Results for: how serious are we about learning

systems thinking

Boundaries: The Food Example

Identifying boundaries and setting them in moving forward with modeling and planning is a critical step in systems thinking practice so much so that it may be time to consider seeing boundaries as a core skill or competency for work in complex systems. 

Traveling is one of the activities that embodies systems thinking concepts in almost everything. From security screening through to the arrangement of flights, connections, and imagining how it all gets done is truly systems thinking in action. One of the lesser-thought-of aspects of the travel-as-systems-thinking phenomenon is food. Food has been profiled here before, but for this post I want to highlight a different quality here.

As one who aspires to eat relatively well, traveling can be hell when it comes to food. I am currently in a city that has, like many American cities, abdicated the culture and cuisine of its core to the suburbs, which is bad on too many levels. Say what you want about suburban life, but good, healthy, available, economic food is not something that comes to mind (at least, not together). So as an urbanite who is somewhat accustomed or desirous of eating reasonably well (i.e., food that tastes good, is good value, and isn’t horrible to my body, the environment or those who make it) I get spoiled and feel disappointed when places I travel can’t offer this. Ironically, this was the way that most food was cooked and readied for consumption up until the last part of the 20th century.

In this case, the boundary conditions of the system I am looking at is the availability of good food. Where I am and how I got here meant airports, hotels, on-the-go-meals and staying in a relatively large city that has no interior life to it that isn’t about an office building.

The boundaries of good eating imposed on me has meant that my individual choices are seriously constrained. This happens a lot, yet doesn’t get acknowledged as much when we consider health behaviour and its limits. We too often blame individuals for not exercising, or eating well, or doing both without looking at the real problems associated with such activities when the boundaries of the system they are working under are taken into account. (And by the way, it was 41 degrees Celsius in the city I am staying in so there goes any outdoor exercise).

If we narrow our boundaries too close, we miss some considerable systems limitations. I would surmise that students learning systems thinking might want to consider boundary definitions as a critical skill.


design thinkingeducation & learningpublic healthsocial systemssystems thinking

Thinking Different Requires Different Thinking

Think Different

Novelty, innovation and doing things differently are seen as the key to competitive advantage and scientific discovery. How we think is as important as what we do and use of the term thinking might be one of the most valued things we do of them all.

Recently Tony Golsby-Smith wrote on the Harvard Business Review blog about the potential contributions of those from non-traditional disciplines (aka: the Humanities) to improving innovation. He states:

People trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cezanne’s paintings, say, have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.

The reason? those in the humanities and related disciplines are trained to consider “what if?” questions at the outset. Golby-Smith adds:

This is because our educational systems focus on teaching science and business students to control, predict, verify, guarantee, and test data. It doesn’t teach how to navigate “what if” questions or unknown futures. As Amos Shapira, the CEO of Cellcom, the leading cell phone provider in Israel, put it: “The knowledge I use as CEO can be acquired in two weeks…The main thing a student needs to be taught is how to study and analyze things (including) history and philosophy.”

Ouch. That has to sting for those who just spent $80K on an MBA to get to the C-suite.

But this is not just about business, it extends to a lot of sectors, including health. The focus — almost tyranny — of evidence in health systems has created the same kind of mindset that we see in the scenario described above and the absence of “what if” thinking. Evidence, as it is distilled and presented in the health sector, tends be used to guide actions based on what has happened on the past, not the future. In many cases this is perfectly reasonable and, indeed, ideal (life saving even!), yet evidence can be used as a blunt instrument in areas where precision and learning from the past do not apply. Much of health policy and public health fall into this realm.

To understand this requires another different kind of thinking beyond discipline to areas of transdisciplinary arenas like that of systems thinking. Systems thinking is not systematic thinking, rather it is a different way of seeing problems. It is the difference between hard and soft systems, described by Peter Checkland as the following:

The key difference between them, little understood as yet in the literature, is that the hard tradition assumes that systems exist in the world and can be engineered to achieve declared objectives. The soft tradition assumes that the world is problematical, always more complex than any of our accounts of it, but that the process of enquiry into the world can be engineered as a learning system…

What Checkland suggests is that we can create systematic ways of knowing about the complexity around us and that is what (soft) systems thinking is about. Another way of looking at these problems is using the Cynefin Framework, which illustrates areas where hard systems thinking might prove useful and where a “softer” (to use Checkland’s terms) might be more appropriate.

But neither of these particular models are useful without the shift in thinking outright. Until one starts to see systems, to acknowledge complexity, and to devise ways of organizing that recognize both of these in the way in which knowledge is produced, curated, translated and integrated this is a moot point. Further, until one considers applying such thinking consciously and with in intent to shape the world around us, which I would describe as (partly) design thinking , we will continue to use evidence, the past, and the wrong questions to get the answers we look for (not the answers we want) in addressing health-related challenges and issues.

Taking up the point that Golsby-Smith makes in HBR, getting new players into the mix is one start. I have some others:

  1. Teach thinking. We rarely get taught how to think in school, just what to think and why to think about it. The two are very different. Include systems and design thinking in courses aimed at training people who work in areas of complexity. Whether it is in formal school settings or continuing education environments, don’t assume that people know about these thinking approaches or that they will pick them up quickly. The non-linear, highly contextualized nature of complex systems and the strategies used to navigate through them are difficult for most people trained in the Western scientific tradition. Yet, the rewards are great for those willing to persevere.
  2. Take the boundaries of discipline and their points of confluence seriously. While a “hot topic”, transdisciplinarity — working at the intersection of disciplines, not just at the margin of them, is important. Understanding where you come from — in terms of training, experience, life philosophy — helps place you within a system of enquiry and enables you to see boundaries. Too often we fail to acknowledge boundaries at all, assuming that evidence is universal and understood across settings and contexts, which isn’t true.
  3. Build in diversity..and support it. Humanities scholars and engineers working together? Why not. However, throwing people together isn’t the same as nurturing an environment where diversity is respected. Scott Page’s work on diversity and complexity has looked at the dialogical nature of this relationship and how one feeds the other. Creating — designing — environments that bring the best of diversity out is something that requires much attention and brings many rewards.
  4. Thinking is a participatory sport.Although thinking is most often considered a solitary, cognitive activity, support for teams and wide engagement with thinking-related materials and methods is the way to support true integration of knowledge and learning. It is one thing to think of systems, it is another to really experience them. One strategy I’ve tried with some success is to have systems learners use photographs or videos or other arts to capture the tacit and everyday expressions of systems in their lives. When learners go beyond what the evidence tells them, see systems for themselves, and share that with others they are better able to point to spaces where new thinking can generate innovations and how what is known matches with what is possible.

Understanding not only what we think about, but how we think about it in relation to the issues we face is important if we are derive strategies that take the complexity of human systems into account. Teaching for thinking and not for knowledge in itself requires different thinking and acting. The question is: Are we ready and willing to do this? Most people love change so long as they don’t have to do anything different. Hopefully, our health and research systems are different. And if not, how can we inspire the thinking to make them so?

*** Photo Think by jon_skilling used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr

design thinkinghealth promotionpublic healthsocial systems

Design for Sex, Gender and Health (Celebrating International Women’s Day)

Woman, (1965) Oil on wood by Willem de Kooning, American, born Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 1904 - 1997.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day prompting some reflection on how we design for sex and gender in a world that often fails to consider either seriously enough.

Sex is important and it deserves attention in designing for health. Today the global community recognizes one half of the world’s population, their challenges, struggles and successes and I can think of fewer causes more worthy of such attention. Although sex is biological and brings its own issues with health, gender has social overlays incorporating role and identity that create more complex determinants of health, that require attention when designing programs and policies.

This attention to sex, gender and health requires problematizing the issue in the first place and recognizing that one-size-fits all approaches to social planning and policy do little to address the complexity of how these social determinants manifest themselves and interrelate. Gender is one determinant that is highly knotted up with other health issues such as economic security and employment (PDF), safety, and education. It’s complexity and pervasiveness demand that we consider this as something worthy of attention in our design and health promotion work if we wish to create a more equitable, healthy society.

Designing for health requires that we pay attention to these issues and consider them deeply in all of our work. Sex issues manifest themselves in ways that are unacknowledged, unconscious, or may be at odds with our intentions for promoting better health. It is rare that I’ve seen designers speak of sex and gender in discussing their work. And while health promoters bring sex and gender issues into prominence in their work, yet do not explicitly refer to design principles in such discussion, missing an opportunity to more intentionally shape their actions.

Design is taking some steps to make this a bigger priority. Yesterday’s announcement that global design leader IDEO was creating a non-profit arm that would focus on developmental issues, many of which are related to women’s needs, is a place to put hope for design. Health promotion’s foray into design issues has been on the built environment and on promoting equitable policies for access to health care, which is itself a start.

Bringing both of these fields closer together has the potential to do women and everyone better by considering the locations — social and physical — in which sex influences health and wellbeing and consciously designing situations that improve it. Doing so also means acknowledging where both design and health promotion knowledge come from, ensuring gender equity not only in society, but specifically within the fields of health promotion and design. Can you think of many “rock star” designers that are women? Those numbers are few. And while women are well-represented in the field of health promotion, the key texts and theories largely are male-authored. How this translates into equitable policies and practices for both genders is unclear, but the absence of discussion of these issues in much of the design and health discourse is less so.

While ensuring better design for health equity and promotion it is important to also add health equity and promotion to design through an empowered woman-friendly environment for learning and practice in these two areas.

So as you celebrate this International Women’s Day, consider ways to make sex and gender more conscious in your work and how we might design for both at a foundational level and not just as a means of ameliorating problems that manifest from poor design.

** Picture of Woman, (1965) Oil on wood by Willem de Kooning, American, born Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 1904 – 1997. by Clif1066 used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

complexityeducation & learningpublic health

The Problem With Grades

Good little factory workers (Photo CC Flicker Michael 1952)

Grading is the tyrrany of higher education and this week I had to face it full-force and get reminded why we value the appearance of education rather than true learning.

This week I submitted the final grades for my graduate course on health behaviour change. Submitting grades is always an emotional time for me. I’ve watched students do poorly not due to lack of understanding, but circumstance. I’ve also seen students turn things around after having started out slow and ending on a high note. In every case, I end up assigning a letter (sometimes with a + or – attached to it) to assess the quality of the work done, which is supposed to be a proxy for learning. The truth is far from that.

More than any other semester in my teaching history I found myself struggling with grading. Grades are holdovers from a system designed to produce good little factory workers who would have enough knowledge not to hurt themselves and do the job right, but not quite enough to truly challenge the system that said they had to work the way that they did. Unfortunately, old habits are hard to break (which is, ironically perhaps, the theme of the course I teach).

I am fortunate enough to have a room to teach with moveable chairs and tables, although there is really only a few designs open to me given that the room is literally filled to the capacity set by the fire marshall. It’s still better than the circumstance illustrated in the above photo, with students sitting in rows all looking the same. I am pleased that many of the students in my course call me “Cameron” and not just “Dr. Norman” or “Professor”. We’ve made a lot of progress, but at the same time there is much illusion about the nature of education today.

A wonderful illustration of the problems of education and its historical roots can be viewed as part of a TED talk summary by Sir Ken Robinson.

I teach up to 30 graduate students — both masters and doctoral level students — at a time. When you pile 30+ learners (including the TA’s, guest lecturers, guest students) into one room, the type of teaching and learning you are able to do is seriously limited by the size of the class, the room, the complexity of the material being presented, and the time you have available to explore that material. I do my best and the students do theirs, but it is limited. And yet, we call this graduate education. We call it education; period.

It is as if individuals have no prior experience of their own and couldn’t possibly add to the discussion in any meaningful way. As such, we set up a system of evaluation that suggest that I, as the implied smartest person in the room, can truly judge the worthiness of any idea with complete objectivity, precision, and efficiency and that is worth something. Well, when it comes to health behaviour change or systems thinking (the two courses I teach) I can confidently say that I have more codified, structured, academically acceptable knowledge than any one person in my classroom. But do I have more than the class combined? No way. I’m not even close.

So it would surmise that some method of tapping into that knowledge of the 10, 20, or 30 students is a good idea. But doing so means acknowledging that the professor — the said “smart person” in the room — might not have all the answers and maybe some of the students have those answers. Or in the case of complex and novel problems that we see in public health more often these days, maybe no one has the answer. Maybe the answer needs to be generated by collaboration, discussion and bringing diverse groups together.

But what does this mean for grading? If five people help derive a solution to a problem, who gets the grade? Some models might suggest the leader gets more credit than the others as we see in the academic peer-reviewed publication traditions . While others might have some form of negotiated hierarchy of authors. A systems thinking perspective might throw the whole authorship issue out altogether because it was the contribution of the team acting as such that generated the knowledge. Yes, some may have worked longer hours, taken bigger roles, but the entire product is the sum of the whole of the parts, therefore every component is considered vital. If we took this into account, we’d have to award the same grade to everyone if  producing knowledge that was useful was the goal of the activity.

That’s pretty heretical stuff where I come from. Yes, it is true we can have group grades, but this is speaking to a fundamental issue of contribution and acknowledging that not everyone will add the same value and that is OK, because in the end it is what people add in its totality that is most important the whole.

In complexity terms, grading is anathema. It suggests that we can know what is “right” and “wrong” and “effective” and “ineffective” in each circumstance. In simple systems, that might be true. When we have “best practice” that is reliable and valid and can be assessed consistently, then grades are perfectly reasonable. Yet, when we work in spaces where the context changes, the variables multiply and shift, and the outcomes can, at best, be anticipated but not predicted, the idea of assessing people based on concrete, objective standards seems silly at best, dangerous at worst. But that’s what we do all the time.

Complexity does endorse — and indeed, thrives on — feedback. Getting some form of assessment is great so long as it is  provides opportunities for adaptation. Without it, complex systems would become simple ones.

Imagine a system where we gave students feedback, allowed them to adapt, and to take the information they learn and apply it in ways that fit the context they are working in? Consider what that might look like in terms of grades and grading and how the absence of such almost arbitrary assessments could lead to knowledge that could truly advance the health and wellbeing of everyone, not just propose to do so.

This is not just systems thinking, but true systems change and that is what education is all about in my books.

behaviour changedesign thinkingevaluationresearchscience & technology

The Science of Design & the Design of Science

Glasgow Science Centre (by bruce89, used under Creative Commons Licence)

As the holidays approach I’ve been spending an increasing amount of time looking at a field that has become my passion: design. Design is relevant to my work in part because it frequently deals with the complex, requires excellent communication, and as Herbert Simon would suggest, is all about those interest in changing existing situations into preferred ones.

Yet for all the creativity, innovation and practicality that design has I find it lacking in a certain scientific rigour that it requires to gain the widespread acceptance it deserves.

This is not to say that designers do not employ rigorous methods or that there is no science informing design. For example, architecture, a field where design is embedded and entwined, employs high levels of both rigour and science in its practice. The issue isn’t that these two concepts aren’t applied, they just aren’t applied to each other. I was heartened this week to see Dexigner profile a new pamphlet on the science of design. Although true in spirit, it wasn’t what I expected to see as it largely profiled ways to assess the quality of design projects from the perspective of design.

What if we could assess the impact of design on a larger scale, a social and human scale?

Interaction designers speak of this need to connect to the human in design work. The emergent field of social design exemplified by groups like Design 21 who aim to produce better products for social good. All of this is important, but it’s important largely because we say it is so. Rhetorical arguments are fine, but at some point design needs to confront the problem of evidence.

Does “good” design lead to better products than “bad” design?

What components of design thinking are best suited to addressing certain kinds of problems? Or are there simply problems that design thinking is just better at addressing than other ways of approaching them?

What methods of learning produce effective design thinkers? And what is effective design thinking anyway? Does it exist?

What is the comparative advantage of a design-forward approach to addressing complex problems than one where design is less articulated or not at all?

These are just some of the many questions that there seems to be little evidence in support of. A scientific approach to design might be one of the first ways of addressing this. In doing so, a scientifically-grounded design field is far more likely to garner support of decision makers who are the ones who will approve and fund the kind of projects that can have wide-scale impact. Design is making serious in-roads to fields such as business, education, and health, but it represents a niche market when it has the potential to be much larger.

Roger Martin has argued that the reliance on scientific approaches to problem solving runs counter to much of design thinking. This assumes that science is applied in a very detached, prescriptive manner, which is common, but not the only way. Micheal Gibbons and colleagues have described two forms of science, which they call Mode I and Mode II science. The first Mode is the one that most people think of when they hear the term “scientist”. It is of the (usually) lone researcher working in a lab on problems that are driven by curiosity with the aim of generating discoveries. For this reason, it is often referred to as discovery-oriented research.

Mode 2 research is designed to be problem-centred and aimed at answering questions posed by practical issues and has a strong emphasis on knowledge translation. This is an area more accustomed to the designer.

Design presents the opportunity to transcend both of these Modes into something akin to Mode 3 research, which I surmise is a blend of the abductive reasoning inherent in Roger Martin’s view of design thinking and the discovery-oriented approach that goes beyond just the problem to create value beyond the contracted issue. A design-oriented approach to the science of design would involve leveraging the creative processes of designers with some of the tools and methods accustomed to researchers in Mode 1 and 2 science. Can we not do detailed ethnographic studies looking at the process of design itself? Is there any reason why we cannot, with limits acknowledged and in appropriate contexts, attempt to do randomized controlled trials looking at certain design thinking activities and situations?

If design is to make a leap beyond niche market situations, a new field must dawn within design + science and that is the science of design and the design of science.

design thinkingeducation & learningevaluationinnovation

More Design Thinking & Evaluation

Capturing Design in Evaluation (CameraNight by Dream Sky, Used under Creative Commons License)

On the last day of the American Evaluation Association conference, which wrapped up on Saturday, I participated in an interactive session on design thinking and evaluation by a group from the Savannah College of Art and Design.

One of the first things that was presented was some of the language of design thinking for those in the audience who are not accustomed to this way of approaching problems (which I suspect was most of those in attendance).

At the heart of this was the importance of praxis, which is the link between theory, design principles and practice (see below)

Design Thinking

As part of this perspective is the belief that design is less a field about the creation of things on their own, but rather a problem solving discipline.

Design is a problem solving discipline

When conceived of this way, it becomes easier to see why design thinking is so important and more than a passing fad. Inherent in this way of thinking are principles that demand inclusion of multiple perspectives on the problem, collaborative ideation, and purposeful wandering through a subject matter.

Another is to view design as serious play to support learning.

Imagine taking the perspective of design as serious play to support learning?

The presenters also introduced a quote from Bruce Mau, which I will inaccurately capture here, but is akin to this:

One of the revelations in the studio is that life is something that we create every single day. We create our space and place.

Within this approach is a shift from sympathy with others in the world, to empathy. It is less about evaluating the world, but rather engaging with it to come up with new insights that can inform its further development. This is really a nod (in my view) to developmental evaluation.

The audience was enthralled and engaged and, I hope, willing to take the concept of design and design thinking further in their work as evaluators. In doing so, I can only hope that evaluation becomes one of the homes for design thinking beyond the realm of business and industrial arts.

complexityeducation & learning

The Complex Adaptive (Education) System




One of the great things about travel is that a person gets exposed to different media opportunities and (often) new perspectives that come with that. Today, I had delivered to my hotel a copy of the Ottawa Citizen, which featured a opinion piece by David Warren titled: “End Our Multiversities“.  It was a very provocative, interesting piece. By interesting, I am not suggesting it was well-argued, historically accurate or reasonable, but it did make me think.

While Warren longs for the Middle Ages and grumbles about liberal education while (quite inaccurately) suggesting that all the world’s greatest universities are private, he brings up an issue that is relevant today for both public and private schools by seeking space for significant personal growth through education:

Now, do I propose that we go back to the Middle Ages? I would if we could, but since we can’t, I propose something more subtle: that we create the conditions in which significant intellectual and spiritual growth (as opposed to mere technological accumulation) would become possible again.

While I have little use for his recommendations or “analysis”, creating space for growth is important to consider and something I do agree with. Growth comes from change, adaptation and integration of new information (which is ironic, given Warren’s argument and desire to go back 500 years). Learning is, by its definition, designed around change, not stasis:

learning |ˈlərni ng |noun . the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, practice, or study, or by being taught : these children experienced difficulties in learning |[as adj. ] an important learning process.• knowledge acquired in this way : I liked to parade my learning in front of my sisters. [Oxford English Dictionary]

Education on the other hand, is less dynamic than learning, but still evolves to meet the demands of society, the market, and the educational institutions themselves. This is not perfect, it is not rational, or based solely on evidence or experience, and sometimes it works well in spite of that. Thus, to be effective at education and learning, the system must be designed to be agile and support change.

Craig Newell, before his untimely death [pdf], wrote about this need for adaptation by comparing the classroom to a complex adaptive system [PDF]. He argues that:

Complex systems are self-organizing and self-maintaining, but many also have the ability to adapt in changing environments. Complicated systems transfer and transmit energy and information; complex systems have the ability to transform. (p.7)

This is where I agree with Warren’s frustration with universities. Transformation is a very difficult thing to achieve and I am not certain that the modern university is doing a good enough job of fostering transformation in itself or its students. One of the main reasons is that education, like healthcare, has become institutionalized to the point of being bureaucratic (as in, being designed to support themselves before their intended audience).

With shrinking or static budgets, coupled with rising pressure to meet admissions targets, expand programs, while maintaining quality, universities are being forced to transform. The question remains as to whether this transformation will be accompanied with strategies to support the personal, healthy transformation-through-learning that education is supposed to provide, or whether it will fall to protecting the bureaucracy.

One of the serious challenges to this will be time. As mentioned in previous posts, time is becoming a serious challenge to our ability to learn and adapt. Time offers us opportunity to consider different options and relax, rather than do things based on stress. If we don’t provide the time to learn, our systems will transform by force of momentum, rather than conscious direction. Thus, if we are to create bigger classes, more requirements, greater professionalization, and less reflection time, momentum rather than contemplative inquiry will lead decisions. That will also create a less adaptive organization through adherence to path dependencies that will become more entrenched within the system. The dominant design [pdf] of a system created to support itself, rather than adaptation and creativity, will ultimately fail our students, our faculty and our society by limiting the innovation potential that comes complexity.

If that happens, then we will be going back to the Middle Ages, when everyone who went to school was the same, the lessons were limited to single subjects of interest only to the elite, and all the students were men. David Warren might be thrilled.

complexityemergenceresearchsocial systemssystems science

(Not) Following the Rules in Complex Social Systems

Life would be a lot simpler if humans just did just one thing

It’s not everyday that you see complexity science propped up in big type in a major newspaper like the New York Times, but a couple weeks ago in that’s what happened. The article, titled: “It’s Complicated — Making Sense of Complexity” is enough to get a professor like me all giddy.

In the piece, authored by frequent contributor David Segal, took a light look at the distinction between complicated and complex situations, something I’ve discussed in other posts, pointing out that the confusion between these two concepts often leads us to trouble. To illustrate this, Segal quotes Dr. Brenda Zimmerman from York University’s Schulich School of Business, one of the leading proponents of complexity science in social systems like organizations. Dr. Zimmerman states:

What we need, suggests Brenda Zimmerman, a professor at Schulich School of Business in Ontario, is a distinction between the complicated and the complex. It’s complicated, she says, to send a rocket to the moon — it requires blueprints, math and a lot of carefully calibrated hardware and expertly written software. Raising a child, on the other hand, is complex. It is an enormous challenge, but math and blueprints won’t help. Performing hip replacement surgery, she says, is complicated. It takes well-trained personnel, precision and carefully calibrated equipment. Running a health care system, on the other hand, is complex. It’s filled with thousands of parts and players, all of whom must act within a fluid, unpredictable environment. To run a system that is complex, it’s not enough to get the right people and the ideal equipment. It takes a set of simple principles that guide and shape the system. For instance: Teach everyone the best practices of doctors who are really good at hip replacement surgery.

So here’s a leading proponent of complexity science, providing clear examples of the distinctions between complex and complicated in a major newspaper, and finishing it off with a health example. What more could I want?

Yet, I was disappointed by this piece, and particularly the examples described above. The reason was not because they were wrong or inaccurate per se, but rather they are well-worn (to complexity scientists) to the point of being a ‘pat response’ and it is that feeling that stirs concern.

The idea of the simple principles concept comes from work done on ‘Boids‘ and other simulations of complex systems where lots of activities happen simultaneously to produce order out of a situation that is ripe for chaos. Research on flocking or swarming behaviour shows that, despite the volume of actors in the system (like a flock of sparrows), a few simple rules can guide complex behaviour, almost reign it in. With birds flocks, rules such as:

1. Stay equidistant between the closest other members of the flock;

2. Avoid hitting other objects, but keep moving;

3. Steer towards the average position of your flock mates

This produces something that researchers believe approximates the behaviour simulated in the video below:

This is a theory that has been explored with many species and been found to be robust enough to warrant serious consideration. The problem comes when we take these same principles and apply them to human systems. Unlike birds or fish, we are actually quite horrible at following rules, even the most simple of them. It is for this reason that many best practice efforts in health cease to gain widespread adoption. And while there is a movement afoot to use simple rules like checklists to guide certain behaviour in health and other fields, the cases in which these checklists work like surgery are ones that are complicated, not complex.

Human and social systems might be described as ultracomplex because they are governed by chaos, complexity, complexity, simplicity at the same time (for those interested in the relationship between these, I’d recommend studying the Cynefin Framework developed by Dave Snowden and the folk at Cognitive Edge). We humans have rules, but we apply them indiscriminately and consistently depending on the context — which includes person, place and time. Unlike the bees that will create elaborate hive behaviour that resonates with complex systems, bees don’t worry about their self-esteem, tend not to create elaborate myths to guide their collective actions, or empathize with the plight of other insects. Humans ability to self-reflect, to engage in metacognition, empathize, and morally reason makes them different from other natural phenomena, making them problematic for applying the rules of complexity to without some considerable reservations or contextual binding.

I write this as an avid believer in the potential applicability of the laws and rules of complexity from the natural world to the human one, but one also troubled by how quickly we systems scholars apply these concepts without deeper thought on the theoretical and empirical problems that they pose in transferring evidence from domain to domain. There is relatively little good, quality evidence on the use of complexity science as a guiding framework for human action based on studies with humans — insofar as other bodies of evidence are available on similarly tricky subjects. And yet, conceptually, complexity-based concepts like emergence, sensitivity to initial conditions, self-organization and fractal patterning often do a better job explaining plausible connections within human systems than much of the normal, linear science.

Yet, possible face validity does not excuse our need to develop a science that can enable us to speak with confidence on the patterns we see and the meaning — if any — that comes from them. As scientists, it is our job to develop this and take the risks that come with that charge. Perhaps once this evidence based has developed, we’ll see experts discuss the differences between complex and complicated situations citing more than just analogies, but empirical research too.

behaviour changecomplexityeducation & learningenvironmenthealth promotion

Complexity and the Information Landscape


This morning the newswires are buzzing with a story that alleges Britain’s Climatic Research Unit fudged some of its climate change data and suggesting that a ‘bunker mentality’ took hold in the unit, which led to this kind of skewing of the data and science. One scientist told Doug Saunders from the Globe and Mail that “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this has set the climate-change debate back 20 years.” Indeed, with the Copenhagen Climate Summit about to start, there is real concern that these allegations – whether proven true or not — will impair the delegates’ ability to reach a deal.

On a different, yet related note, yesterday I went and got my H1N1 shot and was told by the official guiding people through the clinic that about 37 percent of the population of Toronto have had the vaccination. I went to the downtown clinic and waited about 2 minutes to see someone, which is in stark contrast to what we saw a few weeks ago.Why? The threat of H1N1 seems much less in the here and now than it did a few weeks ago when, in the span of one weekend, when U.S. President Obama declared swine flu a national emergency, and two young people in Ottawa died from H1N1. Towards the end of October, H1N1 seemed a lot more scary and that made the issue a lot simpler: get protected or die (or so it seemed)

So what do these two stories have in common? Both illustrate the problem of complexity in the information landscape. H.L. Mencken is quoted as saying: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong“.

The problem that public health and scientific research faces is that it is in the business of complexity, yet the business of the media is too often in simplicity.  This caused that. That person is bad, this person is a hero and so on. The archetypes and stereotypes come in spades and that is the problem. On the issue of climate change, most scientists worth their salt looking at the data are concerned about what is happening to our climate, not because they know for sure, but because they don’t. In a complex system like the environment, the overlaying causes, consequences and potential confounders of data make it impossible to say for sure that something causes something else in a specific dose. What can be done is that we can observe large scale patterns of behaviour and anticipate changes based on models developed using past, current and possible future (estimated) data and scenario planning.

In public discourse however, this makes for a less compelling story. Many like to think that buying a hybrid car, recycling, and carrying a reusable shopping bag will help solve the problem of climate change, when the truth is an entire system of small changes needs to take place if we really want to make a difference. This speaks to a fundamental lack of understanding of complexity.

With the H1N1 example, complexity is less about the cause and effect relationship of the disease and host and more about the vaccine developed to help prevent it. There are an entire littany of websites, pundits and voices who have turned something that is complicated like a vaccine, with potential complex outcomes in rare events such as allergic reactions, into overly complex issues around patient safety, conspiracy theories and the like. I commented on some of these issues in a previous post. At issue here is a fundamental lack of understanding of statistics and probability.

The problem is that the two are related. For those of us in public health, this is an issue that can lead to sleepless nights. How to both make complex information accessible and interpretable to those without the interest, time or ability to sift through it and make reasoned, informed decisions AND how to enhance people’s understanding of probability? Just yesterday in my course on health behaviour change a student in epidemiology remarked that even something as fundamental as an odds ratio to her field gets debated and misunderstood among her peers. John Sterman at MIT has studied his students — ones that learn about system dynamics — and found that many of them have difficulty grasping the fundamentals of the ‘bathtub problem’ and accumulation, which I discussed in a previous post.

I would argue that this is one of our most fundamental challenges as educators, scientists and members of society.

Think you know about stats and complexity? You might be surprised (and entertained) by how randomness creeps into our lives by listening to the recent podcast on recent episode on stochasticity, or randomness, from WNYC’s Radio Lab.

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.