaving together fantasy narratives and imaginations on the future, technologists have managed to re-create these tools for current life. Witness the Tricorder Project that seeks to develop the same multifunction health and information tool used by Dr. McCoy on Star Trek.
We are making headway with complex information as witnessed by the popularity of infographics and data visualizations. But there is much more to be done.
Complex problems require complex solutions. Artists, designers, scientists, marketers, journalists and anyone who can communicate well can play a role. Making complexity something that people not only know about, but want to know about is the task at hand. In doing so, we may find people reaching for and advocating for complex solutions rather than stop-gap, band-aid ones like buying a car with better fuel economy as the main strategy to combat carbon emissions.
It’s been done before. Marshall McLuhan wrote about esoteric, yet remarkably insightful and complex topics and became a household name in part to his appearance in Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall. Our media landscape is far more complex now (no pun intended) to think that a single appearance of any complexity superstar (if one existed) would change public perception of the topic in the same way that McLuhan’s did for his theories on media. Yet, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth might have done more to get people talking about the environment than anything. And while Gore is not known for his witty storytelling, his slide show did a good job.
To begin our journey of marketing complexity we need to come up with our stories so that we can tell ones that are pleasant, rather than the ones that are less so. And if you want one that fits this latter category, I strongly recommend reading Gwynn Dyer’s chilling Climate Wars. Instead, let’s get closer to living what Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler write about in Abundance.
The future is ours to write.
For more books and resources on complexity, check out the library page on Censemaking.
Commercial products relying heavily on branding to entice their purchase and use in a crowded marketplace. Is this something that the health sector should consider and, if so, what might it look like?
I’ve just spent a rare free weekend in Chicago walking around, taking in the sights, and doing what a lot of other people do when they travel to another country or city: shop. It is hard to avoid some shopping when down in the Loop on Saturday or Sunday as that is what much of Chicago’s core is made for. The same can be true of most major centers, if you exclude the office buildings that are often semi-vacant on weekends.
A brief tour of many of the shops, from the discounters (Filene’s Basement, TJ Maxx, and Nordstrom Rack) to the mid-range stores (Macy’s) to the higher end department stores (Nordstrom) and the many boutiques, one is easily amazed by the abundance of goods on sale. But what intrigued me as I stood and watched what was around me was that many of the branded goods available at all of these places (including many of the boutiques) were the same. Big names in fashion were at all of them. And the products themselves were virtually indistinguishable from one another except for 1) price and 2) seasonality.
The first is perhaps the most obvious, but as one who is not as attuned to the seasons in fashion beyond the warm-weather/cold weather distinction as many, it the second part that I find most interesting. What makes last year’s $150 pair of Lacoste sunglasses worth $25 this year is nothing other than its seasonality. In other words, they are last year’s model and no longer as coveted.
It struck me that we do this in the health sciences all the time. If your reference list isn’t up to date, people question the sources and the validity of the findings. While probably appropriate for work in basic and clinical sciences, it seems less true for health promotion. It also seems less appropriate for areas where there is great complexity.
Brands also matter with regards to where something is published. A premium is placed on scholarly work that is published in journals with high impact factors over those that are in lesser-known journals. The underlying assumption here is that the more people cite something and the more we believe a source to be high quality the higher the quality the knowledge. The strength of the brand of sources like JAMA, Science, the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet exceed the rest of the health field.
While this respect for such “brands” sounds reasonable, there are many problems associated with it. Most notable among these is that they publish a certain type of knowledge in a particular format that adheres to particular models of discovery and rewards particular ways of expressing information. This has advantages, but it also creates path dependencies that shape knowledge itself and restrict the sharing of other forms of knowledge. In doing so, there is some assumption that the “best” knowledge (i.e., that which fits with the brand) looks a certain way and fits a certain way.
An alternative is to create different brands, just as we see in the marketplace for clothing and other retail goods. Apple, once a brand favored by a small, but fervent group of supporters in the early 80′s, is now the world’s most valued brand. It was the small, scruffy underdog and now is the leader. The same might be said for other forms of knowledge. If we were to package health promotion into a form that had the same appeal as other sources, could we create a demand and cache for it in a manner that drew people to it? And would this be a good thing?
I’m not sure. But I do believe it is possible. A colleague of mine once did a study looking at factors that predicted uptake and citation of research knowledge in a particular domain by looking at study qualities across a number of dimensions including design, home institution, discipline and others. After all was considered only one factor predicted uptake: the study used an acronym. Yep, if you branded your study it was more likely to achieve uptake than if you didn’t. To my knowledge this data was never published, presumably because it was so embarrassing to us scientists as it provided evidence that evidence isn’t just what drives our work. Whether it holds over time is worth considering, but it does suggest that brands might matter.
Marketers and companies work hard to distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace. In a world where there are literally tens of thousands of venues for publishing our findings that are chosen every week, the market is filled. And do we want to rely only on the big brands to fill our knowledge? If so, we run into the same scenario as I did shopping by seeing the same brand everywhere and, because of that, seeing its value discounted because there is so much of it and it expires quickly.
The comparison is not perfect, but neither is it outrageous. Could branding knowledge and knowledge translation be coming to an inbox, book, or library near you?
Spend some time engaging with the service industry reveals a stark gap between what they do to deliver a product that satisfies and what research does and maybe there are lessons to learned for those of us in the scientific world.
Spending time sampling wine and exotic locally produced, handcrafted foods, beyond being enjoyable, also raises awareness of the craftsmanship that goes into a good drink or meal. From the way a food is grown or raised, prepared, delivered and consumed, it is hard not to appreciate the amount of effort that goes into making that meal a good one. Add in the restaurant, its ambiance, design, and the people there to serve the food to you and soon you are prepared to say “thanks” before every meal whether you are religious or not.
Sitting at a table looking at all that was around me, I couldn’t help but notice the finer details of my experience and wonder about why we have no equivalent in research. Whether it was the texture of the linen table cloth, the arrangement of flowers on the table across from me, the blown-glass lantern and flickering light it produced on my table, to the smell of the food, its temperature, its presentation and, of course, the taste. What about the cadence of the service? How about the way that the server introduced the menu and commented on the options for pairing a wine with each course? Restauranteurs create experiences and products and work to make sure that they are matched to what I want and how I want it now.
In research, we spend at least as much time thinking about how to produce a product that is worthwhile as farmers, ranchers, and vintners do, yet once created we do comparatively little to further develop a worthwhile experience for our end user — if we think about them at all. When was the last time a researcher — or knowledge producer (it could be a clinican sharing their knowledge — helped you to gain a deep appreciation of what they had to offer by working with where you were and what you kind of experience you were looking for?
I can say confidently that this has never happened to me. And why shouldn’t it have? Or better yet: why haven’t I done it for my audiences?
Anticipating some answers that others might give, I offer a back and forth / Q & A:
1. Position: That is not a researcher’s job. We are trained to do research, not sell ideas.
Response: Times change. I can’t think of another role, job or position that doesn’t have to adapt to changing times and where there is no accountability for the outcomes of that job to someone else. I am not suggesting that a researcher, particularly those doing more basic/foundational research, will, can or should know the myriad possible applications of that research, but the idea that they ought not have thought of some possible, eventual application is problematic. I have heard time and again that such applied thinking undermines discovery, but there is no evidence that this is the case, nor does it seem reasonable when those who pay the bills are the public. Even a discovery that makes it easier to make further discoveries is an application of translational thinking and it is time to change.
2. Position: Others don’t understand my research; it’s too complicated to explain.
Response: Any service organization that is unable to explain its purpose goes out of business. There are a lot of ideas that seemed complicated at first, but became easier to grasp once those offering such services reached out. Investing and mutual funds are two examples of complicated business models that have gained widespread purchase. Nearly every concept can be broken into pieces that can be understood by someone else. For a great example, look at the Academic Minute program on WAMC Radio where academics take one minute to share their research with the world. It can be done.
3. Position: The time I spend selling my ideas takes away from generating knowledge. I will be far less effective if I have to do one more thing.
Response: This might be true, but that is only if a researcher does all her or his own knowledge translation and communication. The service industry uses many models. Great chefs aren’t always out on the street wearing a sandwich board trying to convince you to eat at their restaurant, or romancing a dish at your table, there are specific roles that do that. But a great chef is always prepared to play that role if needed and at many great restaurants, the manager or chef surveys what is going on in the front and back of the house to make sure things are going well. In research, we don’t do this much at all. We produce knowledge and maybe share it with other producers, spending little time with other audiences and even less wondering whether we produced the right kind of research for the. There are some models that are promising, like the knowledge broker , who can play the role of the sommelier for research , but like restaurants that have a role like this for wine, they only work when the system is in place to use those talents well. The analogy here is that there needs to be the right stock of research, the right options for using it, and a mechanism to connect the knowledge broker to the audience.
4. Position: Selling research cheapens it and makes it like a commodity and it is so much more than that.
Response: If you don’t think that there isn’t some commodification of knowledge, then maybe you need to consider what is happening to academia and the trends in research, education and publishing. Louis Menand‘s great historical review of the North American university views the battle for ideas as a marketplace shows that this isn’t even a new phenomenon, rather its just looking different than it did before. He has gone further to discuss the problem with PhD’s, echoing recent work published in the Economist on the disposable academic, pointing to the commodification and professionalization of academia. Researchers may like to imagine that their ideas and work are pure, but the reason we get funding is that someone is interested in what we do for reasons that go beyond reason and science and into passion and some acknowledgement that something will be better because we ask the question. Yes, knowledge is greater than just its application, but we must acknowledge than we compete for attention and that when people pay attention to what we do, we have greater impact than if they don’t.
5. Position: There is no support for this kind of selling of research.
Response: Have you looked at the Internet? Walked into a bookstore? Perhaps turned on the TV? There is research being used all the time. Do the major grant councils pay for this? Not always. But times change (see point #1). The idea that knowledge translation should be funded by grantors is new in itself and will evolve. We need to evolve with it and, if it is not supported, do it anyway. Tweet, blog, share. There is too much information available out there to not be active in its promotion or use, otherwise our intended audiences will choose to use something else.
Restauranteurs know this. They know that no matter how good they are, there are hungry (literally!) customers and competitors who will walk down the street to another place. A Michelin star or Zagat rating this year doesn’t mean that you’ll be successful next year.
Take a moment and envision what research could look like if we handcrafted it to meet the needs of our audience, still taking the time to create art like great chefs, warm our day like a host, and treat us like royalty like a great server. What might that look like and why should we not take some queues from the diners we visit and the restaurants we visit as models for a tasty future for knowledge generation and translation.