Systemic and Systematic Research

By Vicky Temperton

So much of what we do is incremental, especially in academia. We start systematically studying a system, getting to know its component units, their daily rhythms and their cycles. Then we try to manipulate the system, tweak it here and there, to understand what is driving change in this system. Whilst acknowledging the complexity of the system, we strive for an understanding of slow and fast drivers of change. Gradually, over time, we gain knowledge about how our system works, whilst also having a considerable amount of background variability we cannot explain. An example is a species-rich natural habitat, such as grasslands in California or Europe, that is losing (bio)diversity at many levels. The species in the grassland are disappearing in abundance and in numbers, and the biome itself is disappearing in the landscape, but so is knowledge about the species and about the ecosystem and how to manage it to foster biodiversity and multiple uses. Often this knowledge has been around for centuries, embodied in local people, such that the intensification of land use leads to many losses at the same time. Some go unnoticed. To understand such a situation we need to approach the problem as a system, to be systemic in our approach, since many interacting components are at play here, including social, political, governance, biophysical and ecological factors. At the same time we need to be systematic, to do rigorous research in striving to understand the system, so that we can gain knowledge of the transferability of our outcome to other sites, other systems. Roy Ison, from the Open University stressed this point very eloquently in his keynote speech this morning.

Despite this perhaps rather obvious need to be both systemic and systematic, these two are rarely happy bedfellows in academia. Too often we have worked in isolated silos to understand complex systems, with single groups producing their own form of knowledge, but no-one integrating over the whole to see what emergent properties the system might have or how to best intervene.  We are however now faced with unprecedented challenges to our earth, including climate change, biodiversity loss, eutrophication and mass migration, that are forcing us to think in a more systemic way if we are to have a chance to continue in any kind of sustainable way. At the same time we still also need the incremental, iterative and often deep knowledge that one can derive from studying a system systematically, as one often does in the natural sciences.

The Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformations conference taking place at Leuphana University this week is a fascinating distillation of this dilemma. With humanity sitting at the crossroads between „tragedy and transformation, with little idea of where we wish to go, or how we intend to get there“, this conference seeks to identify deep leverage points, those interventions in a system that bring about big change, rather than incremental change. Topics such a co-creation and co-production of knowledge are central to this undertaking, as well as doing transdisciplinary research that includes many different stakeholders. Issues of power, inclusion and diversity, narratives and mindsets play key roles in the discourse and exchange at the conference.

A recurring theme over the first two days has been the topic of co-creation of knowledge and how to transforms systems. There is a growing realisation that projects themselves often do not change systems; in fact we are facing „a tyranny of projects“ as someone in the Belmont Forum Scoping Workshop on Pathways to the SDGS said today. Or maybe some projects can change a system – if we find the right leverage points?  The jury is out on this, but a key crystallisation that has occurred in my mind at this conference, is the realisation that there are two different ways of trying to find leverage. One approach is to co-create knowledge about transformation– from a more academic perspective, in terms of understanding systems and interventions (in a deductive manner). Another approach is to more directly intervene in a system and see how it changes, and then learn from this (in an inductive manner). What strikes me is that both approaches have validity, and are valuable in terms of sustainability outcomes. In the knowledge-gaining approach the systemic perspective tends to outweigh the systematic, and in the direct transformation/intervention approach the systematic perspective probably outweighs the systemic. My hunch is that if we start to consider both methods at a meta-level and compare outcomes and experiences, we may find some gold nuggets of leverage on the pathway to mainstreaming sustainability.

Vicky

Vicky Temperton


Vicky Temperton is professor of ecosystem functioning and services in the Leuphana sustainability faculty. She is a field ecologist who is interested in positive interactions between plants and how these interactions scale up to the ecosystem. She tests ecological knowledge for its potential use in restoring biodiversity to degraded systems.

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