When Complexity Science Meets Convergence Research Part 2

Convergence Research: The Nature of the Beast

Capturing human stories on the journey

Gemma Jiang, PhD


Photo: Pixabay

Our first Cafe launched as smoothly as the SpaceX Dragon. I appreciated the seamless flow of the meeting, the enthusiastic energy from the team, the fun engagement through personal stories, and the wide vista of research potential revealed by interacting with complexity science. What a joy to be part of this!

This is a living example of “emergence”, one key feature of complex system. I could not have predicted this outcome. Before it actually happened, I was anxious about engaging team members with personal stories. How are our NSF sponsored researchers from the high cathedral of knowledge going to respond to my humble request of sharing personal stories? Is this approach “serious” enough? I was plagued with self-doubt.

Seek, ye shall find. I was looking for some support from the “serious” scientists. Then believe it or not, two days before the Cafe, I found exactly what I needed from the Re-imagining Higher Education panel discussion with Otto Scharmer of MIT, Sanjay Sarma of MIT & Dacher Keltner of UC Berkely. In particular, Dr. Sarma, professor of Mechanical Engineering, board member of EdX and Vice President of Open Learning at MIT gave me exactly what I needed. He said,

Social distancing during the pandemic is working because education is socially distanced to start with. The success of online learning is an indicator of the failure of regular higher education. We need to focus much more on engagement, human development, discussion, working with your hand, expanding the horizon.

Well, if an engineering professor from MIT is on the same page, I guess I can put personal engagement at the center stage.

I shared the quote and explained my rationale at the beginning of the first Cafe. We rocked from there on.

Our Process

Three characteristics

I spent about 10 minutes highlighting three characteristics that make a system complex: emergence, information and adaptation. I gave examples from daily life and scientific research to deepen the understanding, and pointed out the interconnection among these three principles. The synergy amongst these three characteristics makes complex challenges extremely difficult to tackle.

Three rounds of stories

Then we launched into three rounds of story sharing in three successive and randomly assigned breakout rooms with the following prompts:

Emergence: Please tell a personal story when things turned out completely different than you expected. What happened? Why?

Information: Please tell a personal story when you made a good decision because you gathered input from diverse sources (or otherwise).

Adaptation: Please tell a personal story with a happy ending when you are responsive to changes in circumstances (or otherwise).

We had a lot of fun here. One student shared his story of intending to show his new tattoo to his advisor, but ending up getting involved in this project. Another student shared the story of her birth plan going awry, prompting the mothers on our team to call for a separate conversation on this topic to honor its full complexity. We discovered the music talents on our team, culminating in a band called The Converging Concentrix. We had stories of well thought-out decisions after careful deliberations, or poor decisions with grievous neglect of the obvious, or important decisions made on a chance encounter.We talked about the stress of working with unpredictable situations, the joy of finding unexpected opportunities, and the importance of a growth mindset. We resonated deeply about the difficulty of acting with incomplete information and wonder what would happen if we had a complete picture — or is it possible at all?

The big smiles and bright eyes after each round of breakout rooms were just priceless. Who could resist a good story?

Note: A big “thank you” to all who took notes in our capture sheet!

Our Questions

As Zaid Hassan pointed out in his post The University of Full Catastrophe Learning, “ Being socialized to come up with the right answer is extremely poor training for a world characterized by complexity. The right question is far more important”.

For a world characterized by complexity, the right question is far more important than the right answer.

In the spirit of questioning, we ended our first Cafe with this prompt: What is the question you are holding and want to explore going forward? Below is what we came up with in three categories.

Related to convergence research:

  1. From a policy and regulation standpoint, how much interaction is there between the industrial and the research sectors, and how is their voice heard when policy is made?

2. What (human) complication(s) are we missing in our analysis?

3. What “rules” (similar to bird flying example) guide emergent behavior for humans/businesses/systems (different rules for each? overlapping rules?) in regard to circular economy choices at the varying scales?

4. Is there something in the circular economy system that we haven’t considered? What certain dimensions together would produce the optimal model? (Would governmental + environmental work better than public + environmental)

5. How can we concisely communicate our findings about complex systems?

Related to convergence process:

6. How can we plan strategically when working with complex systems? (coupling goal-setting, schedule, and strategy with emergence and adaptation)

7. How do we achieve the depth we need to understand complex systems meaningfully while working across such breadth in academic disciplines?

8. How do we individually learn these complex systems in order to contribute to the work of the whole?

9. How can we solve complex problem by satisfying everyone’s needs ?

Related to complexity in life:

10. Is there a limit to the complexity of system, or can complexity be defined in infinite ways?

11. If we are fully open to experience life as a complex adaptive system, what changes would we experience?

These questions give great clues about the emerging future.

Our Feedback

I heard from team members through the feedback form and talking with some individually. Below are the themes with supporting quotes. We will make micro-adjustments to the Cafe and the overall team structure based on the feedback.

Theme 1: Team building

Most team members enjoyed the chance to interact with a mix of faculty and staff in a small group setting, and find it effective in making personal connections.

“The personal stories provided a common language for us to connect. This is a great way to bridge the engineering/non-engineering divide. ”

“I liked getting a chance to meet with a smaller group. It’s nice having time to connect, especially because we’re all remote and it takes extra effort to make personal connections.”

“It was really nice getting to see a mix of faculty and students. I liked breaking into different groups to talk with a variety of people.”

Theme 2: Transdisciplinary understanding

For many, this is the first time complexity science is introduced as a scientific framework with well developed quantitative methods. Some saw the potential of leveraging the complexity framework to improve our approach. Some engineering students reflected on the advantage of social science in embracing human complexity, and called for a mentality shift to let go of control and embrace emergence.

“ Chaos and complexity science as a scientific framework has the potential to inform model building and circular economy research. ”

“Circular economy most literature comes from engineers. Anthropology and psychology are kind of neglected. They are the people that deal best with complex systems. They do not try to predicts something, they try to find meaning in the chaos. They work with humans. They do not work with things like engineers do, like building and stuff. So it is like what you were saying throwing an object, they throw birds, we throw stones. People who are not part of the conversation, they understand complexity most. Engineers can oversimplify things. We are treating this as if this is the right thing to do. But is it? They are there to be the devil’s advocate. Because it is people, not object.”

“It helps me to understand this is what is supposed to happen: if we are confused, we are probably on the right track because we are working with a complex system. The challenge is how to be comfortable. For engineers it is so difficult to deal with what we cannot predict and control. Just knowing that we have to let go of control, we have to take chances; when we cannot control, that is scary, but also exciting. It is learning curve. There is a mentality shift that needs to happen within engineering.”

Theme 3. Need to ground conversation in circular economy

Many team members are eager to ground the conversation in our research, and wonder how to hold space for that.

“I wish we could have unstructured time to relate the ideas (complexity, for example) to actual problems we’re thinking about with the circular economy.”

“I’m trying to think about how we can make space for these much-needed discussions and hope to be able to mix with people from other disciplines to talk in detail about thorny questions.”

“What if we incorporate hypothetical problems (case study examples of circular economy; how to reduce primary plastic production for example) and all attempt to provide different perspectives on how to frame and solve the problem?”

Our Study Materials

  • TedTalk: Complex adaptive systems; a talk given by an engineer; utilizing agent based simulation to understand the emergent patterns on the electricity industry in the Netherlands
  • TedTalk: The Complexity of Emergent Systems; a talk given by a behavioral economist; bird flocking as a good explanation of emergence; great explanation of how emergent behaviors arise from simple interactions (separation, alignment, cohesion)
  • YouTube: Making Sense of Complexity; a short talk from the Cynefin framework; illustrated the difference between complicated and complex, the predictable and unpredictable.
  • Complexity Explorer; a MOOC platform sponsored by the Santa Fe Institute, the world’s leading institute in complexity science. Great courses to explore. In particular, I recommend a course called Introduction to Complexity, lead by Dr. Melanie Mitchell.



Gemma Jiang, PhD

Senior Team Scientist, Colorado State University; Complexity Leadership Scholar and Practitioner; also at https://www.linkedin.com/in/gemma-jiang/