Personal Blog of Joe Brewer

An Integrated Approach to Global Change

In Complex Systems, Design Science, Global Integration, Human Behavior on June 10, 2012 at 11:35 am

Years ago, I took the road less traveled and set out to build an integrated approach to global change.  I realized early on that the only way to address global climate change was to focus jointly on the complexities of the human condition and the coupled dynamics of Earth Systems.  It was a telling observation that no academic institutions were equipped to support the broad transdisciplinary approach I sought to take, which is why I remain outside the university setting in pursuit of this goal to this day.

I am pleased to share that after 15 years of formal academic training and independent study, a clear set of guidelines has appeared that brings this ambitious goal within reach.  A rigorous design science for building the pathway to sustainability is now available for use.

What are these guidelines?  Presented here as best practices, they are:

  1. Critically assess all assumptions with the standards of empirically responsible philosophy to ensure that interpretations of value-laden topics stand up to the rigors of the scientific method.
  2. Look for convergence across disciplines of key findings that bolster confidence in the core elements of human systems and their causal relationships with the broader natural world.
  3. Cultivate an appreciation for deep history as the appropriate lens for embedding historical trends within the larger networks of biological and geophysical evolution from which they arose.
  4. Build a foundational knowledge of complex adaptive systems and the mathematics of networks to build diagnostic models for the global dynamics of interconnected systems.
  5. Acknowledge the cognitive feedbacks of human comprehension that shape the formation of conceptual categories, tacit beliefs, and overarching worldviews as they interact with the scientific method — especially in the study of economics, politics, and culture.
  6. Make use of iterative design methodologies such as rapid prototyping and user-centered design to empirically test and refine working models of social innovation in the real world.
  7. Maintain a vigilant practice of questioning our theories of change to avoid falling into the trap of applying static conceptual models to an ever-evolving dynamic reality.

These best practices emerged in my experience as a practitioner-scholar who has worked closely with policy makers, campaign strategists, entrepreneurs, and research centers across the globe.  Each time I attempted to bring insights from transdisciplinary study into the world of practice, these bits of wisdom arose to correct my errors and promote ongoing learning and professional growth across teams of collaborators.  They have proven to be bedrock practices for creating solutions that work in the world, especially in complex social environments where it is not possible to articulate an optimal path beforehand.

Three Pillar Pedagogy of Knowledge

The guidelines mentioned above can be applied to the study of global change by combining three domains of knowledge: (1) Complex Systems Research; (2) Cognitive Sciences; and (3) Earth Systems Sciences.

Each of these fields represents a broad synthesis of methodologies and knowledge across numerous fields.  They have all emerged as integrative pathways beyond a particular disciplinary specialization in the late 20th Century in response to the demands of research to address increasingly complex real-world problems.  A new synthesis is now possible that brings them together in a novel way, a continuation of historical trends that already span each of their foundations.  It is this synthesis that I have focused on in my intellectual pursuits.

What does a synthesis of such sophisticated domains look like?  Together they comprise an effort to engage in Human Centered Design for Global Change.  If adequately combined, this approach will allow us to make sense of the tipping points, phase transitions, and general governing dynamics of:

  • Earth’s Autoregulatory Systems (historically known as the Gaia Hypothesis) — namely that planetary living systems modulate the Earth’s geochemistry to maintain a narrow range of temperature, salinity, atmospheric oxygen, etc. that are conducive to sustaining life;
  • Global Ecological Economics — the profound interconnections of human activities with resource flows, ecosystem functionality, and the meta currencies they represent as part of the real economy;
  • Cultural Evolution — the social dynamics of political identity, as influenced by technological innovation and dynamic trends that elevate components of human nature through broad economic and political systems.

These dynamic drivers of global change are not well integrated now.  Much work remains to be done before we can tackle them.  And time is of the essence!  We are already in the midst of global tipping points, unaware of exactly where they might be.  Natural disasters strike without warning because we lack an integrated comprehension of how rock, water, air and life fit together in the world.  Vital resources such as fresh water, petroleum, and rare earth metals are depleted with little insight into what their alteration will contribute to the future prospects of our advanced civilization.

It is with this view of the future, daunted by the high stakes of our predicament, that I offer a new way forward.  If we successfully combine the sciences of planet, people, and patterns we can cultivate the ability to act as stewards of our precious home.  Failure to do so means we are left to ad hoc attempts down blind alleys without a full picture of the complexities we must manage in the days ahead.

Building the Institutions of Tomorrow

We’ll need to evolve our institutions to deliver this approach to the world.  Civic institutions are inadequate in their current form.

An academic world that cannot nurture transdisciplinary synthesis is doomed to mediocrity in a time where great strides must be made.  Transnational research must be built on the tenets of open access publishing and open sharing of data in order to pave the way forward.  Structural partnerships across local, regional, and national governments must arise that meld them with the vast space of intergovernmental and corporate actors.  Globally-scoped research institutions (such as the ICES Foundation, which I am helping build now in a contractual capacity) are needed that bring the best of science together with emerging technological capabilities in the realms of advanced computing, big data analytics, interactive visualization, and citizen science.

Our academic institutions need to accelerate their trends toward cross-institution research.  They must break down the academic silos through the synthesis of cross-cutting fields (as I helped do for the University of Illinois with their groundbreaking ESE Major several years ago).  Students will need mentors who can train them in interdisciplinary research, a deficit that causes many a student today to reach out to practitioners in the field to find advisors who can help them blaze new paths across diverse methodological domains of scholarship.

The framework for this developmental pathway is that of biological evolution.  Just as biological systems build on pre-adaptations to create emergent functionality (for example, the neocortex arose from a preceding architecture of reptilian brain), we can build bridges of connectivity across today’s silos to cultivate new integrative capability for innovative research.

I am doing my part as a facilitator across research, business, and government.  Yet so much more remains to be done.  I write this blog post to call out for reinforcements among the multitudes out there who are operating in a similar domain.  Let’s put our heads together now and chart a path forward that accelerates the adoption of this integrated approach to global change.

Please share your thoughts in the comment thread.  Suggest to others who come here where they can go for more information.  Help me aggregate the collective resources we can pool and activate for the betterment of humanity.  I am doing my part, small though it is, by continuing to pursue the integration of cognitive and earth system sciences.  What comes of it will ultimately depend on all of you and what we do with it together.

In solidarity,

Joe Brewer
Principal Designer and Complexity Researcher

  1. Many thanks for the great article with deep practical thoughts, and advice.

    PS.: as response to tweet on #WFURS

  2. Hello Joe, I appreciate your endeavor more than I can say. I and have a similar mind set when it comes to bringing people who are exploring complex dynamic systems together for the ultimate purpose of moving quickly to design sustainable futures.

    I appreciate your courage to claim intellectual success outside of the University system. I’ve had the same long road to travel and am heartened to be party to your success story. Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind is I think, describing outsiders like us, who blaze unique pathways and create new conceptual territories into which others follow as the future unfolds. I hope he’s right.

    As a user centered design researcher in some of our high tech companies I entered into complex dynamic systems that I found intellectually exciting and challenging to comprehend. I observed that sometimes these systems collide, sometimes the merge and images of cell life and matabolism and nebulae and galaxies come to mind. But what I was looking at were the ramifications of mergers and acquisitions and organizations struggling to keep aligned with fast moving cultural changes, design teams tripping over corporate hierarchies and missing the opportunity to truly do user centered design.

    I realized that the tenets of user centered design could be applied to our global change challenge. The insight that drives me is that we can and must “get up front” of design by embedding knowledge about people and how we live and work and value into the minds and bodies of values of designers and design managers to be able to create a future in which user centered design writes the script for what is going to happen. This as opposed to letting a helter skelter future happen to us because of the overwhelming and often invisible economic and political and psycho-cultural forces at play. This is what we’ve believed int he past, and this belief is old and in the way now. We can change the story, we’re smart enough to do that now, as a global public.

    I’ve been working on a project called Designing Sustainable Futures, inspired by the writings of Andrew Gaines, our discussions about the need for innovations in thinking and by an event he and other dedicated Australian change agents organized in Sydney called DesignShop (TM) On Transitioning to a Viable Society. I was lucky to be there observing three days of intense discussion through the lens of my movie camera. When it was over, I could barely see and had to lay with a cold rag on my eyes for days! And as I did that I reflected on what I saw and heard. What occurred was nothing less than a new mythology forming, in which “community” is the hero and within it the individual heroes are being bandaged, supported and saved.

    The event attracted 50 change agents from around Australia and was facilitated by Matt Taylor. Matt, together with his wife Gail and their team, developed the DesignShop (TM) as a means to generating group genius and solve intractable problems. Their organization MG Taylor and Associates has done stupendous work around the world most of which is done behind not only closed but secret doors. Their original intent was address the very intractable problem of which you speak and of which the global public is becoming more and more aware. We are killing our chances for survival on earth as we create imbalances between what we need from our earth to live and how we choose to live a s i f t h e r e i s n o t o m o r r o w. By living this way, we are ensure a deeply sad and shameful outcome.

    As we have briefly discussed, I’m looking for a way understand your vision for an integrated approach to change; from what I’ve read today, we may be using different ingredients but my sense is that our collective thinking approach and our goals are very similar.

    My sense is that you are calling for a think tank event. If so I second the proposal. I am all in for making such an event happen. I agree it makes sense to identify like minded thinkers in other regions of the world and link with them. This is why I launched the Designing Sustainable Futures project. This is something we could work on together with other regional nodes who have a shared compulsion to move forward on these fronts. I know one node in Australia. We are a node here in the Pacific Northwest. There are nodes in New York and in England. Switzerland perhaps. Canada. Where else? Who else? I reiterate your call for contact. Get in touch!

    I invite everyone who is so inclined to like and post a link about your work designing sustainable futures to the Designing Sustainable Futures Facebook page as a means to using what we already have, to get the word out far and wide. The outsiders have formed a group in Cascadia and we are surfing at the cutting edge of thought, to purposely create new knowledge and new ways of thinking, out of what we have learned and are learning about complex dynamic systems.

    Let’s put up the Cascadia Sign Post, welcoming ambassadors for global change from other areas of the world, to join us here for think tank events. Who’s in?

    • Hello Cynthia,

      There’s so much great stuff in your long and thoughtful comment that I’m not sure where to begin. Of course, let’s find ways to collaborate! We’ve already begun with our initial conversation and beginnings of ripples across our shared social networks.

      I love the idea of forming regional nodes (or communities of designers) who are working on similar issues. There’s so much out there going on now that we can largely select pieces of what already works and apply them through iterative design to meld them together for new applications. That said, the obstacle you point out — that most of the best designers are embedded in dysfunctional or inefficient (from an innovation perspective) organizations and struggle to get beyond the financial models they entail — is a fundamental structural challenge to be overcome. The arena where the most effort is focused now is on social entrepreneurship and purposeful enterprise, though the financial models for social impact investing are still nascent and a bit premature.

      One of the ways I see this work advancing is through collaborative research projects and innovative social change campaigns. To some extent, I’ve already been involved in several over the last few years. The next step is to name the approach (done) and flesh out its parameters (in the early stages, with plenty to do!).

      Onward fellow traveler!


  3. While the rest of the enumerated points name broad and familiar approaches, points 1 and 5 appear to call for specific theoretical claims, tests, and elaborations. What is “empirically responsible philosophy”? I doubt that label would be familiar to many philosophers, to whom empiricism connotes a particular flavor of British work whose peak was about a century ago. Certainly you’re not suggesting all our philosophy should return to that style? Your mentor George Lakoff’s philosophical work is not in that style. So you probably mean something else. What?

    On “cognitive feedbacks,” well there’s a lot of room for speculating about feedback effects across many domains. But that needs to be more than speculation, it needs … empirical work of some sort, especially in the area of human comprehension, where there are numerous methodological hurdles regarding how to do science when so much of the data comes from (sometimes demonstrably feedback-distorted) first-hand report.

    Not trying to say you’re wrong. Just wondering what the point of a brief position statement like this post is, when there are no links to long-form elucidation of these two obscure points which, by their relative novelty, I take to be central to the original contribution you wish to make. The other five are at the level of common sense for a great many people. The ranks of their advocates are broad. The two I’m questioning look less usual, more mysterious. At least from here.

    • Hello Whit,

      You bring up excellent questions. Points 1 and 5 represent perhaps the most substantial departure from the mainstream of intellectual approaches. I’ll address Point 1 in this comment and then add another for Point 5.

      By empirically responsible philosophy I refer to the need for a two-way coupling between metaphysics (grounded in the methodologies of contemporary science) and those social theories which necessarily contain contested evaluative components. I first heard the phrase in a book by Lakoff and Johnson titled Philosophy in the Flesh. Here is how they describe it:

      “For more than two thousand years, philosophy has defined metaphysics as the study of what is literally real. The weight of that tradition is so great that it is hardly likely to change in the face of empirical evidence against the tradition itself. Nevertheless that evidence, which comes from cognitive science, exists and raises deep questions not only about the project of philosophical metaphysics but also about the nature of philosophy itself.

      “Throughout most of our history, philosophy has seen itself as being independent of empirical investigation. It is that aspect of philosophy that is called into question by results in cognitive science. Through the study of the cognitive unconscious, cognitive science has given us a radically new view of how we conceptualize our experience and how we think.

      “Cognitive science — the empirical study of the mind — calls upon us to create a new, empirically responsible philosophy, a philosophy consistent with empirical discoveries about the nature of mind. This is not just old-fashioned philosophy “naturalized” — making minor adjustments, but basically keeping the old philosophical superstructure.

      “A serious appreciation of cognitive science requires us to rethink philosophy from the beginning, in a way that would put it more in touch with the reality of how we think. It would be based on a detailed understanding of the cognitive unconscious, the hidden hand that shapes our conscious thought, our moral values, our plans, and our actions.

      “Unless we know our cognitive unconscious fully and intimately, we can neither know ourselves nor truly understand the basis of our moral judgments, our conscious deliberations, and our philosophy.”
      (Lakoff & Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, pp. 14-15)

      As their commentary suggests, we need to re-evaluate our philosophical traditions in an ongoing and iterative manner as the sciences of the mind reveal new empirical findings that call them into question. It is this intellectual endeavor to which I ascribe the name empirically responsible philosophy.



    • Regarding Point 5, I am referring to the need to apply those empirical methodologies that provide rigorous grounding to the study of semantics as a feedback loop. Examples currently in use include:

      1. Analysis of policy feedbacks where a change in the policy landscape leads to measurable alterations in the expression of cultural values or behavioral modes.

      2. User Experience/User Interaction (UX/UI) Design such as is routinely applied to the development of websites and user interfaces for many software applications. It is increasingly also used for design of signage, transit platforms, group facilitation techniques, etc.

      3. Study of cultural narratives as they pertain to policy development and implementation.

      Examples such as these call out the benefits of and tacit needs for better understanding the role of semantics in the dynamic patterns of experience within and across society. Such feedbacks are what I referred to as cognitive feedbacks above. They often remain hidden from view and absent from political and economic analysis, in part due to the lack of empirically responsible philosophies that would include them after updating their own internal metaphysics to embrace findings about the cognitive unconscious as empirically real and valid phenomena to measure.

      Hope this begins to clarify my thinking. These are quite large topics and are difficult to elaborate succinctly in a comment.



  4. Only when every being can earn, and own, a piece of the action… will the unmet needs of “all, the people,” stop being a problem,
    and start being an unlimited and every growing opportunity.

  5. Wonderful to say the least, we are looking at the same systems, Imagine for a moment if schools are changed into community resource centers, and through the schools the data is streamed through to a earth dashboard where the collective consciousness can guide and give solutions, it is the national and global assessments that needs to become part of community management, and it is already all part of the curriculum, we are building the system here in Zambia from the grassroots up, will love to have a chat with you on skype (stvnzam)if possible some time.
    Kind regards

    • Hi Steven,

      The dynamic creativity arising in so many areas for international development — focusing on cultivating of local leadership through entrepreneurial training and community engagement — are wonderful to see. We have many opportunities to link indigenous knowledge and leadership from many locales around the world into a shared collaboration that becomes the new global economy over time.

      Yes, let’s talk! I’ll email you separately to find a time.



  6. Outstanding job, Joe. I’ll extend this comment later. Thanks for pulling so many crucial strands together. It’s a little like the Zen story of the monk meeting himself coming down the path as he goes up it. (Or, it could be the other way round.) In scanning the comments we recognize ourselves and wonder if this is, in fact, our Ship of Theseus.

  7. Joe, Your work sounds a lot like mine, though mine is more focused on how self-animating systems have independent individual behaviors. Have a look.

    There’s indeed a need for people to question previously assumed approaches, like that the purpose of problem solving is helping the people who have been unable to help themselves. The much greater need seems to be helping the people who have been over-productive figure out what to do next… 😉

    There’s a new paradigm that addresses that, for focusing problem solving efforts on getting “the commons” to work for all. The idea is to create (a la Elinor Ostrom) new institutions that will make our greater self interests sufficiently transparent that humanity can effectively manage itself rather than build industries that naturally create ever growing conflict.

    For TODAY ONLY – there’s still a chance to VOTE for “the commons” (rather than development) becoming the central focus of efforts to save the earth in the RIO+20 meetings.

  8. Joe, Been there, Done that, Got Burned.

    Yea, I know, a little flip. But bear with me. The vision is great, but where are the economics? Quite a large number of years ago I was done with my degree – thesis not quite finished and looking for a job. You may have heard of the place, the Udder University – over on the dry side of Washington. After a bit of looking I got my dream job. Working with a small research group with the Illinois Dept. of Mental Health, stationed at Decatur and using the computers at the U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My boss was a Berkley Clinical Psychologist and we were going to apply Systems Technology to Social Health and Welfare Systems.

    My piece of the puzzle was to design, implement, and use discrete-event simulation to analyze and design better integration of social service agencies. Other parts were large scale modeling of policy decisions and later on design of computer services to link agencies and clients. We spent three years in Illinois and after being awarded a large grant moved to Brandeis University and the use of MIT computer services. Everything went pretty well in Illinois but a few agencies were not happy about working with us. In Massachusetts we started out OK but things rapidly deteriorated. The social welfare agencies didn’t want to talk to us, we began to be academically isolated, and the graduate class that we were teaching at Brandeis rebelled – perish the thought that social welfare graduate students would actually understand how agencies operated and write COMPUTER CODE!

    About this time the Principal Investigator started looking for a new job which didn’t include his three primary technologists.

    Back to economics. It takes a lot of money to maintain a group that attempts to study these weighty issues. When our grant ran out, we were out of a job and that makes it difficult to support your family. The other part of that is maintaining contacts with the social part of your research. When you attempt to apply new techniques to existing networks you threaten the power and livelihood of the people running these networks. When these people realize that their welfare is being threatened by your activities — you have just created a large number of enemies. They will attack your access to funding. Our funding was promoted by Kennedy, authorized by Johnson, and cancelled by Nixon.

    Literally everything that you propose will be threatening to some group. And if you were to be totally successful, and be able to evaluate all proposals and determine the “best” solution – the group that would be most threatened would be the Congress of the United States, because their access to power is dependent on their being able to pass legislation which will benefit moneyed interests who will in turn make large deposits to their campaign accounts. I was certainly not aware of these facts when I was working there, I didn’t figure it out until after I had a new position. I never learned what or when our Principal Investigator knew.

    Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time, did things that I would have never imagined myself doing, met many fantastic people including most of the Systems Dynamics group at MIT but still at the end I was an unemployed programmer with a wife and two kids and a pretty much worthless MS in Psychology. I am convinced that the use of systems and network technologies is our only hope. On a whim I checked out the Psychology Department at WSU a few months ago. I seriously doubt that they would even let me in the graduate program today. I’m just glad that I am retired and don’t have to fight those battles today — but I do worry about my grandkids and what will be left for them.

    • Hi Bryan,

      Thanks for sharing your story, which makes the point about economic and political efficacy so clearly and cogently. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and the time you took to write it down here.

      The challenges and obstacles that arose in your experience are very much a part of the mix to this day and will continue to be amongst the issues that need to be addressed when applying systems thinking to new problems in the future. They are real and persistent, no doubt about it.

      My own life story parallels yours in many ways. Once I left the trodden academic path and set out to tackle very difficult real-world problems, I was mostly on my own with little or no institutional support and a perpetual gap between my efforts and where money was being invested by society and business. Luckily, my particular trajectory was just a little ahead of the curve and the world is moving closer to an alignment with the kinds of activities and knowledge areas I’ve cultivated expertise with over the years. And, the most important and valuable activity of all has been to invest in building quality relationships across diverse networks of innovative thinkers and practitioners. This social capital is what enables me to activate the resources I need now as this vision becomes more concrete and existent “in the world”.

      Now, as I participate in efforts like that of the ICES Foundation, I find myself working amongst leading practitioners, executive-level managers and successful entrepreneurs who know how to implement their ideas and make them work. We understand the political battles involved in creating something new and we know how to think about and critically assess our business models.

      The economics of cog/sci applications in the organizational world are becoming more clear as people recognize the importance of social psychology in marketing and communications, cognitive semantics for user interface design, and neuroscience for improved levels of engagement with their products and services. A similar vein can be followed for the increased adoption of systems thinking to global supply chains, resource management, disaster preparedness, and a host of other vitally important areas for economic development.

      In the work plan I am developing (in collaboration with a large network of organizations and individuals) to implement these ideas, the economics and politics are front and center in our discussions. We routinely engage in lively debates about how to build robust revenue models for generating financial throughput for the monitoring and feedback systems that need to be in place. And we are drawing heavily on the life experiences of our more senior participants who have worked in rapidly evolving innovation environments throughout their lives.

      It seems that you have a similar wealth of perspective to bring to the table, based on the experiences described in your comment. There are many ways to take the value of your insights and put them to good use addressing challenges today and in the near future. There is still much to be hopeful for!

      Very best,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *