An Integrated Approach to Global Change

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

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.