Category: knowledge translation

complexityinnovationknowledge translationpsychology

Jonah Lehrer and the Crisis of Knowledge Synthesis

Jonah Lehrer - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME
Jonah Lehrer is/was as big as it gets in science writing and two weeks ago proved the adage that the higher one climbs the farther the fall after admitting to some false content in his stories. This is bad news for him, but may be much worse for all of us interested in making science and innovation knowledge accessible for reasons that have as much to do with the audience as it does the message and messenger. 

Jonah Lehrer was one of our most prolific and widely read science writers until he admitted fudging some quotes about Bob Dylan in his new book, Imagine, which looks at the process of discovery, creativity and innovation. The discovery by fellow journalist (and fervent Bob Dylan fan) Michael Moynihan set off a wave of reflections and investigations of Lehrer’s work revealing passages in the book (and other pieces) that had been reused from his other writings without proper self-attribution and sparking questions about the integrity of the author’s entire body of work. The “fall of Jonah Lehrer” was big news at a time when the London Olympics were dominating most of the media’s attention.

This case is a testament to the wide appeal that Lehrer’s work had beyond the usual ‘science geeks’ while illustrating the power of the internet to enable the kind of curation and investigation to support on and offline fact checking. But what it spoke to most for me is the role

The Writer and his Craft

Much digital type has been spent on the Lehrer incident. Search Google and you’ll find dozens of commentaries looking at how things transpired and how Lehrer ironically succumbed to the cognitive biases he wrote about.

Roxane Gay, writing in Salon, took a gendered approach to the issue and questioned whether our fascination is less with the science and more about the ‘young male genius’. Lehrer’s youth was something she saw as critical to amplifying the fascination with his work. She writes:

When young people display remarkable intelligence or creativity, we are instantly enamored. We want or need geniuses to show us the power and potential of the human mind and we’re so eager to find new people to bestow this title upon that the term and the concept have become quite diluted.

I agree with her on the point about our desire to over-inflate the accomplishments of youth (as if we are *amazed* that any of them could possibly do anything brilliant, which is as offensive to them and it is to older people), although a careful look at Lehrer’s articles and much of the press around his work suggests that he was much less a focus of the attention than his ideas.

John McQuaid‘s take on the affair in Forbes speaks to a larger issue:

Call it “Gladwellization.” It’s not just lucrative, but powerful: your ideas (or rather, the ideas you’ve turned into compelling anecdotes for a popular audience) can influence everything from editorial choices across the publishing world to corporate management and branding strategies.

But with this comes mounting demands to produce, and to recycle. You have to be prolific, churning out longer pieces that give your insights some ballast, and brilliant, bite-sized items. And yet you can’t be too new either: people want to hear what you’re already famous for. In this cauldron of congratulation and pressure for more and more, it’s not hard to see how standards might erode, how the “ideas” might become more important than doing the necessary due diligence to make sure they sync with reality.

‘Snappy Science’ and Synthesis

Innovation is about ‘new’ and there are good reasons why its a challenge to get the message out that this ‘new’ can be adapted, small, and unsexy and still make a large difference in the long run instead of big, bold and transformative right away. We are in an age of selling “snappy science” and it says more about the media and audiences than the authors and scientists producing the original work.

This snappy, bite-sized science might sell books and make for great TED talks, but it is a misrepresentation of what we actually know and do as scientists. Rarely does a single finding lead to a solution, rather it is an amalgam of discoveries small and large brought together that gets us to closer to answers. Synthesis is the driver of change and synthesis is what journalists do particularly well. Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Johnson and Jonah Lehrer are among the best synthesizers out there and I would imagine (no pun intended) that they contribute to more to public and professional understanding of social innovation than all of the original-sourced scientific knowledge on the subject combined.

When I hear Malcolm Gladwell cited as an original source in serious discussions with colleagues on scientific matters, I realize we have a problem…and an opportunity. Gladwell’s writings popularized the concept of tipping points, but his work is based on a wealth of scientific data on complex systems. They are not his original ideas, but they are his syntheses and (sometimes) his interpretations. This is important work and I am not taking anything from anyone who makes science data digestible and accessible, but it is not the original science.

That Jonah Lehrer is as well known as he is tells me that there is an appetite for science and I’ll freely admit to using his work (and that of the other authors I’ve mentioned) to inform what I do in a general sense. It is good work, however I also acknowledge that I have the scientific training to know how to go beyond the initial articles to critically appraise the information, place it in context, and I have the resources to go to the original sources in academic journals. Most people (professionals and lay people) do not. This access is going to decrease as resources shrink.

It is for this reason that synthetic work is so important. My Twitter feed often is filled with references to such synthetic work, rather than original works of research because I aim to fill role that is somewhere between journalism and the science of design, systems and psychology. I am not a pure science blogger, nor am I speaking to the lay public, but rather other professionals seeking to enrich their knowledge base. That is a role I’ve created for myself, largely because there is a high demand and low supply.

We have a need for synthesis and a demand for it, but little acknowledgement of the value of this role in professional scientific circles. Yet, when we leave journalists to do the work for us, we allow a different system to take charge. John McQuaid ended his article with this caution:

 Book publishers don’t do fact-checks, so there’s no fail-safe, just the conscience of the writer. Reach that point, and all is lost.

Filling the gap, meeting a need and shooting the messenger

Journalists like Johnson, Gladwell and Lehrer fill a gap, which is why I am saddened by the loss of one of them and angry at what has transpired. While there is no doubt that Lehrer made mistakes, they were of a rather minor nature in the grand scheme of things. Synthetic work is designed to provide a big picture overview, not guide microscopic decisions. I would like people to read Lehrer and learn about the creative process and the role of neuroscience in making our lives better, to appreciate systems thinking and decision making because of Malcolm Gladwell, and see innovation, emergence and discovery in new ways because of writers like Steven Johnson.

Yet, when we seek more and more from these authors, we might get less and less. This is what happened to Jonah Lehrer. As more people found themselves drawn to his work, the pressure grew for doing more, faster and getting that ‘snappy science’ out the door. GOOD magazine in the ‘tyranny of the big idea‘ goes further:

The problem is that it’s unreasonable to expect that every new piece of media should upend conventional wisdom or deliver a profound new insight. To think that Jonah Lehrer could expose an amazing new facet of human psychology every week, in 1,000-odd words no less, is ludicrous. There are only so many compelling, counterintuitive, true ideas out there.

But the demand for them doesn’t abate. That’s why you see so many science writers talking about the same handful of studies (the Stanford prison experimentthe rubber hand illusionDunbar’s numberthe marshmallow test) over and over. That’s why you see pop economists who should know better creating flimsy and irresponsible contrarian arguments about climate change for shock value. That’s why you get influential bloggers confessing they’re only 30 percent convinced of their own arguments but “you gotta write something.” That’s why the#slatepitches meme hits home.

Search Censemaking and you’ll find many of these topics not just because they are punchy, but because they are useful.

I hope we haven’t lost Jonah Lehrer as a voice just as I hope more people stop putting writers like him on a pedestal, where they don’t belong (nor do the scientists who produce the research). Synthesis is about bringing ideas together to produce innovative insights that often lead to bigger conversations about how to socially innovate. Synthesis is bigger than science, but dependent on it. It means paying attention to parts and wholes together and is the epitome of systems thinking in knowledge work.

It also means taking responsibility as knowledge producers and consumers and be wary of shooting the messengers while asking more from the messages they deliver.

Unless we are prepared to give people time to search, appraise and synthesize research on their own — and train them to make informed choices — the role of synthesizers – professional, journalistic, or otherwise – will become more important than ever.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons and is used under licence.

knowledge translationscience & technologysocial systemssystems science

Have We Turned the Page on Social Science Research for Health?

Turning the Page on Social Science and Health Research

Over the last two weeks social science researchers across Canada began receiving the decisions from last autumn’s competition for a Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funding award. SSHRC is the principal funder of social science research in Canada, although notably is not in the business of funding heath-related research, which is supposed to be funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). [Full disclosure: I currently hold grants from both of these organizations]. The problem is that CIHR was born from a policy and programming body and the former Medical Research Council and has a rather awkward relationship with social science research given its medical focus. It has funded some social science programs, but not in a manner that has enabled social scientists to comfortably explore the range of issues that they might have under traditional SSHRC funding programs, particularly when social issues are not always obviously health issues (e.g., poverty, education) and can easily be dismissed as not being relevant in spite of the evidence that they are.  Yet, SSHRC has decided to forgo any funding of health-related projects due in part to the absence of funding to support it when there are presumably options through CIHR or the disease-specific health charities like the Canadian Cancer Society, the Lung Association and others.

Yet, these options are not suitable. In a manifesto entitled “The end of medical anthropology in Canada” a group of leading social scientists painted the picture of the situation in grim terms in University Affairs. Although medical anthropology is the focus of the piece, the authors might as well be speaking for social sciences in general:

Health is inherently social and cultural. SSHRC has always understood this; CIHR, we fear, does not. We face the possible extermination of one of the most vibrant, high-demand and policy-relevant health disciplines, the only scholarly field that places culture at the centre of the analysis of health and that characteristically does so in both national and international contexts. In a multicultural, settler society with a substantial aboriginal population, and in a world where health is at the core of developmental, political and social issues in so many countries, where Canada otherwise wishes to have an impact, does this make any sense?

This brings me back to the beginning of this post and the announcement of the results of the last competition. Looking at the funding numbers released by SSHRC, a discouraging picture emerges. In 2011-12, 37 per cent of all applications in the open competition were deemed fundable, yet only 22.5 per cent were funded. These numbers are similar t0 2010-11, when 36  per cent were deemed fundable and 22 per cent were funded. What is not mentioned in these numbers was the level at which these grants were funded in the first place. I am a 2010-11 recipient of funding from SSHRC — meaning my grant proposal was within the top 22 per cent of all applications for that year — and the amount I received was approximately half of what I requested. That means that I had to take half of my budget and throw it away. So yes, I was successful providing I did either half of the research or found money elsewhere. I did the latter and my pocketbook is none the better for it.

Consider the implications of this change in funding. With one in five projects funded and many of those that are funded at levels well below what was requested the motivation for researchers is one of the first casualties. Researchers know that funding is tight and that it is highly competitive, but few alternative sources for research grants that lay outside of specific disease-focused areas, social scientists young and old are faced with little option. This creates another set of affected parties: students and trainees. Research funding not only supports the scientists themselves in many cases (see my previous posts on this), but those seeking to become scientists themselves or those who seek to get better acquainted with research. In health sciences and policy, this means just about everyone enrolled in such programs.

Now consider all of this in light of a trend towards increasing graduate education numbers. At the academic institution I am affiliated with (like many of its peers), the enrolment numbers are set to nearly double across many of the professional programs associated with health practice and policy in the coming years. Increased demand for training opportunities from the public has created a means for universities to cash in. Of course, what these students will do when they get there is unclear (let alone when they graduate), but it cannot be much in the way of research — at least as it pertains to social science and health. The funding is simply not there to support the kind of broad-based inquiry into the social factors that influence health, illness and well-being anymore. We have, as I call it, reached ‘the Turn’.

The Turn is that point where the system changes irrevocably towards a new direction. It is like a ‘tipping point‘.  Dwindling numbers of social scientists working from funding from an institutional budget (e.g., tenure-stream faculty positions) + a doubling of the student cohort * half of the research dollars makes for rather toxic math. The Turn will fundamentally shape the way social science inquiry is done and the kind of questions that get asked. As question foci change, the quality of the research shifts, and the depth of inquiry is reduced, so too will the real impact that social science has on our health.

The gap between what we know, what we do, and what we can do to prevent illness, treat sickness, and promote well-being will grow.

Anecdotally speaking, this trend is not unique to the social sciences, but it is amplified in this domain. Social sciences in Canada and abroad are consistently funded at lower levels than that of basic research (see here for a starting point). But what is interesting is that many of the problems that we face within health require social science knowledge and research to address and social science — from knowledge translation, social network studies, technology adoption, innovation, management, to policy implementation and beyond .

Prevention of disease and chronic illness is often a social phenomenon (e.g., hand washing). Even the act of taking the best of basic science and translating it into practice or policy options (or other scientific research) is a social act that draws on social science research to execute. Social determinants of health are social in nature and require social science to understand their impact. Designing the policy and programmatic interventions that support creating a healthier society also falls to social science research and practice.

What will our health landscape look like without the ability to take what we know and translate it into action? Worse yet, what if we simply are unable to even know what to do because the research and evidence isn’t there in the first place to translate into anything? Without another turn towards something more positive in our research support, we are about to find out.

* Photo Turn the Page by Miaboas used under Creative Commons License from Deviant Art.

knowledge translationresearchsocial mediasystems thinking

Turning Thinking Talk to Action Walk (and a Trip to the Moon)

It’s much easier to talk innovation and creativity and far harder to turn that into something transformative that has social impact. Until we start acting on our conversation and creating the systems that support it, talk will become cheaper and the costs of converting that talk into something useful may grow beyond our means.

As the number and scope of information channels available to me grows, so too does my awareness of the conversations taking place on matters of personal interest. Where I once had to scour through material to find a place where I could learn about topics that interested me, I can now point to dozens of constantly updated spaces and tools where I can learn about social innovation, design, knowledge translation, systems thinking, evaluation and beyond. But this points to a problem as I’ll discuss later.

Two of my favourite tools are both optimized for the iPad and iPhone: Zite and Feeddler Pro. Zite creates a personalized magazine for you that is updated throughout the day drawing from various sources on the web from blogs to mainstream news through to academic articles. It’s a marvellous service and it ‘learns’ as you provide feedback on the selection it gives you, introducing you to new content from new sources all the time. Feeddler is a little less sophisticated as it is a RSS reader, but it provides a steady stream of content from the sites that I already know and trust. Mainstream sites like Fast Company (and its design and innovation derivatives such as Co.Design) and social media leader Mashable combine with some of my favourite blogs from folks like Seth Godin and KT blogs at Mobilize This! and KTExchange.

Indeed, it was a post on Mobilize This! from David Phipps that happened to crystalize something that was percolating in my head about taking action related to what I was reading. The focus was on the thinking about knowledge translation vs. its application.

In that post, Phipps comments:

It must be nice to be able to think about something and never have to do it.

But then that’s the role of researchers in many fields. Researchers think about things and study things without actually doing the things they study. Then there’s the role of practitioners.  We do things without having incentives or rewards (ie the time) to sit back and think about and reflect upon what we do.

Referring to an earlier post on knowledge hypocrites, Phipps adds:

We need more mobilization of knowledge about knowledge mobilization. Researchers need to move beyond thinking about frameworks to working with practitioners who are putting those frameworks into practice. Practitioners likewise need to embed researchers in their practice.

I had found this post sandwiched between a number of other blogs or articles on innovation and creativity with similar calls to action and sometimes some tips or ‘lessons learned’. People (myself included) eat this up. Knowledge translation is a ‘sexy’ term in health sciences right now, particularly as people look to getting more bang for their research dollars. Innovation is seen as a big part of how to do it and what it is that should come from KT.

And creativity is the way to bring them both together. It makes for great reading and starts to give you the impression that you’re actually getting things done.

Get creative! Be innovative! Translate what we know into what we do! It’s just that easy…right?

As complicated as weaving these ideas together can be, they are not rocket science (even if the Apollo 13 rescue provides us of one of the best examples of them coming together, particularly when Hollywood sets it up). Yet, practically bringing action to the talk in health and human services may be a far greater challenge to address than putting humans on the moon. Indeed, it took a bold statement by President Kennedy and massive organizational commitment, research, creativity, innovation, and knowledge translation to go from rockets that could barely reach orbit to having multiple successful missions to our lunar neighbour. (For a remarkable recap of that journey I highly recommend seeing the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon).

Humans didn’t get to the moon because of one person or a small team, but organizational commitment and delivery. NASA didn’t just talk about going to the moon, write about innovation, or read creativity books — they (to draw on David Phipp’s blog) just did it.

Talking and writing about innovation is easy, doing it is hard. As Thomas Edison said:

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work

At the same time, the work needs to be done beyond a few. And the more we see something talked about, the easier it is to assume that others are doing it and that it is common practice. In the space race there was only one small community that could possibly get the job done (in the U.S. at least). If it wasn’t NASA, it wasn’t going to happen. A problem in health and human services is that most of society is implicated in the enterprise in some regard. Research comes from different disciplines (basic science to medicine to social work to education and beyond), it is practiced in health care institutions, daycares, schools, workplaces or individually at home, and it is highly contextual and oftentimes global in scope.

It’s not “Houston, we have a problem”, but the world.

This could be an advantage, but it isn’t for some reason. More knowledge, more talk about doing knowledge translation and innovation and creative work and more exposure to them all seems to be having an unclear effect. Having met many people from programs training people in design thinking and attended many an event that focused on knowledge translation I can say that there is only a modest correlation between those that study and those that do.

After nearly 20 years of scholarship and debate on knowledge translation and with tools like Twitter and YouTube and blogs we still have to ask questions (quite rightly and likely with much frustration) like this* :

We are still asking ourselves this question and will be for years to come if we don’t start walking instead of talking.

And change isn’t about convincing individuals alone to blog or Tweet, but to create that culture of innovation where we can share ideas, discuss concepts aloud and ideate together, prototype (and fail!), and experiment. It means acting on research as part of doing research and building partnerships rather than writing about them. It’s also about creating the systems that support change, not just inspiring a few individuals to do something different.

Writing about innovation is not the same as doing it. Thinking models — design thinking, systems thinking, knowledge-to-action thinking — are supposed to inspire action, not just thought.

We got the moon and back three times in the span of ten years from the call to action from President Kennedy. An entire country rallied around a very simple and challenging task of putting humans on the moon.

Could the time be now for us to do the same with social innovation and health?

* Thanks to Rob Fraser for consenting to having this tweet included in the post

** Speaking of walking the talk, it is good to be back after a few weeks’ unplanned sabbatical from CENSEmaking. More talk, and lots of walking to come. Thanks to all my readers for your continued interest.

The photo caption is Walk the Talk by Dangerous Truth used Creative Commons License from Deviant Art. Thanks Dangerous Truth!

knowledge translationpublic healthsystems thinking

Knowledge Hypocrites: Take Two!

Knowledge Hypocrites: Take Two!.

The link above points to a great post by KMBeing that deserves some re-blogging here. It looks at the issue of hypocrisy in espousing the values of taking knowledge and putting it into practice, without practicing it. It’s worth a read.

There are a lot of professions and practices where we say one thing and mean another. This is something that can apply to health promotion, design, evaluation and social justice work in any guise.

What do the words and ideas mean and what do they mean in practice?

These two concepts are part of reflective practice and also require good communication, the kind that that allows people to find out what the meaning of their words are in the eyes and ears of another. Good communication requires speaking clearly, listening clearly, and clarifying clearly and doing so honestly and openly.

One of the issues with many of knowledge practitioners is that the rhetoric of knowledge translation/mobilization is so seductive. It is so common-sensical and even trendy. But the idea of sharing what we know, building relationships, and working together in true collaboration is much harder when viewed in reality where people have different resources, power structures, perceptions, reflective capacities, skills, knowledge, and time.

Knowledge mobilization is about not just strategy or tactics, but building up a system that supports it all. David Phipps, who wrote the original article looking at these hypocrisies was referring to this by commenting on the fact that there are too few incentives to change the way things are done and so without a top-level strategy to support change and no incentive from the bottom, the system remains the same.

Designing and living a system that works requires living and designing practices that support our values and communication now.

evaluationknowledge translation

A Call to Evaluation Bloggers: Building A Better KT System

Time To Get Online...

Are you an evaluator and do you blog? If so, the American Evaluation Association wants to hear from you. This CENSEMaking post features an appeal to those who evaluate, blog and want to share their tips and tricks for helping create a better, stronger KT system. 

Build a better moustrap and the world will beat a path to your door — Attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson

Knowledge translation in 2011 is a lot different than it was before we had social media, the Internet and direct-to-consumer publishing tools. We now have the opportunity to communicate directly to an audience and share our insights in ways that go beyond just technical reports and peer-reviewed publications, but closer to sharing our tacit knowledge. Blogs have become a powerful medium for doing this.

I’ve been blogging for a couple of years and quite enjoy it. As an evaluator, designer, researcher and health promoter I find it allows me to take different ideas and explore them in ways that more established media do not. I don’t need to have the idea perfect, or fully formed, or relevant to a narrow audience. I don’t need to worry about what my peers think or my editor, because I serve as the peer review, editor and publisher all at the same time.

I originally started blogging to share ideas with students and colleagues — just small things about the strange blend of topics I engage in that many don’t know about or understand or wanted to know more of. Concepts like complexity, design thinking, developmental evaluation, and health promotion can get kind of fuzzy or opaque for those outside of those various fields.

Blogs enable us to reach directly to an audience and provide a means of adaptive feedback on ideas that are novel. Using the comments, visit statistics, and direct messages sent to me from readers, I can gain some sense of what ideas are being taken up with people and which one’s resonate. That enables me to tailor my messages and amplify those parts that are of greater utility to a reader, thus increasing the likelihood that a message will be taken up. For CENSEMaking, the purpose is more self-motivated writing rather than trying to assess the “best” messages for the audience, however I have a series of other blogs that I use for projects as a KT tool. These are, in many cases, secured and by invitation only to the project team and stakeholders, but still look and feel like any normal blog.

WordPress (this site) and Posterous are my favorite blogging platforms.

As a KT tool, blogs are becoming more widely used. Sites like Research Blogging are large aggregations of blogs on research topics. Others, like this one, are designed for certain audiences and topics — even KT itself, like the KTExchange from the Research Into Action Action initiative at the University of Texas and MobilizeThis! from the Research Impact Knowledge Mobilization group at York University.

The American Evaluation Association has an interesting blog initiative led by AEA’s Executive Director Susan Kistler called AEA365, which is a tip-a-day blog for evaluators looking to learn more about who and what is happening in their field. A couple of years ago I contributed a post on using information technology and evaluation and was delighted at the response it received. So it reaches people. It’s for this reason that AEA is calling out to evaluation bloggers to contribute to the AEA365 blog with recommendations and examples for how blogging can be used for communications and KT. AEA365 aims to create small-bite pockets of information that are easily digestible by its audience.

If you are interested in contributing, the template for the blog is below, with my upcoming contribution to the AEA365 blog posted below that.

By embracing social media and the power to share ideas directly (and done so responsibly), we have a chance to come closer to realizing the KT dream of putting more effective, useful knowledge into the hands of those that can use it faster and engage those who are most interested and able to use that information more efficiently and humanely.

Interested in submitting a post to the AEA365 blog? Contact the AEA365 curators at

Template for aea365 Blogger Posts (see below for an example)

[Introduce yourself by name, where you work, and the name of your blog]

Rad Resource – [your blog name here]: [describe your blog, explain its focus including the extent to which it is related to evaluation, and tell about how often new content is posted]

Hot Tips – favorite posts: [identify 3-5 posts that you believe highlighting your blogging, giving a direct link and a bit of detail for each (see example)]

  • [post 1]
  • [post 2]
  • Etc.

Lessons Learned – why I blog: [explain why you blog – what you find useful about it and the purpose for your blog and blogging. In particular, are you trying to inform stakeholders or clients? Get new clients? Provide a public service? Help students?]

Lessons Learned: [share at least one thing you have learned about blogging since you started]

Remember – stay under 450 words total please!

My potential contribution (with a title I just made up): Cameron Norman on Making Sense of Complexity, Design, Systems and Evaluation: CENSEMaking

Rad Resource – [CENSEMaking]: CENSEMaking is a play on the name of my research and design studio consultancy and on the concept of sensemaking, something evaluators help with all the time. CENSEMaking focuses on the interplay of systems and design thinking, health promotion and evaluation and weaves together ideas I find in current social issues, reflections on my practice as well as the evidence used to inform it. I aspire to post on CENSEMaking 2-3 times per week, although because it is done in a short-essay format, find the time can be a challenge.

Hot Tips – favorite posts:

  • What is Developmental Evaluation? This post came from a meeting of working group with Michael Quinn Patton and was fun to write because the original exercise that led to the content (described in the post) was so fun to do. It also provided an answer to a question I get asked all the time.
  • Visualizing Evaluation and Feedback. I believe that the better we can visualize complexity the more feedback we provide, the greater the opportunities we have for engaging others, and more evaluations will be utilized. This post was designed to provoke thinking about visualization and illustrate how its been creatively used to present complex data in interesting and accessible ways. My colleague and CENSE partner Andrea Yip has tried to do this with a visually oriented blog on health promoting design, which provides some other creative examples of ways to make ideas more appealing and data feel simpler.
  • Developmental Design and Human Services. Creating this post has sparked an entire line of inquiry for me on bridging DE and design that has since become a major focus for my work. This post became the first step in a larger journey.

Lessons Learned – why I blog: CENSEMaking originally served as an informal means of sharing my practice reflections with students and colleagues, but has since grown to serve as a tool for knowledge translation to a broader professional and lay audience. I aim to bridge the sometimes foggy world that things like evaluation inhabit  — particularly developmental evaluation – and the lived world of people whom evaluation serves.

Lessons Learned: Blogging is a fun way to explore your own thinking about evaluation and make friends along the way. I never expected to meet so many interesting people because they reached out after reading a blog post of mine or made a link to something I wrote. This has also led me to learn about so many other great bloggers, too. Give a little, get a lot in return and don’t try and make it perfect. Make it fun and authentic and that will do.


** Photo by digitalrob70 used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

art & designdesign thinkinginnovationknowledge translation

Do Relationships Scale?

Go Small to Go Big?

There is much discussion about scaling social innovation  — bringing small successes to a larger theatre — yet little is known about the properties that make something work at one level successful at another. When the “thing” to scale is relationships, such as the case with knowledge translation and design, is bigger better or even possible? 

Last week the Design Management Institute held its annual North American conference themed: Design at Scale. The conference featured many prominent names in branding, market development, graphic design, and design management together to discuss the ways in which the creative process used in design can be leveraged from one level to another.

One of the best technical examples came from David Butler and Gerardo Garcia from Coca Cola who showed their modular design system being used to transform the way small local retailers in South America can create large or small displays with products that are regionally appropriate with ease. While it was interesting to see how one could create retail displays that could easily adapt and scale, I  was left wondering whether the same system would permit the social variables associated with each of these 1 million vendors to do the same thing. Are these vendors likely to view the modular system in the same way that Coke does? Does it even make sense to them? Surely for some that will be a “yes”, but will it be as many as Coke thinks and does this system solve a problem that the retailers have as much as it aims to satisfy Coke’s goal of doubling its revenue in the next decade?

While the physical product generated from this system might scale, the relationships that surround its implementation might not.

Which got me to thinking about the other lessons that came from the conference. Perhaps the most intriguing ones were those presented by Jamer Hunt, the Director for Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons The New School for Design. Hunt drew on the work of design legends Charles and Ray Eames and their film the Powers of Ten as a means of illustrating scale and what it really means (which he wrote about in Fast Company article last year).

An aside: The Powers of Ten was shown on the first day of my first class in psychology when I was an undergraduate at the University of Regina and was used by my professor, the truly remarkable Paul Antrobus (PDF),  to illustrate the realm that psychology could play in the universe. “This is the realm of psychology” he declared. It is something that has probably never been uttered in another class in psychology anywhere and probably should be everywhere. It changed the perspective I brought to my work and has changed my life in ways I can’t fully comprehend.

What The Powers of Ten does is illustrate scale at the macro and micro level by showing how great, yet relatively consistent, the differences are between different scales. Scalar changes happen at an order of magnitude that becomes difficult to grasp as one shifts up or down due to the massive, exponential change that, at small scales seem palpable, but at large scales seem incomprehensible. Jamer Hunt made this all the more concrete when he used the example of an ant taking a shower. No matter how intentional an ant might be about wanting a shower, the water molecules from a shower are too big and would crush him (or her). The water doesn’t scale.

Social innovation, social design and communications (particularly knowledge exchange and translation) is largely about relationships. Developing intimacy, expressing empathy, creating trust, and having authentic and meaningful conversations are the hallmark of healthy and strong human relationships. They also tend to cluster with good, effective practice in the above-mentioned areas. There are good reasons why (contrary to what Paris Hilton might suggest) we don’t have a lot of BFF‘s in our lives: we can’t maintain that level of closeness with a lot of people. It is precisely because we create a sense of intimacy with a few, that the relationship with the many is able to be maintained as it is. Relationships change, evolve, grow and whither, but the absolute number of close, personal relationships for people tend to remain relatively constant, even if that number differs between people.

The work by evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar has looked at these relationships and found that, by and large, we are not able to maintain meaningful relations (nevermind close relations) with more than about 150 (with a large standard deviation). While the variance in this number is large, the implications for scaling might be larger. Some of Dunbar’s original research with primates suggests that our brains are simply not evolved enough to handle the complexity of too many more relations.

It might also simply be less enjoyable. Meaning is something that requires attention to create and use and the more variables competing for attention in your life, the less meaningful things might be. If this is the case, can we design programs and initiatives that scale up from small to big? Or do we need to reframe the way we see scaling to something akin to a network, whereby there are a lot of small nodes connected together? Networking nodes seems to be a way to go big and go small.

If so, what does this mean for designing systems that scale? It might also mean that for those of us working to develop solutions that scale that we need to pay attention to the social and mathematical issues that come with scaling something. It means paying attention to psychosocial physics and dynamics and using research more intently to inform our designs and social innovations lest we scale in ways that create metaphorical water-droplets that are so big crush those we seek to shower.

knowledge translationpublic healthresearchsocial media

Knowledge Translation Lip (Sync) Service

Dancing for a Cure

Researchers and policy makers wring their hands and wrack their brains at ways to get people to take up the knowledge generated through scientific research and use it for social good and further invention. Some, stop doing this and just make it happen and YouTube and the Internet are showing us how.

Designer, strategist and broadcaster Debbie Millman, host of the Design Matters podcast, signs off each episode with a great quote:

We can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both

It seems when talking about knowledge translation, there is a lot of talk about how to do it better and then there are some who just do it better. McGill University and some of the researchers associated with the Goodman Cancer Research Centre have partnered up with filmmakers, volunteers and a medical supply company to ‘dance for cancer’ as a means of promoting their work and raising funds for cancer research. (The company, Medicom, has offered to donate per click so if you’re interested in donating and being entertained, click the link below).

Besides being catchy (Taio Cruz‘s club hit, Dynamite, is the song that these researchers and cast are dancing to) and well-produced, the video unscores the potential that video and some creative use of the arts can offer the scientific community in showing the world what it does and how it does it. The video shows what life is like (in a singing-and-dancing way) in a lab and showcases some of the people who do it, making them real humans rather than some mysterious “scientists off in the lab”.

They are designing a knowledge translation opportunity that (so far) has been viewed nearly 30,000 times as of this writing. I suspect that number will triple in the coming weeks. When some of the best, most cited research articles in the world are read (viewed) by maybe hundreds of people, the attention of thousands in such a short time should give pause.

Further, of the thousands that view the video, it is safe to say that most are non-scientists. For many, but certainly not all, of the studies we do in public and population health, the audience for this video is almost the same as ours — or at least includes many of the same people. Not all studies or research projects will yield the kind of data that are video-worthy or inspire photosharing, but some are. Many more than we acknowledge. And if we want the public engaged in science, if we want to reach practitioners and inspire policy makers and researchers alike to pay attention to the evidence being generated, this video might offer some suggestions for a way forward.

While you think of that, enjoy the choreography and lip sync skill of McGill’s brave super-translators and support a good cause in the process: