Tag: complex adaptive systems

complexityevaluationsystems thinking

Diversity / Complexity in Focus

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Diversity in focus?

 

As cities and regions worldwide celebrate Pride the role of diversity, understanding and unity has been brought to mind just as it has contemplating the British public’s choice to leave the EU with Brexit. Both events offer lessons in dealing with complexity and why diversity isn’t about either/or, but more both and neither and that we might learn something not just from the English, but their gardens, too. 

It’s a tad ironic that London has been celebrating its Pride festival this past week, a time when respect and celebration of diversity as well as unification of humanity was top-of-mind while the country voted to undo many of the policies that fostered political and economic union and could likely reduce cultural diversity with Europe. But these kind of ironies are not quirky, but real manifestations of what can happen when we reduce complexity into binaries.

This kind of simplistic, reductionist thinking approach can have enormously harmful and disrupting effects that ripple throughout a system as we are seeing with what’s happened so far in the United Kingdom, Europe and the world in the past week.

Complexity abhors dichotomies

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t

The above quote (which has many variations, including one attributed to author Tom Robbins that I like) makes light of the problem of lumping the complex mass of humanity into two simple categories. It abstracts variation to such a level that it becomes nearly meaningless. The Brexit vote is similar. Both are lessons in complexity lived in the world because they reflect a nuanced, mutli-faceted set of issues that are reduced into binary options that are clustered together.

It is no surprise that, in the days following the Brexit vote in the UK, that there is much talk of a divided, rather than a united kingdom.

Diversity is difficult to deal with and is often left unaddressed as a result. The benefits to having diversity expressed and channeled within a complex system are many and articulated in research and practice contexts across sectors and include protection from disruption, better quality information, a richer array of strategic options and, in social contexts, a more inclusive social community.

The risks are many, too, but different in their nature. Diversity can produce tension which can be used for creative purposes, liberation, insight as well as confusion and conflict, simultaneously. This as a lot do with humans uneasy relationship with change. For some, change is easier to deal with by avoiding it — which is what many in the Leave camp thought they could do by voting the way they did. The darker side of the Leave campaign featured change as an image of non-white immigrant/refugees flooding into Britain, presumably to stoke those uncomfortable with (or outwardly hostile) to others to fear the change that could come from staying in the European Union.

Staying the same requires change

The author Guiseppe de Lampedussa once wrote about the need to change even when desiring to keep things as they are, because even if we seek stability, everything around us is changing and thus the system (or systems) we are embedded in are in flux. That need to change to stay the same was something that many UK citizens voiced. What was to change and what was to stay the same was not something that could be captured by a “Leave” or “Remain” statement, yet that is what they were given.

It should come to no surprise that, when presented with a stark choice on a complex matter, that there would be deep dissatisfaction with the result no matter what happened. We are seeing the fallout from the vote in the myriad factions and splintering of both of the main political parties — Conservative and Labour — and a House of Commons that is now filled with rebellion. Is the UK better off? So far, no way.

This is not necessarily because of the Leave vote, but because of what has come from the entire process of mis-handling the campaigns and the lack of plan for moving forward (by both camps). Further complicating matters is that the very EU that Britain has voted to leave is now not the same place as it was when the Brexit vote was held just five days ago. It’s also faced with rising voices for reform and potential separation votes from other member states who saw their causes bolstered or hindered because of the UK referendum. This is complexity in action.

Tending the garden of complex systems

The English know more about complexity than they might realize. An English garden is an example of complexity in action and how it relates to the balance of order, disorder and unordered systems. A look at a typical English garden will find areas of managed beauty, wildness, and chaos all within metres of one another.

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What also makes a garden work is that it requires the right balance of effort, adaptive action, planning and compensating as well as the ability to let go all at the same time. Gardening requires constant attention to the weather, seasons, the mix of diversity within the system, the boundaries of the system itself (lest weeds or other species seek to invade from outside the garden or plants migrate out to a neighbours place) and how one works with all of it in real time.

Social systems are the same way. They need to be paid attention to and acted upon strategically, in their own time and way. This is why annual strategic planning retreats can be so poorly received. We take an organization with all it’s complexity and decide that once per year we’ll sit down and reflect on things and plan for the future. Complexity-informed planning requires a level of organizational mindfulness that engages the planning process dynamically and may involve the kind of full-scale, organization-wide strategy sessions more frequently or with specific groups than is normally done. Rather than use what is really arbitrary timelines — seen in annual retreats, 5-year plans and so forth — the organization takes a developmental approach, like a gardener, and tends to the organizations’ strategic needs in rhythms that fit the ecosystem in which it finds itself.

This kind of work requires: 1) viewing yourself as part of a system, 2) engaging in regular, sustained planning efforts that have 3) alignment with a developmental evaluation process that continually monitors and engages data collection to support strategic decision-making as part of 4) a structured, regular process of sensemaking so that an organization can see what is happening and make sense of it in real-time, not retrospectively because one can only act in the present, not the future or past.

Just as a garden doesn’t reduce complexity by either being on or off, neither should our social or political systems. Until we start realizing this and acting on it — by design — at the senior strategic level of an organization, community or nation, we may see Brexit-like conditions fostered in places well beyond the white cliffs of Dover into governments and organizations globally.

Photo Credits: The London Eye Lit Up for Pride London by David Jones and Hidcote Manor GardenHidcote Manor GardenHidcote Manor Garden by David Catchpole both used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks to the Davids for sharing their work.

education & learning

The Quality Metric in Education

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What goes on the pedestal of learning?

What is quality when we speak of learning? In this third post in series on education and evaluation metrics the issue of quality is within graduate and professional education is explored with more questions than answers about the very nature of learning itself.

But what does learning really mean and do we set the system up to adequately assess whether people do it or not and whether that has any positive impact on what they do in their practice.

What do you mean when you say learning?

The late psychologist Seymour Sarason asked the above question with the aim of provoking discussion and reflection on the nature and possible outcomes of educational reform. Far from being glib, Sarason felt this question exposed the slippery nature of the concept of learning as used in the context of educational programming and policy. It’s a worthwhile question when considering the value of university and professional education programming. What do we mean when we say learners are learning?

The answer to this question exposes the assumptions behind the efforts to provide quality educational experiences to those we call learners. To be a learner one must learn…something.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines learning this way:

learning |ˈlərniNG|

noun

the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, practice, or study, or by being taught: these children experienced difficulties in learning | [ as modifier ] : an important learning process.

• knowledge acquired in this way: I liked to parade my learning in front of my sisters.

ORIGIN Old English leornung (see learn,-ing1) .

This might sufficiently answer Dr Sarason except there is no sense of what the content is or whether that content is appropriate, sufficient, timely or well-supported with evidence (research or practice-based); the quality of learning.

Knowledge translation professionals know that learning through evidence is not achieved through a one-size-fits-all approach and that the match between what professionals need and what is available is rarely clean and simple (if it was, there would be little need for KT). The very premise of knowledge translation is that content itself is not enough and that sometimes it requires another process to help people learn from it. This content is also about what Larry Green argues: practice-based evidence is needed to get better evidence-based practice.

How do we know when learning is the answer (and what are the questions)?

If our metric of success in education is that those who engage in educational programming learn, how do we know whether what they have learned is of good quality? How do we know what is learned is sufficient or appropriately timed? Who determines what is appropriate and how is that tested? These are all questions pertaining to learning and the answers to them depend greatly on context. Yet, if context matters then the next question might be: what is the scope of this context and how are its parameters set?

Some might choose academic discipline as the boundary condition. To take learning itself as an example, how might we know if learning is a psychology problem or a sociology problem (or something else)? If it is a problem for the field of psychology, when does it become educational psychology, cognitive psychology, community psychology or one of the other subdisciplines looking at the brain, behaviour, or social organization? Successful learning through all of these lenses means something very different across conditions.

Yet, consider the last time you completed some form of assessment on your learning. Did you get asked about the context in which that learning took place? When you were asked questions about what you learned on your post-learning assessment:

  • Did it take into account the learning context of delivery, reception, use, and possible ways to scaffold knowledge to other things?
  • Did your learner evaluation form ask how you intended to use the material taught? Did you have an answer for that and might that answer change over time?
  • Did it ask if your experience of the learning event matched what the teachers and organized expected you to gain and did you know what that really was?
  • Did you know at the time of completing the evaluation whether what you were exposed to was relevant to the problems you needed to solve or would need to solve in the future?
  • Did you get asked if you were interested in the material presented and did that even matter?
  • Was there an assumption that the material you were exposed to could only be thought of in one way and did you know what that way was prior to the experience? If you didn’t think of the material in the way that the instructors intended did you just prove that the first of these two questions is problematic?

Years of work in post-secondary teaching and continuing professional education suggests to me that your answer to these questions was most likely “no”, except the very last one.

These many questions are not posed to antagonize educators (or “learners”, too) for there are no single or right answers to any of them. Rather, these are intended to extend Seymour Sarason’s question to the present day and put in the context of graduate and professional education at a time when both areas are being rethought and rationalized.

Learning to innovate (and being wrong)

A problem with the way much of our graduate and professional education is set up is that it presumes to have the answers to what learning is and seeks to deliver the content that fills a gap in knowledge within a very narrow interpretation. This is based on an assumption that what was relevant in the past is both still appropriate now and will be in the future unless we are speaking of a history lesson. However, innovation and discovery — and indeed learning itself — is based on failure, discomfort and not knowing the answers as much as building on what has come before us. There is no doubt that a certain base level of knowledge is required to do most professional and scientific work and that building a core is important, but it is far from sufficient.

The learning systems we’ve created for ourselves are based on a factory model of education, not for addressing complexity or dynamic systems like we find in most social worlds. We do not have a complex adaptive learning system in place, one that supports innovation (and the failures that produce new learning) because:

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. – Sir Ken Robinson, TED Talk 2006

The above quote comes from education advocate Sir Ken Robinson in a humorous and poignant TED talk delivered in 2006 and then built on further in a second talk in 2010. Robinson lays bare the assumptions behind much of our educational system and how it is structured. He also exposes the problem we face in advancing innovation (my choice of term) because we have designed a system that actively seeks to discourage wide swaths of learning that could support it, particularly with the arts.

Robinson points to the conditions of interdisciplinary learning and creativity that emerge when we free ourselves of the factory model of learning that much of our education is set up, “producing” educated people. If we are assessing learning and we go outside of our traditional disciplines how can we assess whether what we teach is “learned” if we have no standard to compare it to? Therein lies the rub with the current models and metrics.

If we are to innovate and create the evidence to support it we need to be wrong. That means creating educational experiences that allow students to be wrong and have that be right. If that is the case, then it means building an education system that draws on the past, but also creates possibilities for new knowledge and learning anchored in experimentation and transcends disciplines when necessary. It also means asking questions about what it means to learn and what quality means in the context of this experimental learning process.

If education is to transform itself and base that transformation on any form of evidence then getting the right metrics to evaluate these changes is imperative and quality of education might just need to be one of them.

Image: Shutterstock

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.

complexitysystems sciencesystems thinking

Complexity and the Senseless Marketing of the Future

Logarithmic spiral

Futurists take what we know now and project into the future ideas about things will be like years from today using the models that have worked consistently up to now. Those models applied to human systems are changing quickly making marketing the future based on them senseless and potentially dangerous.

Earlier this past week a post on FastCoExist caught my attention and brought to mind why I have such an uneasy relationship with futurists and futures as a field. The post, 8 Ways the World Will Change in 2052, is look at the next 40 years written by Jorgen Randers, a professor of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School and written with all the confident swagger that typifies futurists making statements about what is to come. After all, it’s hard to draw an audience (and the benefits that comes with that) when you don’t have a confident answer on your subject matter — even if that answer is wrong. In this latest post in the series on marketing complexity I look at futurists and their predictions and what it could mean for making sense of the threats and opportunities we will face in the years to come.

The Mathematical Problem of Futures and Complexity

The FastCoExist article paints a picture of a world that looks a lot like the one we have today, just with some shifts in economic and social structures. It suggests that much will remain the same even though a few key things will change, but our general relations will remain constant. It is that consistency that raises my concerns about futurist thinking (not all, to be sure) and its use of the data today to make predictions tomorrow. There is an assumption of linearity that weaves its way through the narratives spun by futurists that do not fit with how complex systems behave, nor does it account for the network effects created by interconnected systems.

Where I live now (Toronto), we have seen an almost uninterrupted heat wave for more than three weeks and that is forecast to continue for the week to come. This is the hottest year in recorded history (video), and as this short news clip shows the implications are many. At our current level of focus the implications may seem slight: changing growing conditions for gardens, better cottage swimming weather, brown lawns etc.. But at another scale and perspective, the interconnections between these things will start to reveal themselves if the pattern continues.

It is here where I see futurists getting it wrong as their predicts rest on largely linear trajectories of change and scientific knowledge that uses linear models to create predictions. The mistake is taking linear phenomenon and grafting that knowledge on to complex cases, while another mistake is taking science that works for static things and applying it to dynamic objects.

Complexity often produces change curves that follow a Pareto distribution, which is a way of accounting for things like ‘tipping points’, and is rarely linear in its effects for long periods of time. As the news report mentions, Toronto has an average temperature of 3.5 degrees higher than normal in a single year. It could be an aberration, but when we see record-breaking temperatures for years on end that looks like a pattern forming.

Climate change is not just about things getting warmer, cooler, wetter or dryer. From a human standpoint, how we adapt to these changes is what counts and in a networked world is that adaptations happen simultaneously and in a dynamic, interconnected manner. That means that many things change at the same time and that the relationship between dynamic objects means that the overall quantity and rate of change in the system is likely to be logarithmic (exponential) not additive.

Reframing change models: the language of complex systems.

If we are to create models that are more useful to us, we need to develop them with complexity in mind, think in systems and act as designers. To do this requires a change in the thinking models we use and the ways we communicate these models to the wider world. Yet, it isn’t as alien as it seems; we do it all the time with ourselves in explaining our social lives.

  • A child goes from being peaceful and quiet to a tantrum in a matter of seconds.
  • A calm, composed individual bursts into tears at a seemingly random event.
  • A polite, warm conversation quickly turns cold at the slightest mention of a particular phenomenon

In many of these cases the ’cause’ might not be obvious. An example I use with my students is this:

Imagine a couple in their bedroom and one partner sees a wayward sock that has been left on floor and gets intensely angry at the other partner upon discovery of the sock. Why? Is is that the sock on the floor is so problematic that it reduces an otherwise peaceful environment into a space of conflict? Is the sock really that bad? Or is the sock a catalyst for something else? Does it represent something (or many things) that are embodied in the sock being left carelessly on the floor? Does the sock serve as a vessel for accumulated grievances and stressors only loosely related to its position on the floor?

This example of the sock illustrates how a Pareto distribution of social tensions in a relationship could be expressed. It points to how the most ‘obvious’ linear answer might not always be the case even if initial appearance suggest a relationship.

Explaining the reasons for problems opens a door to solving them. But we can do more.

The power of weak signals

The way to interject into a complex system is not to pay attention to everything all of the time, but to small things that show patterns. Eric Berlow has a remarkable 3 minute TED talk that illustrates how signals can be extracted from networks to reveal simplicity in complexity. A 2008 paper in the journal Physical Review shows the ways in which weak signals can be detected by reducing the overall volume of information or nodes in a network.

But what to pay attention to? This is where mindful evaluation and attention comes in. Mindfulness is not just a way to connect to one’s inner life, but also the outer world around us. A mindful approach to monitoring and evaluation means watching what happens around us and positioning tools, metrics and data gathering processes to give us the necessary feedback on our systems around us. To take the example of the couple’s conflict over the sock, paying attention within the relationship to minor conflicts, areas of tention, and moments of release earlier could have diffused energy enough to mean the sock was just a sock.

In social systems, this means paying attention to areas of intersection where natural tensions occur due to difference. These differences could be perspective, attitude, knowledge, beliefs or capabilities. These points of intersection are often where novelty emerges and innovation takes place, but they are also where deeper problems can begin. Constant, evolving and dynamic methods of data collection that recognizes change in non-linear and linear forms is more likely to enable the sorts of weak signal detection that can help us see the future more clearly.

That can help us make sense of future possibilities, rather than make empty predictions that guide what we do now at the expense of paying attention to what might come (and what is really happening).

complexitysystems thinking

Marketing the Narrative of Complexity

Sunset 2007-1Complexity, by its very nature, is not a simple concept to communicate, yet it is increasingly becoming one that will define our times and may be the key to ensuring human survival and wellbeing in the years to come. If society is to respond to complex challenges the meaning of complexity needs to be communicated to the world in a manner that is understandable to a wide audience. This is the first in a series of posts that are looking at the concept of complexity and the challenges and opportunities with marketing it to the world.

Across North America this week the temperatures are vastly exceeding normal levels into ranges more akin to places like India or East Africa. The climate is changing and regardless of what the causes are the complexities that this introduces require changes in our thinking and actions or human health and wellbeing will be at risk. To follow Einstein’s famous quote:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”

Many U.S. States are suffering hurricane-like after-effects from a Derecho that hit last week, knocking out power at a time when temperatures are into the high 90’s and low 100’s. Derechos are rapid moving hot air systems that are difficult to predict and can only be anticipated under certain conditions. The heat wave combined with the lack of air conditioning and supplies left 13 dead, maybe more. The heat wave is continuing and is expected to last throughout the weekend.

But this post is not really about the weather, but the challenges with complexity that it represents and how we need to be better understanding what complexity is and how to work with it if we are to survive and thrive in the years to come.

Blog interrupted

It’s ironic that this post was delayed by blackout. I live in Toronto, Canada and we have a remarkably stable power supply, yet last night and through this morning I was without power  due to suspected overheated circuits attributed to high air conditioning use, shutting down my Internet and everything else with it. In many parts of the world, this kind of blackout is commonplace and a fact of daily living, but not here…yet. This fortuitous bit of timing illustrates the fragility of many of our systems given the reliance on power to fuel much of what we do (e.g., cooking, food storage, Internet, traffic signals, lighting, etc..).

Virtually all of the infrastructure of modern life (here and increasingly globally) is tied to electricity. If you’re interested in imagining what would happen if it all shuts off, I’d highly recommend reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Weisman uses a complexity scientist and futurists’ tool called a thought experiment to craft a book about what New York City would look like if humans suddenly disappeared. The book illustrates how nature might take over, how the underground subways would flood and collapse because of the millions of litres of water needed to be pumped out of it each day, and how certain human-built structures would decay over time (some far faster than we might hope).

Thought experiments take data from things that have happened already, theories, and conjecture and project scenarios into the future based on the amalgam of these. It provides some grounded means of anticipating possible futures to guide present action.

From present delays to future/tense

The Guardian asked a number of scientists working on climate about whether this current spate of extreme weather events is attributable to global warming. The scientists offered a range of answers that (not surprisingly) lacked a definitive statement around cause-and-effect, yet the comments hint at a deep concern. These anomalous conditions are starting to move further towards the end of the normal curve, meaning that they are becoming less statistically plausible to be caused by chance. What this means for the weather, for climate, for our economies is not known; all we have is thought experiments and scenarios. But the future is coming and we may want to be prepared by helping create one we want, not just one we get.

Unfortunately, we cannot wait for the data to confirm that global warming is happening or determine that we are contributing to it and to what degree. This is not just a weather issue; the same situation is playing itself out with issues worldwide ranging from healthcare funding to immigration policies and migration patterns. Interconnected, interdependent and diverse agents and information forms are interacting to create, emergent patterns of activity.

It is for this reason that weather patterns — despite being one of the most monitored and studied phenomenon — can’t be accurately predicted outside of a few hours in advance, if at all. There is too much information coming together between air flows, humidity, land forms, physical structure and human intervention (e.g., airplane contrails) interacting simultaneously in a dynamic manner to create a reliable model of the data. David Orrell’s book Apollo’s Arrow is a terrific read if you want to understand complexity in relation to weather (and more) or see his talk at TEDX on YouTube.

Two’s company, three’s complexity (and other analogies)

The above heading is taken from a title of another book on complexity and tries to simply point to how adding just a little bit of information (another person to a conversation perhaps) can radically alter the experience from being simple or complicated to complex. Just thinking about planning a night out with two people vs. three and you’ll know a little of what this means.

Analogies and metaphors are ways in which complexity scholars commonly seek to convey how the differences in conditions represent varying states of order. Brenda Zimmerman and others write about putting a rocket to the moon as being complicated and raising a child as being complex. One of my favourites is Dave Snowden‘s video on How to Organize a Children’s Party. One of the reasons we resort to analogies is that we need a narrative that fits with their experience. All of us were children and some of us have had them as parents so we can relate to Zimmerman and Snowden’s ideas because we’ve experienced it firsthand.

We haven’t experienced anything like what is anticipated from global warming. In the Americas, parts of Europe and Asia we are enormously fortunate to have entire generations that don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, have no healthcare, be without electricity, or have no access to safe water and proper sanitations. Stories about children’s parties might not bring these scenarios home. It is why Weisman’s book is so clever: it makes a plausible scenario fiction.

Science fact as science fiction

The role of fiction might be the key to opening the marketing vault to complexity. Scott Smith and others have been exploring how the use of science fiction helped pave the way for some of today’s modern technologies and innovations. By weaving together fantasy narratives and imaginations on the future, technologists have managed to re-create these tools for current life. Witness the Tricorder Project that seeks to develop the same multifunction health and information tool used by Dr. McCoy on Star Trek.

We are making headway with complex information as witnessed by the popularity of infographics and data visualizations. But there is much more to be done.

Complex problems require complex solutions. Artists, designers, scientists, marketers, journalists and anyone who can communicate well can play a role. Making complexity something that people not only know about, but want to know about is the task at hand. In doing so, we may find people reaching for and advocating for complex solutions rather than stop-gap, band-aid ones like buying a car with better fuel economy as the main strategy to combat carbon emissions.

It’s been done before. Marshall McLuhan wrote about esoteric, yet remarkably insightful and complex topics and became a household name in part to his appearance in Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall. Our media landscape is far more complex now (no pun intended) to think that a single appearance of any complexity superstar (if one existed) would change public perception of the topic in the same way that McLuhan’s did for his theories on media. Yet, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth might have done more to get people talking about the environment than anything. And while Gore is not known for his witty storytelling, his slide show did a good job.

To begin our journey of marketing complexity we need to come up with our stories so that we can tell ones that are pleasant, rather than the ones that are less so. And if you want one that fits this latter category, I strongly recommend reading Gwynn Dyer’s chilling Climate Wars. Instead, let’s get closer to living what Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler write about in Abundance.

The future is ours to write.

For more books and resources on complexity, check out the library page on Censemaking.

complexityeducation & learningevaluationsocial systems

Complexity and Child-Rearing: Why Amy Chua is Neither Right or Wrong

Family

Science strives for precision and finding the right or at least the best answers to questions. The science of complexity means shifting our thinking from right answers to appropriate ones and what is best to good. The recent debate over parenting (particularly among Chinese families) illustrates how framing the issue and the outcomes makes a big difference.

Amy Chuais probably the most reviled mother in America” according to Margaret Wente writing in the Globe and Mail.  In her column, Wente is looking at the phenomenon that Chua writes about in her new book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. What has drawn such attention to Chua and her book is that she advocates for a very strict method of parenting in a manner that achieves very specific objectives with her children. The payoff? Her children are very successful. This is not a new argument, particularly when it comes to Chinese and other Asian cultural stereotypes. But like many stereotypes, they emerge from something that has a kernel of truth that gets used in ways that gets applied as a universal, rather than in context. Judging by the comments on the original Wall Street Journal story that attracted attention and the Globe and Mail’s review page, I would say that there is some truth to this stereotype and some wild overstatements as this gets applied universally to parenting.

A summary of the comments and commentary on this, crudely, fall into two camps (which, for reasons I’ll elaborate on later is ironic given how problematic the whole idea of reducing arguments into twos is, but go with me on this): 1) Amy Chua is recalling my childhood or parenting reality and its nice to hear someone acknowledge it and 2) Amy Chua is promoting harmful, inaccurate, racist stereotypes.

Child-raising is a common example of a complex system, showing how past experience is not necessarily a formula for future success. Thus, you can have the same parents, same household, even same genes (in the case of twins) and get two very different outcomes. Complex systems do not lend themselves to recipes or “best practices”. You can’t shoehorn complexity into “right” / “wrong” and either/or positions.

What is interesting about the discussion around Chua’s parenting style, which she claims reflects traditional Chinese behaviour (I am not Chinese so this is out of my realm for comment) is that the focus is on raising successful children, not necessarily happy, well-adjusted, self-determined or even creative children. And success, in the terms referred to means achieving or exceeding certain prescriptive standards for socially acceptable activities. This might mean acceptance at a prestigious school, an error-free performance, or a straight A report card. It is a rather narrowly proscribed form of achievement based upon a particular set of cultural conditions and assumptions.

One of the problems I see in this debate is that people are conflating the two types of outcomes, which is where the complexity comes in. What Chua has done is actually refer to parenting in line with a set of complicated activities and outputs, rather than part of a complex system. She has sought to reduce the complexity in the system of parenting by focusing on issues of tangible measurement and has created a familial system aimed at reducing the likelihood that these objectives will not be met. Her benchmark for success are visible outcomes, not the kind that come from growing one’s self-esteem, building true friendships, or learning to love. This isn’t to say that her children or those raised by “tiger parents” don’t have such experiences, but this isn’t what her method of parenting is focused on. And therein lies the rub and why much of the debate surrounding Chua’s book is misaligned.

If you are assessing the life of a person and their total experience as a human being, Chua’s method of parenting is quite problematic. Success in this situation has many different paths and may not even have a clear outcome. What does it really mean to be successful if love, happiness, and self-fulfilment is the outcome of interest – particularly when all of those things change and evolve over a week, a month or a lifetime? It is the kind of task that one might use developmental evaluation to assess if you were looking to determine what kind of impact a particular form of parenting has on children’s lives. Margaret Wente’s article uses some examples of “tiger parenting” outcomes with those who achieved much “success” using the benchmarks of externally validated standards and found mixed outcomes when “success” was viewed as part of a whole person. Andre Agassi grew to loathe tennis because of his experience, while Lang Lang appears to love his piano playing. Both have achieved success in some ways, but not all.

These two examples also go to show that with human systems, there is little ability to truly control the outcomes and process. Even if one can reduce outcomes to complicated or simplistic terms, those outcomes are still influenced by complex interactions. Complicated systems can be embedded within complex ones or the opposite. So no matter what kind of prescription a person uses, no matter how tight the controls are put, the influence of complexity has a way of finding itself into human affairs.

So is Amy Chua’s method of parenting successful or not, supportive or harmful, right or wrong? The answer is yes.

behaviour changecomplexitydesign thinkinghealth promotionpsychology

A Complex View of New Year’s Resolutions

A Happy, Simple New Year (CC- WilliamCho)

The end of the year is coming and, despite good advice and the warning about how they don’t work, you’re still determined to come up with a really good New Year’s Resolution and this year, dammit, you’re going to stick with it.

It’s simple, right? Make a commitment, come up with a plan to stick to it, and you’re ready to go.

Firstly, change in human systems is rarely a matter of simplicity, which is why New Year’s resolutions tend to benefit the diet industry and fitness clubs, but few others.

Another reason lays in the meaning of the term simple. Simplicity implies that there are relatively straightforward mechanisms that underlie a cause and consequence, that these can be predicted with reasonable certainty and consistency, and that we can derive “best practices” from such events given their reliability and efficiency. When we see something as simple, we usually have a high level of control.

Yet, it is the very nature of human systems that makes control such an elusive concept when wish to change something. Complexity science provides us with a different way to handle these problems. It provides a means of understanding complex situations — those where there are multiple causes and consequences that interact and change dynamically — that represent the lives of human beings. Rather than predict what is going to happen based on flawed assumptions of control, complexity science helps anticipate change and prepares people to adapt to these changes wisely.

Diet and exercise tend to be near the top of New Year’s Resolutions. Typically, people will make a resolution to start an exercise plan and reform their diet all in one swoop. The thinking is akin to “go hard or go home”. The problem with this is that what we eat, how we eat, and the activities that we do on any given day are part of a complex weave of activities that shape our lives. Few of us have jobs or lifestyles where everything is the same day to day. If you have children, you’ll know firsthand that even with the most regimented schedule for them and you, every day brings new surprises. But for the most part, these are little surprises that happen consistently and, consistent with a complex system, you adapt.

If your diet consists of a lot of take-out food, pre-prepared foods like frozen dinners or canned goods, the idea that you will suddenly start cooking at home, eating healthy meals and changing the portion sizes right away is setting yourself up for failure. This change alone requires shifts in your time (now you need to shop, cook, clean, and plan in advance), which suddenly changes how you use the rest of your time as it might impact upon work, play, social activities and so on. This isn’t to suggest that such investments in this new lifestyle are not worth it, but that simple shift will drastically change not just your diet, but your lifestyle as a whole all at the same time. That’s a lot of stress to put on the system that is your life.

An alternative is to make small shifts, ones that don’t upset things too much like perhaps making one meal on the weekends. Once that is in place, perhaps change the meal to allow for leftovers so that one day or two you pack a lunch instead of eating out. Maybe then shift towards changing the lunch options you choose when you do eat out one or two days per week. The key is to take one thing, do it and do it well and then build upon it by introducing another thing. Over time, your schedule will adapt and you’ll find the ways to make the changes without them feeling so big.

Exercise is the same way. Rather than sign up for a year’s membership at the gym and workout 2 hours a day for the first week only to find yourself so sore and tired that you can’t imagine going back, try upping the activity level you engage in with different strategies. If you don’t go to the gym at all, starting there might not be the best option. Try walking a little more around your neighbourhood or take the stairs when there is an escalator. Maybe get off the bus one or two stops early and walk the rest of the way home.  Once you start doing that, try a day pass a gym and do some very light weights or some simple cardio workouts like walking on a treadmill. As you build up over time, you will find what works and doesn’t work in terms of your likes and dislikes and what seems to be effective. This is called feedback, another critical component of complex systems.

By paying attention — being mindful — of what you’re doing and how it is working, you can start to build a longer-term strategy or pattern of activity that moves you along to where you want to go. It also prevents you from the let down at having not achieved your goals, but setting yourself up for success rather than failure. In doing so, you work with the complexity of human systems and our daily lives rather than against them.