Getting At Complex Societal Issues


Everyone bangs on about sustainability.

And like everything valuable it has been hijacked as an aspiration but not executed at the level it needs to really mean anything.

A Definition:

Sustainable Development is often defined as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” All attempts to measure sustainability conceptually emerge from the three P’s: People, Planet, and Profit. Of course it is way more complicated than that. And these are now also very loaded terms.

Sadly we live in a world of increasing partisanship and ambiguity.

All challenges in society are the result of disruptions to the systems within which we live. It’s now harder than ever to get at anything approaching sustainability in such a dynamic context. Every stakeholder with an interest in the system is caught within their own agenda – and however they seek to collaborate to make things better – the inevitable compromise undermines the noble cause.

In truth for sustainability to occur we have to understand its meaning in terms of the whole society and address the real causes of systemic challenge and meltdown. Indeed is sustainability a reasonable objective to begin with?

We need even more powerful tools to solve the increasingly wicked problems such as societal improvement and the sustainability of the development within it.

Solving complex societal issues to enable sustainable development rely on us having a very different attitude. A different state of mind. Different behaviors. Initially this means changing the very words we use to describe everything – not because they are the wrong words but because their meaning has become lost. Think hard about the following words – methods, experts, strategies and policies. In reality we are talking about needing the right skills and mental fortitude. For that we really need the appropriate capabilities, attitude, behaviors, honesty and morality – as well as the right techniques and tools.

Today’s techniques and tools need to be deliberately designed for critical thinking. Broken down further this means proven approaches designed for properly analyzing, structuring, visualizing, facilitating (guiding) and evaluating the dynamics of complexity in a 21st Century context.

What’s The Terrain?

  • The Categories: Complex societal problems/challenges are often the direct cause of policy problems and as such they occur in many fields – Health, Education, Security, Age, Religion, Work, Well Being, Environment and so on.
  • Cause And Effect: Society is complex. It is a rich mixture of humanity living and it has many issues and challenges – classed as ‘Societal Challenges’. For example – The Agricultural Industry has experienced Mad-Cow disease, Foot & Mouth disease Fowl Plague causing meltdown in the commercial dimensions and livelihoods and way of life of everyone implicated.
  • One Thing Leading To Another. For Example: In Healthcare we’ve seen Malaria, HIV/AIDS, Sars, Flu and the like cause significant cost and concern within society – implicating business and society alike. Society suffers real safety and security problems in large cities. They struggle with the effects of youth unemployment and migration.
  • And Natural Disasters: Natural disasters both in remote regions and cities (NYC recently) such as flood, drought – hurricanes and tornadoes. We have global safety challenges like war or terrorism bringing threats to energy supplies, access to food and services for the citizenry (9/11 – Syria).
  • Wicked Problems: In Africa and other underdeveloped countries for example it means being confronted with the complexity of the political dysfunction on top of local societal problems. Mapping the complexity of these kinds of situations leads to the definition of wicked problem described above.
  • The Dynamics Of Dynamism. All of the above in addition to wholly chaotic, unstructured, dynamic – (constantly changing – hard to map) impacts on society in both macro, meta and micro levels.

What’s The Answer?

Although all these issues have different causes they also have much in common. At least the thinking about them can be approached in similar ways. Handling complex societal problems needs a specialized and interdisciplinary approach.

  • Getting At The Right Data: Content knowledge can come from everywhere. From all sources – on and off-line – in addition it can come from content experts and input from wide ranging sources – but it must come unfettered from bias and opinion at the source or the data will be corrupted
  • A Rigorous Impartial Approach To Thinking And Design Of Strategy: Process knowledge and guidance needs to come from impartial facilitators – or the outcomes will be corrupted by subjectivity and interest in the outcomes. The attention of any research or advisory group must also be guided by these clear principles using similarly appropriate tools
  • Collaboration & Co-creation: Selection of the collaborators in the thinking is vital at each and every step – their readiness for the creation of solutions has to be open-minded and wholly ready to accept the possibility. Working with a wide range of stakeholders and inputs is crucial at every step and once hypotheses are created then they in turn get shared/iterated with the key audiences.

A combination of methods is needed to be brought to the challenge.

All kind of methods are important. there is no one way to solve complex challenges. Everything from the social sciences and technologies to cultural and operational research within heuristic frameworks. Stimulation and scenarios are valuable tools – a simulation model is one of the powerful tools to describe societal complexity. With simulation models one cannot only understand the causal relations between the phenomena but also see what effect changes have.

New frontiers in sustainable living must involve new thinking for handling real life complexity

Let’s take an example.

Global Safety is an issue brought into sharp focus – especially after 9/11. Not only does terrorism threaten safety – it changes the society in myriad ways. There are many kinds of challenges attached to any event and they emerge as both a direct and indirect result so they are hard to manage. The system is wholly implicated but at very different and remote nodes in the system. The ripples work both ways.

Our emotions are knocked for six which means our behaviors change.

We start to panic buy, we stop some transactions altogether. Street vendors can go out of business. Banks tighten up certain policies. The news spreads gloom and anger. The internet and communication channels go go crazy. Confidence is affected, public media is deflected from the more traditional stories heaping yet more tension – the usual way of life becomes completely disrupted. The system is sent into shock.

Not all dangers are completely man made – we can categorise some as natural threats.

Tsunamis and Hurricanes – climate change, CO2 emission and other completely unforeseen events such as earthquakes and the impacts of extreme weather all cause (and then deepen) the implications and effects. They last far longer than the event itself.

Getting at root causes

In order to create better societies and systems in general we needs to know where the challenges come from. But more importantly what ACTUALLY causes the event, issue or threat. Each situation that develops has different effects on different facets/elements of the system and in turn the wider society. Therefore one has to carefully analyze the situation, make a distinction between everything and across all of the dynamics. We need to know what the elements are and how they are related. We need to clearly understand the entanglement of and between them.

We treat all organizations as complex, nonlinear systems.

The field of complexity theory is directly aimed at research of these erratic natures. ‘When an organization is in a state of instability, order and disorder are intertwined. It’s behavior is unpredictable but has some pattern. According to the complexity paradigm organizations have to strive to ‘avoid states of stability and instability’ – they have to strive to stay in a state of governed instability.’ In many cases this means at the edge of chaos, where they can display their potential for creativity and innovation and achieve the holy grail of being truly agile and adaptive.

Adaptive management of complex human-environment systems as well as decision support concerning complex problems require:

An approach that ensures a valid model (framework) for alignment on all of this would contain:

  • A clear and agreed expression of the challenge – The Exam Question
  • An appropriate degree of expert synthesis with a recognition of the degrees of dynamics and patterns that understand the entanglement. Truly sound knowledge and experience about the relevant variables, principles and criteria
  • All of the work approached in a holistic way – solving problems in holistic ways and in real time – frameworks, modules and scenarios. Most likely visually applied.
  • An understanding of how to ‘machine’ the interdependencies influencing system behavior and development.
  • Qualitative and quantitative approaches for gaining this knowledge from those with their hands on the levers of change – mostly operationally focused in the whole context and with powerful cross impact analysis
  • Pragmatically identify the relevant parameters for answering the Exam Questions.
  • A collaborative approach to building a common taxonomy – considering all the moving parts and their true contribution to or impact on the system
  • Understanding the accuracy of the definition and their meaning – aligned (conformity with) the given goals.

No comments

Post a Reply

Just Thinking

johncaswell @johncaswell
John Caswell  @johncaswell
A Madman - Tragic #Hero of #Science Who Followed Einstein’s Vision and Pioneered the Sound of Space-Time 

© 2012 - Copyright John Caswell