Category: social systems

design thinkingscience & technologysocial mediasocial systemssystems thinking

Amazing Stuff

So far the Amazing Stuff I’ve shared seems to be a hit with some folk. Perhaps this is the week that you’ll find something that I found pretty interesting relevant to you.

This week’s Amazing Stuff post features some thoughts on design. I first thought the word ‘designer’ had to mean going to design school or something to that effect. Thankfully, the many brilliant design thinkers out there who are promoting that way of seeing the world have shown me the error of my ways and illustrated how we all can be designers — and how with some thought and creativity we can become good ones. I design public health programs and resources and find myself fascinated by the myriad benefits that design thinking (like systems thinking) has to offer our enterprise.

1. The Value of Empathy . The Design Observer Group has a great website for ideas on design and this they featured an essay by Andy Chen on the role of empathy in design. He also writes a sharp, sometimes biting, critique of the way in which designers (and marketers) play on emotions to stir empathy on one hand, while being totally oblivious at other times. His illustrations from advertisements such as the RED campaign really take this message home and provided me with one of the most inspired reads of the week.

2. Is Social Media the New Cigarette? Probably the most provocative read I had all week was this post from Bill Ives and his Fast Forward blog. Bill goes way out on a limb and points to some rather disturbing and sometimes humorous parallels between cigarettes and social media both in how we use it and how it gets regulated in society as a result.

3. The Book of Odds. Did you know that the odds of choking to death on a non-food object is about 1 in 92,950? I didn’t either — until I discovered the Book of Odds, which was launched this week. The ‘Book’ is a compendium of stats on all kind of things serious and, well, odd, taking odds-ratios to a level of prominence that we’ve never seen before. Entertaining and useful all in one well-packaged site.

4. The Democratization of Social Networks. A little more on the academic side of things, Amanda Lenhart from the Pew Internet & American Life Project posted a presentation showing how the landscape of social networking is changing rapidly. Almost half of Americans are now engaged in some type of social networking activity online, which is up from less than 10 per cent last year. If you think social networks are a fad, you might want to look through Amanda’s presentation.

5. The Chemistry of Information Addiction. Another science-based gem this week was a report in Scientific American about research that looked at monkeys and information needs and the neural basis for our ‘need to know’. It turns out that we just might need to know the answer. The research is laying the foundation for future studies looking at human information use and testing the hypothesis that, in some way, we are information junkies and, when given the opportunity, will do whatever we can to get more information about the things that are important to us and that this is a hard-wired part of the brain.

complexityeducation & learningscience & technologysocial systemssystems thinking

Order and the Problem of Change

I am Here for the Learning RevolutionThe new academic year is starting and with it the return to teaching.

Teaching brings with it many joys and demands and for those about to enter the teaching profession — at any level — you are undoubtedly going to encounter ‘problem’ students. But these may not be the ones who expect: the ones with serious learning difficulties, absent motivation, or a lack of focus. As much time and energy as these students demand, my experience has been that those who exceed expectations pose more problems than any others.

These are the ones that bring chaos to the order that we expect in ways that, if nurtured, is relentless.

I used to work in a school that had could have been called “Last Chance High”: the place for those youth who were not in custody or care, yet were too disruptive to be in a regular classroom. People would come into our special setting located in the basement of an older abandoned public school (the imagery brings a sad level of irony with it) and describe much of what happened in our school as chaotic or out of control. It might not have been “in control”, but there was much order to it. My colleagues and I were there because we were trained to work with adolescents with ‘special needs’ so for us ‘acting out’ didn’t cause us much difficulty. It was when students gained insight into themselves, found something positive, grabbed hold of it and transformed their behaviour into something much more constructive that things got tough.

For most of these young people they had been given a message that they were bad, inferior, screw ups, unwanted, or any number of negative qualities. Positive comments, when they were offered, were often conditional.

The same situation happens in university — even in graduate school, where students are perhaps more likely to be self-motivated and success oriented. We expect students to want to change the world and become the best scientists and scholars in the world. But we want that ‘best’ to look like something we know (i.e., what we are expecting). For researchers in public health that means publishing papers, going to presentations, using methods and theories that are familiar to us, and doing so within the usual constraints of 4 month courses. And let’s forget about teaching — there aren’t many ways to learn how to do it at most universities.

I have students (and some colleagues) that want to do things different.


  • They want to use video to communicate, take pictures, create blogs and not just text, because they believe in reaching a broader audience than just those with university level education and high literacy rates. They also want to use these media forms as research tools;
  • They want to partner with the community — not in the imaginary way that we often do in many community-based research studies — but in real partnerships. The kind that are messy and unpredictable, like any relationship;
  • They want to put on the conferences, not just attend them;
  • They want classes that aren’t just lectures and PowerPoint. The want to learn by doing;
  • They want to get out more and see the world– and want us faculty and administration to do the same;
  • They want to translate knowledge to everyone, not just in some manner that fits with a theoretical framework for how it should be done, using the tools that might not be convention (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, podcasting)

This is ALL problematic, because there aren’t the structures in place to support this. Right now. This is introducing a little chaos to an environment that is based on a certain order that expects people to innovate in certain ways that follow a linear path. Education is not linear. Learning is a complex adaptive system, yet our education system treats it like a linear, closed system.

This all gives me a headache and creates loads of work for me and my colleagues, just like those kids at the school I taught at years ago.

And just like it did many years ago, these participating in these transformative learning experiences continues to be the best part of teaching.


Bring on the Advil.

complexityeducation & learningeHealthemergencesocial systems

The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book! Learning and Social Media

The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book!

Is this a library or a graveyard? P.S. Where's the power outlet?

Is this a library or a graveyard? P.S. Where's the power outlet?

I found myself in a strange situation the other day: I was listening to a podcast of a panel of Web 2.0 marketers talk about their new books and the power of old media in a new media age. No matter how digital a person is, there is still something to hold on to (literally) with a book.

The panel was hosted by Mitch Joel on his podcast Six Pixels of Separation (which is also the title of his new book), and included folk like marketer Chris Brogan and his co-author Julien Smith and others discussing social media and the perils of sticking with the old ways of marketing, yet highlighting the importance (and honour) of being a New York Times Bestseller (i.e., being recognized by a print newspaper as a top seller of paper books). There’s lots involved in this, but most notably I think it actually reflects what Robert Fulford once called “the triumph of narrative” . This is the appeal of storytelling, depth and coherence in communication — things that most new media does quite badly. Twitter, on a tweet-by-tweet basis is largely incoherent. I might have areas I tweet on and may seek people who tweet about other things, but because not everyone stays ‘on message’ and that people tend to have diverse interests (including Twitter follows), that leaves a mass of information that is left up to the user to make sense of.

Facebook, because it is more closely tied to relationships or ‘friends’ we are familiar with, has at least some over-arching thematic consistency to it, but it still isn’t largely a place to tell or learn from stories.

That’s where books come in. Amazon has released the Kindle, while others are trying to digitize text into books. My colleagues at the Strategic Innovation Lab at the Ontario College of Art & Design are looking at the future of the book, trying to understand how to add the searchable features of a regular webpage and the linking features of hypertext within the codex form of book — electronic or otherwise. Seems like a lot of energy is going into a ‘dead’ technology.

Formal education can be a lot like a book. While anyone can pull together the content within a course — textbooks, slides, recordings – few people will learn in the same way at a distance, in chunks, than being part of a coherent narrative provided through a good course (** i.e., one that teaches people to learn, not shovels content at them). That is no reason not to accumulate chunks. Twitter is great — at what it does. So are books.

So much of our discussions of eHealth, eLearning, and education is that we take an either/or approach. Is distance learning better than face-to-face? Books are dead, all the information is on the Web. These arguments are not helpful. I don’t suspect the book — the paper and cloth codex of today — will last, but I do think the book as a long-form manuscript (digital or otherwise) will survive. Our storytelling — at a distance anyway — depends on it.

Another issue is related to complexity. Complex problems require solutions that can reflect this complexity. Those complex responses are much less likely to emerge through a 140 character tweet. They may emerge over 1000’s of tweets, but without any obvious ways to derive coherence from these without mining the data for it. The book, because of its focus on organizing a lot of information into a narrative is one of the best ways to do this. So while we celebrate the rise of new tools and technologies, let’s also give a cheer to the ones we already have.

Lastly, when I came up with the title for this post, I suspected that I wasn’t the only one who’d uttered such a phrase. So in the name of acknowledging the efforts of others, you can see the many different posts using this title here, here, here, here and here (and many other places).

education & learningpsychologysocial systemssystems sciencesystems thinking

Back to School and the Lesson of Accumulation

For millions of kids and young adults and the many faculty and family members associated with the noble profession of teaching, today is the biggest day of the year. It’s back to school.

School and learning are clearly on the minds of many these days. As I posted last week, there is much to be concerned with how education is (or is not, depending on your point of view) being funded. Yesterday I read an editorial on the CBC’s website from a teacher who pointed to the stress that his profession is under and how it is killing those who choose to remain in it.

“I think that the whole idea of teaching has changed in the last 15 to 20 years,” says Emily Noble, past-president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

“People are dealing with more high-need students, with more multicultural issues and with no-fail policies.

“Teachers want to make a difference, but the supports are just not there.”

It’s not a particularly rosy time for educators of any stripe.

Anyone who’s been at the head of the classroom (myself included) knows that teaching is as much of a vocation or calling as it is a job. It is not something you do from 9-5 or whatever the set hours are. If you ran an education system on ‘work to rule’ where people did just what their job required of them within normal hours, paid them an hourly wage and had them account for every minute they worked, the system would collapse within weeks. I can’t imagine that there has ever been a greater gap between what teachers actually do and what they are perceived to do by those outside of the profession. As a professor, I routinely shock people who think that I have 4 months off each summer and spend the remaining 8 wandering the hallowed halls of academe ‘thinking big thoughts’, reading books and conversing with grad students in between teaching duties. Between ongoing grant writing, doing research, conference presentations, thesis defences, supervising staff, writing, and preparing our courses for the fall (including adding in the H1N1 provisions this year) summers are anything but idyllic times off. There’s a lot of stress in this job and, as a recent double issue of the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment explored, it manifests itself in many (mostly harmful) ways. Still, most of us do it because we believe in our profession and, mostly, enjoy what we do.

Whether at university or primary or secondary school, teaching as a whole is undergoing a major change. As Smol writes:

There is a general understanding that things “are not the same as they once were.”

Teaching has always been a tough, but rewarding job in part because there’s always new things to learn and we, as humans, are wired for learning. Teaching is also a dynamic profession aimed at supporting this learning, but as Smol and others have written, the changes that are happening in education are great and fast and without the structural supports in place to help these changes take place. I wrote of resliency in my last post, arguing that we’re testing the resilience of our education system with this imbalance between demands and resources. Today I want to focus on another important systems concept: accumulation.

It turns out, people are lousy at understanding how things build up over time. A study by John Sterman from MIT, one of the leading scholars in system dynamics, found that even among his students — some of the best, brightest and well-equipped to handle this topic given that it is part of their studies — most have a poor sense of what accumulation really means. So do educational policy makers I suspect. The reason this is important for education is that as accumulation of stress builds the likelihood of something going amiss increases dramatically. A tipping point, that term popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book by the same name, is an expression of accumulation.

In our case of education, the tipping point could come when people no longer want to become teachers en masse. Or, it becomes nearly impossible to hire good, quality educators for anything other top salaries, which in an age when even the basics aren’t funded, seems unlikely. Or, teachers begin to amass more sick days than ever before (which is already happening) creating disruptions in the classroom. (Note: Remember those days when the substitute teacher came to class? Were those ever days filled with lots of learning and orderly classrooms? Not often. Imagine that on the rise as teachers start to miss days on the job a little more)

The unintended consequences could see parents fleeing the public system of education for private institutions, leaving a growing gap between the education of the haves and have nots  even more than exists today. Another option is that some other market form of education replaces our current system. Among the many scenarios that could play out, most suggest that the system could break. And when systems break suddenly and quickly, the stress increases, which seems a little counterproductive given that it is one of the problems in the first place.

The Arab proverb about ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ comes to mind here. The mistake is thinking that a single straw caused all that damage. It did, but only because of its relationship to all the other straws. Each straw weighs the same and presumably has the same relative impact on the camel. What tipping points show is that, despite this similarity between objects (straws, stressors, whatever…) not all are created equal in terms of their impact. While it is true that each individual object taken on its own is relatively the same, the cumulative impact makes each of them quite different. That ‘last straw’ (which, incidentally, is the name of a great teaching game on the social determinants of health) , has far more influence than any other straw. What we don’t often know is which straw will serve as the ‘last’ one. How resilient is the system? What is its carrying capacity? We don’t know, but by paying attention we can anticipate problems ahead and potentially avoid this last straw scenario and the tipping points that follow.

So as you go back to school, consider bringing something other than just an apple for the teacher.  Perhaps a lesson in accumulation for the principal, school board officials, the public taxpayer, and educational policymakers will do.

complexityhealth promotionsocial systemssystems thinking

Cohesion vs. Diversity

I just watched (yet another!) great TED talk that solidified something that’s been on my mind all week: diversity.

The talk by Cary Fowler, the leader of the global seed bank, a remarkable initiative aimed at saving the world’s seed for future use should that day (or many days) come when we need to draw upon the diversity on our planet to support life. Even though we think we live in a world of apparent dietary diversity (after all the average supermarket literally carries thousands of products — just look at the number of types of yogurt you can buy at a typical store), the truth is that we are in deep trouble when it comes to the diversity of natural food choices available to us. It is estimated that there are about 7500 different types of apples alone. But we rarely see that expressed in food choices. Shop your local supermarket and you’ll find that variety sharply drops down to about a dozen or less. And this dozen or less is the same at most of the other shops. The truth is, we are limiting our diversity in food dramatically and are potentially harming our potential survival in the process.

In Canada, we praise ourselves for being an accepting society and our social, cultural and linguistic diversity. My home, Toronto, may be the most ethnoculturally diverse city in the world when measured by these aforementioned characteristics. Scott Page, a systems scientist from the University of Michigan, has written a fantastic book on diversity that provides a strong case for diversity in many different contexts from school to work to community life.

But diversity has a dark side. The less we have in common (i.e., the more diverse we are) the less cohesion we are likely to experience as a duo, group or society. It was that very topic that Michael Valpy wrote about in the Globe and Mail this week. In his article, he quotes another Canadian and now Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff from his new book:

“We need a public life in common,” he writes, “some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live. Without this feeling of belonging, even if only imagined, we would live in fear and dread of each other. When we can call the strangers citizens, we can feel at home with them and with ourselves.

And reaching for a codicil from his intellectual hero, he adds: “Isaiah Berlin described this sense of belonging well. He said that to feel at home is to feel that people understand not only what you say, but also what you mean.””

Anyone who has worked on projects where there is a diversity of opinion knows the benefit of having someone not only understand what you say, but also what you mean. That trait alone may be the reason we commit to working together at all and, when it doesn’t happen, why we might choose to do things apart. A healthy system has both diversity (represented by chaos at its extreme) and cohesion (represented by rigid order at its opposite pole). Having watched Cary Fowler’s talk shortly after reading Michael Valpy’s article has me questioning what the balance is in fostering diversity within a system. How does one know when you’re ‘diverse enough’ or when you’re too rigid and inflexible? In the case of Cary Fowler, he’s not planning to have all 7500 apples growing at the same time and place if he even gets all those seeds saved, but he’s not planning on saving just the tastiest, crispest or hearty of them either. That strikes me as a good thing.

In my eyes, a great community is one that is diverse and cohesive — living at the ‘edge of chaos’ in systems terms. Toronto is one of those cities, with many small villages within it, and has been highlighted by urban thinkers like the late Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida as a place that does diverse urbanism rather well. As imperfect as it is, Toronto is pretty cohesive.

But it is also seeing a large gap between the wealthy and the poor – and likely the healthy and the unhealthy. This gap was driven home yesterday as I took part on a panel on the social determinants of health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.The concept of ‘poverty by postal code‘ and the gap between those with choices and those without was clear. Along with Carol Timmins and Stephen Hwang, we spoke separately and as a panel about issues of public health practice, homelessness, and youth. As we explored these issues I thought about this ‘cohesion’ amongst the diversity and wondered whether this is as good as it gets? Can we create greater social cohesion than this or are we doomed to some level of diversity that has lots of upsides, but also many downsides. Can we have it all?

What is the balance here and would we know it if we achieved it?