As the world around us becomes more complex, our understanding of how to behave in it is changing. Reductionist thinking mismatches our perceptions of the reality of complex social-ecological systems, says a new study. Photo: M. Edstrom/Azote

Fostering complexity thinking

Habits of a complex mind

How to go from reductionist thinking to action based complexity research

In hindsight, one could forgive Descartes for not thinking about complex social-ecological systems when he argued that the only sound thinking practice was to isolate phenomena from each other and their environment and apply a process of reduction, simplification and clarification. Well, not anymore. As the world around us becomes more complex, our understanding of how to behave in it is changing accordingly.

Enter complexity thinking, an attempt to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex world where humans and nature are connected on multiple scales. Strong discipline and cross-discipline peer groups now debate, embrace and advocate complexity thinking as imperative to understanding and dealing with pressing current social-ecological challenges.

But what does it mean to apply complexity thinking?

Embrace complexity
In a study recently published in Ecology & Society, centre researcher Oonsie Biggs, together with a team of colleagues from South Africa, presents a number of "habits" that may be used as tools to "unlearn reductionist habits" and embrace the complex reality around us.

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Make no mistake about it, shifting from a more than three century long habit of reductionist thinking to the emerging complexity thinking is hard, but a change is also inevitable, according to the authors.

"It is increaingly apparent that a reductionist approach mismatches our perceptions of the reality of social-ecological systems. No one – not scientists, professionals or lay people – are immune to the consequences of this realisation," Oonsie Biggs says.

But fostering a change in people’s frame of reference is much more than just adding to their knowledge base, it implies changing their mindset and behaviour.

"Our challenge is to enable people to become sufficiently competent in complexity thinking and conscious of the reality it projects so that they have the confidence to unlearn their habits of reductionism," Biggs continues.

Critical habits
Key to this is what Biggs and her colleagues call "habits of mind" which is a "pattern of intellectual behaviour that leads to particular actions".

They recognise three broad frames of mind, each encompassing a set of habits of mind that are critical to participate planning and decision making in complex social-ecological systems. These frames of mind are openness, situational awareness, and a healthy respect for the risks associated with making decisions and taking action.

The first frame, openness, includes the following habits:

  • Hold your strong opinions lightly
  • Embrace surprise, serendipity and epiphany
  • Accept everyone as co-learners, not experts or competitors

The second, situational awareness, includes habits such as:

  • Be aware of contingencies, scale and history
  • Consider the importance of relationships and interactions
  • Reflect often: formally, informally, individually and collectively

The third frame, respect for the restraint and action paradox, includes habits such as:

  • Seize the just-do-it moment
  • Have courage to take action from which you can learn
  • Avoid premature convergence – avoid being too quick to judge

Make it to first base
With these frames in mind, the  next step is a guide to action and learning, all in the spirit of complexity thinking. The scientific literature on social-ecological systems strongly advocates adaptive approaches to decision making.

Such a process typically consists of four main steps: framing the issues and its context, deciding, doing and finally reviewing. On the surface they seem relatively straightforward, but the complexity devil is in the detail.

"Most people rarely make it to complexity’s first base because they are trapped in a dominant linear, causal mode of thinking which is typical of the reductive mindset," Oonsie Biggs warns.

"Intellectual acceptance of the characteristics of complex systems is the foundation on which to start building a new set of thinking patterns and behaviours. The challenge is to be explicit about the types of habits of mind that can help researchers and stakeholders to apply complexity thinking," Biggs concludes.

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citation

Rogers, K. H., R. Luton, H. Biggs, R. Biggs, S. Blignaut, A. G. Choles, C. G. Palmer, and P. Tangwe. 2013. Fostering complexity thinking in action research for change in social–ecological systems. Ecology and Society 18(2): 31. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-05330-180231

Reinette (Oonsie) Biggs' research focuses on regime shifts — large, abrupt, long-lasting changes in the dynamics of coupled social-ecological systems that can have dramatic impacts on human economies and societies. Dr Biggs aims to contribute practical scientific theory, methods and insights that can improve society's ability to anticipate high-impact tipping points.

2014-02-18 | Sturle Hauge Simonsen

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