Institute for 21st Century Agoras
April 11, 2013
Many concerned citizens view our global and national problems as incapable of solution – even when approached by our best scientists and most dedicated politicians. Complex problems are reduced to partial explanations, and her best efforts for resolving complexity become battlegrounds over specific parts of the problem rather than the shape of the larger problem itself.
Scientists have discovered that large piles of statistics present evidence of the unreasonableness of existing policies and yet fail to change prevailing public opinion and governing policies. Recently, one author of the ground-shaking Limits to Growth announced that he had given up hope for a successful democratic resolution of our global predicament (comments during the 40th anniversary celebration of limits at the National American Museum in Washington DC).
A principal failing of research on large-scale, complex social/technological problems is the excessive reliance upon easily measured technical observations and the accompanying minimal regard for hard-to-measure humanist aspirations, intentions, and hopes. By focusing on the easily harvested quantitative data of technological science, complex systems research too easily excludes people’s life experiences, their need for practical relevance, their desires, and their traditions… In doing this, they have alienated popular culture from the research and lay the grounds for ignoring its findings.
A new science is emerging that takes account of people/concerns in the context of critical human problems. This science accepts the observations of all stakeholders, helps observers as they combine these observations, and results in a composite, rich definition of the problem. This comprehensive definition melds many contexts in which stakeholders view the problem. By using this contextualized definition, scientists and populace working together can reach consensus on the nature of the problem and what they are able to do about it. This new science was formulated by Gerard DeZeeuw as Thirrd Phase science (1997).
If we are to reach a common ground for collective action, we need to talk not only with each other but also to reason together. Such a process requires dialogue. And not just any dialogue, but a highly structured one. This dialogue must remain focused and discipline to avoid the vagaries of ordinary conversation. A good design dialogue would follow seven guidelines.
1) Requisite Variety: The diversity of perspectives and stakeholders is essential in managing complex situations.
2) Requisite Parsimony: structured dialogue is needed to avoid the cognitive overload of stakeholder/designers.
3) Requisite Saliency: The relative saliency of observations can only be understood through comparisons within an organized set of observations.
4) Requisite Meaning: Meaning and wisdom are produced in the dialogue only when observers search for relationships of similarity, priority, influence, etc., within a set of observations.
5) Requisite Autonomy and Authenticity: In distinction-making during the dialogue it is necessary to protect the economy and authenticity of each observer in drawing distinctions.
6) Requisite Evolution of Observations: Learning occurs in a dialogue as the observers search for influence relationships among members of a set of observations.
7) Requisite Action: Any action that plans to reform complex social systems designed without the authentic and true engagement of those whose futures will be influenced by the change are bound to fail.
An approach which embodies these laws was empirically validated during 30 years of action research using Structured Dialogic Design. SDD emerged and became codified as both a research tool and as a management tool in the 1980s and 90s through the efforts of John Warfield, Aleco Christakis, and their associates.
Reynaldo Trevino Cisneros was trained in systems and planning from Universidad Iberoamericana and is a Board member of the Institute for 21st Century Agoras. He served as Director General of Social and Economic Policies at the Mexican Presidential Office of Public Policies from 2003 to 2006 and presently serves as Strategic Planner at the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.
Bethania Arango Hisjara, Ph.D. was trained in pedagogy at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico and is an education researcher in curriculum structuring and cognitive processes. Bathania is a member of the Communication Strategies Ibero-American forum with 12 years of experience managing workgroups at the National Institute for Statistics and Geography.