Tag: chaos theory

complexityemergencepublic healthsystems sciencesystems thinking

Recombination: The Missing Link Between Linear and Non-Linear Views of Change

I teach a course in health behaviour change and one in systems thinking perspectives on public health. Both courses complement each other and both deal with change. However, most of the major theories of behaviour change deal with the subject in a straightforward, linear manner. Models and theories like the Health Belief Model, Theory of Reasoned Action, and Social Cognitive Theory all have elements explicit or implicit to them that suggest change occurs in a largely linear manner from problem state to desired state.

One of the more popular models of change is the Transtheoretical Model, which included the concept of Stages of Change. Developed by James Prochaska and colleagues at the University of Rhode Island (and others), the model has become widely popular and used all over the world to guide change efforts. The problem is that the evidence for its effectiveness, despite the logic it brings with it, is weak.

Robert West, the editor of the journal Addiction, and others, issued a rather stinging set of criticisms against the Transtheoretical Model’s Stages of Change concept, pointing to the evidence that suggests that as many (if not more) people quit smoking or behaviors like that with no apparent plan in place. “It just happened” .

Indeed, the data suggests that Stages of Change is not that strong as a predictor of eventual change, yet its popularity suggests something that goes beyond evidence. At its root is the idea of “ready, set, go” and taps into our deep-seated interests in making plans and moving ahead in a straightforward manner. In short, it fits linear thinking to a tee.

Over time, proponents of the Stages of Change theory and related models and theories have asserted that people do move forwards and backwards through the stages and that it is not simply a one-way view of change, but in both cases the end is still some form of linear trajectory.

What makes behaviour change theories like the TTM and others problematic from the perspective of complexity is that they are linear. Yet, linearity is the way we define the problems in the first place. These theories are all based on some form of cognitive-rational foundation that take at its core the idea that information is the starting point for change and that the way information is perceived and worked through will serve as a touchpoint for further motivational activities.

What is embedded within this assumption is the idea that, once configured, information is organized in a relatively stable, consistent manner. What it does not do is account for the ways in which our memories, circumstance, situation, and the addition of new information can only only change what we know, but also the way in which we know it. Thus, recombination of information leads to new insights and activities, not all of which are necessarily in support of the trajectory that was initiated.

Richard Resincow and Scott Page start to probe some of this terrain in their article published a couple of years ago looking at quantum change. The article, which was widely discussed, challenges the very notion that the approach we take to behaviour change is misaligned with much of what we know about complex adaptive systems. And to this end, the human mind and body is indeed a complex adaptive system in many respects. Certainly our social worlds fit this description.

If this is the case, and we take this idea that recombination of information can and does occur, it has profound implications for how we develop social institutions and the way in which we support individuals looking to make changes. It means not expecting that changes will stay in place, but rather always anticipating the possibility that something might shift and dramatic transformations could occur.

Flexible strategies, adaptive strategies and those that attend to context and the constant, dynamic flow of information are those that will provide more useful models for change in this worldview. It might now repudiate the models we use now, but it certainly casts new light on the directionality of change that they invoke. And in simply shifting those arrows around, we open possibility for understanding change in a wider way that might eventually lead us to one that takes complexity into account more fully, and learning.

complexityeducation & learningemergencepsychologysocial media

Social (non) Sense-making

Ripples of knowledge or folly?

A couple days ago I wrote about the idea of social sense-making and how fostering a climate of knowledge sharing that involves trusting people teach and giving them the opportunity to do so. One powerful argument is that teaching is a powerful method of learning in its own right and evidence suggests that we retain much more when we teach someone than when we simply take something in passively. The value here is predicated on a constellation of assumptions that the teacher is providing something of value, can communicate the message effectively, inspires a response in the learner that activates pathways in the brain that encourages reflection and retention, and that the learner and teacher are co-participating in this process.

What is  sometimes forgotten and more problematic is whether or not the content being shared is true.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines true as:

True: Oxford English Dictionary

When you parse through this definition in the context of social learning, much of its component terms such as ‘reality’, ‘genuine’ , ‘standard’, and ‘accurate’ become highly problematic. Much of the literature on sense-making supports the concept of knowledge being socially constructed within a context. The work of Dave Snowden at Cognitive Edge, John Seely Brown, or Gary Klein at Klein Associates are worth looking at in this regard.   The critical realist perspective, which posits that reality is co-created by humans who function within a set of conditions that can be known, but only partly, is the most common expression of this viewpoint. It is a perspective that is congruent with much scholarship in the social sciences and philosophy (although purists will argue how true — as in the definition above — this is).

The sense-making scholarship looks at how relationships influence our decisions and the meaning that is constructed from it. When you engage in a relationship with someone, you’re able to send signals that convey meaning through gesture, tonality, and circumstance that go well beyond what we often bound as the “information” we are trying to share.

But as work popularized by Jeff Howe in Crowdsourcing or James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds points out, having little relationship with others and partial knowledge is more than sufficient if one’s ability to make sense of the whole is leveraged with collective decision-making capacity of many others. In these models, one only need to see part of the problem to make effective decisions when combined with the equally limited perspective of many other people who, when working together, see the whole. This form of collective decision making has become exceptionally popular in business and even health. One of the other ways to view this model is that it operates something like the SETI@home Project, which was one of the first initiatives to use the power of grid computing to solving problems that required massive computing power to make calculations based on large, complicated datasets. Grid computing uses excess processing power from dormant computers to feed into a large, networked ‘grid’ to create a virtual supercomputer. Howe and Surowiecki describe social decision-making models that look a lot like grid computing. In these models we can afford to use less than our full capacity to understanding a problem because the collective capacity is so much more powerful and will fill in the blanks. This kind of decision-making works well with complicated tasks, those with many different parts, but configured in a manner where we can understand their relationship to each other. Complex problems are quite different. Here, knowledge of the parts and their relationship to each other is only partially useful in understanding the impact on the whole. The crowd-sourcing model might be good for the former, but the latter is where many of the challenges in our health and social system lie and I’m not convinced that this is always a good thing.

Combine cognitive off-loading with a massive amount of information and the tools to enable this information to be distributed and re-distributed quickly and you create new problems, ones that are exacerbated by the shift in our social network ties. Media scholar Clay Shirky recently spoke to this issue in a recent ‘rush’ on the BBC’s Virtual Revolution show by pointing to the example of the Obama administration’s implementation of change.gov and how, in spite of the economic challenges facing the US, two wars, and the threat of climate change, participants on the site chose legalizing marijuana as the #1 issue to solve problems on. The Change.gov site was not making decisions for the country, but the model it employs is consistent with social decision making. It’s probably why we haven’t heard much about this initiative that was the much promoted way to take the engaged citizenry that supported Obama’s election and transform it into a guide for government.

On Facebook, people posted their bra colour on their status to show support for breast cancer (even when there appears to be doubt as to its origins, motives or even rationale for how this was to work). Have you joined a group to show support for something that has no method of converting that support into anything except through collecting names? On email, have you received or been sent a note promising you a free laptop if you forward something on or help save someone by doing the same because each forwarded message will raise money for a good cause? These things abound and the social web allows it to flourish. Yet, by indulging in such things we are creating patterns of decision-making that continue the off-loading of cognition (and maybe action) to the group and go from social sense-making to nonsense making. Someone else will take care of it.

Taking it slow, reducing media consumption to allow processing of information mindfully, and building up your strong social ties (relationships) are three ways to address this problem. But the latter is what I think is critical. In his interview with the BBC, Clay Shirky discusses the challenge a world where weak ties are growing at the expense of strong ties and wonders aloud what impact this will have on democracy and decision making. In a world that is currently fascinated with social networks, the ‘strength of weak ties’ argument posed by Mark Granovetter and many other social networking researchers has become cocktail party talk. While I am glad that social networking research is getting its time in the sun, the concern is that – perhaps for the very reasons I’ve discussed here — people are off-loading the deep thought about it and going into the realm of weak ties over-enthusiastically. Because it is a lot harder to off-load when your close relations will hold you to account and know you well enough to tell when you’re not making sense (and will be comfortable telling you as much). It is in these interactions that the concept of ‘true’ can really be known.

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?

systems thinking

Making the Invisible Visible

This was a remarkable week for me for many reasons, most of which had to do with getting a new slant on reality or a new view of some of the systems that I am a part of and those that I am not.

I had the pleasure to spend four days in Bogota, Colombia meeting with the amazing folk at CINTEL and presenting at the 4th Encuentro de Invsestigacion Innovation e Ingernieria on Techno-wellbeing. I had the privilige to share the work that the Youth Voices Research Group is doing on health promotion with youth and our integrated eHealth model for community engagement including our Food4Health and Public Health Gambling Projects.

The first morning of meetings I was writing at my computer and then got up to look out the window of my hotel at the bustling morning rush hour of Bogota. As I was admiring the dogs playing in the park, the roar of the motorcycles and the beauty of the tree-lined boulevards outside my window I felt my back go into massive spasm. It hurt so much that I could hardly move. Realizing that I could not stand at the window in pain forever I fought through the ‘lightning bolts’ and managed to get to my bag where I had Advil tablets to manage the pain. But even at the best of times, it hurt – a lot. Over the past week the pain has subsided considerably, although I am still not 100% and probably won’t be for a few more days. But the pain isn’t the story here as much as the revelation it brought to me about the role that accessibility plays within the systems we engage in. Even simple things like stairs became a real pain (literally!) to take. Where I normally bound up the stairs two at a time, I found myself gingerly lifting one leg at a time up each step.

On my first day back home I had to shuffle on my way to the office. In process of shuffling, I realized how I had ‘become’ one of ‘those people’ who walk so slowly that I often get frustrated at in my effort to go somewhere quickly. My back should get better soon, but what hopefully remains is the lessons that this brought (including the one about taking better care of myself to prevent this from happening). As a systems thinker, I see these lessons or affirmations as including:

1. Diversity of perspective is critical. Just in one morning shuffle to the university I realized massive design flaws in the city I live in that favour the able-bodied. For example, some of these street lights can’t be adequately navigated in time if you can’t walk at a normal pace. Another big flaw is the heavy weight of the front doors of my building. I damn near pulled my back out again just opening the doors, which are exceptionally heavy.

2. Accessibility has many forms. Public health leaders are getting better at recognizing the social barriers to health engagement created by issues of race, social class, sex and gender, and geography. But one thing that can easily get lost is physical accessibility via disability. In eHealth for example, we often create elaborate websites that have tiny fonts that people with limited eyesight can’t see. Ever try reading a Blackberry or iPhone for long periods of time? It’s only for the good-sighted. Or we make assumptions that people can sit at computer and type (like I am now) and don’t have bad backs (like I did).

3. The mundane is where the action is. In systems we are often attracted to events, because that’s where the action appears to be. Yet, the mundane activities of a system is where most activities happen. For example, tying your shoes is something that happens every day and is never paid attention to until you break your shoelace or (in my case) hurt your back. In order to prepare for systems change, we need to anticipate how change might occur within the everyday actions in the system.

4. The edge of chaos always shifts. Creative systems tend to function at the edge of chaos, yet this edge has a dynamic position. My personal creative edge took a major directional change this week when my back went out. I continued to creatively navigate through my world, but instead of imagining new possibilities that hadn’t been created before, I found my creative edge focused on trying to get close to my former level of equilibrium on day-to-day activities like walking, shoe tying, and just getting dressed.

As I move into a new Fall term and am about to teach a new course on systems science these lessons are particularly apt. While I don’t think I’ll get my students to throw their back out, I will have them imagine how their current assumptions about a system can radically change with a very simple shift in vantage point, making the invisible visible.