"There’s no getting away from it, creating health means trying to create change in a complex environment; embrace complexity, embrace the idea of emergence, focus less on things like causality and attribution and more on shared contribution, learn to devise projects and programmes within these parameters."
Creating Health: The Emerging Principles, #
When it comes to evaluating impact within complex systems, we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible. Thicket writes a feature in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
People often ask us what we mean whan we say that Thicket is developing an applied field called social systems design. We apply principles of complexity to improve the way people share ideas and work together. Complexity theory, also known as complex adaptive systems theory, allows us a new way to understand the world — one which seems uniquely suited to help frame and solve today’s problems. Simple cause and effect frameworks can’t solve problems impacted by complex conditions like climate change, government policy, cultural divides, or media channels. Complexity gives us the vocabulary and tools to frame problems in the context of systems, understand why simple fixes often fail, and design more effective solutions. This is why we focus on evaluating complexity-based metrics like individual cognition, network integrity, and system response. We also use design thinking or human-centered design practices to guide all of our projects. The field of design, which has traditionally mixed aesthetics and engineering in service of society, is an ideal environment for the cross-pollination of ideas. What does this mean for our work? It means we use whichever research tools and frameworks make the most sense for a given project, but always through a nimble but iterative process that takes us from discovery to delivery.
Thicket helps people harness the power of complexity to think and work together in systems.
We are in a period of dramatic social and technological change. As the circulation of people, resources, and ideas accelerates, results of all this human activity amplify. We’re seeing a new intensity and scale in areas of human development like health, trade, and urbanism, and learning.
Systems, structures, and modes of behavior responding to these development challenges are straining to accommodate a scope they were not originally designed to serve.
We need to adapt human systems and structures to our current needs. We need new communication and collaboration tools to reshape how we go about our business. We need to find new ways to keep up with ourselves. At Thicket, we’re finding ways to move from creating change within systems to changing the systems themselves. We develop visual tools to clarify complex problems, build ideas in collaboration, and empower people to make decisions they can trust.
In 2014, we built the Possibility Engine, a custom social mapping technology platform. The Possibility Engine powers our ability to map human systems and manage complex social dynamics at scale. Together, Thicket & The Possibility Engine present a comprehensive solution to manage human complexity.
We believe that by responding to systems-based challenges at the human level, we can build stronger infrastructure to connect individuals, communities, and systems.
When we came up with the idea for Thicket to focus on solving complex social problems, we knew existing social science-based research and design tools were not robust enough to serve our needs. We needed to be able to quickly understand a complex system, analyze the system’s ability to adapt to different conditions, and provide a space for multiple stakeholder to express their opinions with no threat of being ignored or disregarded. And we needed to be able to do all of these things quickly, efficiently, and at scale. When we discovered fuzzy cognitive mapping, the model fell into place. We built The Possibility Engine to power our complex problem solving process. The Possibility Engine unlocks research, dialogue, and design tools for complex social systems of all kinds across many industries. The platform specializes in understanding and solving people problems. The Possibility Engine powers Thicket’s projects, but can also provide a technology solution for companies and organizations seeking a database solution, a data collection tool, a group decision modeling environment, and many other applications.
When we integrate individual cognitive maps using fuzzy logic, the result is a map so complex that visually, it means very little to the human eye. In order to make sense of it, we have to analyze it using several different methods. We can use network analysis to understand properties about the system, such as how it’s shaped, whether there are areas where there is a concentration of relationships, and more. These properties can tell us much about how the system behaves at the macro level. We can also run scenarios as experiments to see how the system may respond or adapt to a specific situation. By changing variables within the system, we can model hypothetical decisions and evaluate how those decisions will be received. There may be other tools to analyze fuzzy cognitive maps, but since the methodology is so new, real-world applications have been limited up to now. We are exploring how to apply different methods, and what the results mean in the context of social systems specifically.
Thicket developed our technology platform called The Possibility Engine based on a methodology called fuzzy cognitive mapping. First proposed in 1985 by Bart Kosko, fuzzy cognitive maps are a mashup of two frameworks: cognitive maps and fuzzy logic. Cognitive maps, also called mental maps or conceptual maps, were first identified by Edward Tolman in 1948 to explain how people (well, rats, actually) understand and remember spatial environments. Cognitive maps are now used across a wide variety of fields as a tool for people to express how they think about any environment, socially constructed or physically located. Cognitive maps are recorded as visual drawings using circles to document concepts and lines and arrows to show how those concepts relate to each other. Fuzzy logic is a branch of mathematics that accommodates approximate answers rather than forcing a precise result. Fuzzy logic can handle situations in which we don’t know all the variables at play, or a system in which there are multiple truths, not only a single truth. This makes fuzzy logic ideal for managing complex information systems in which we need to analyze factors leading to multiple possible outcomes. By combining individual cognitive maps using fuzzy logic, we can build a picture of a complex system — a picture that is far richer than any single person’s powers of observation can reveal. This is how we map complex social systems.
When MIT-incubated startup Sourcewater first talked to us about designing an impact model to demonstrate their vision, we were intrigued. We wanted to see how unconventional energy could be a pathway to more sustainable water practices nationwide.
Sourcewater matches energy companies with impaired and fresh water sources to help maximize wastewater recycling, secure water supplies, and minimize costs. By meeting the unique water needs of unconventional energy producers today, Sourcewater is building a supply of non-freshwater sources to meet the nation's increasing water needs in the future.
Sourcewater's theory of change relies on complex and nonlinear factors. A traditional analytic solution couldn't accurately capture the intersection of economic, environmental, and social issues at play. Using the Possibility Engine, we modeled Sourcewater's circular economic impact to demonstrate how it uses market mechanisms to spur sustainable resource use.
Read the Sourcewater Vision for Impact report.
Business model design is just one way Thicket uses the Possibility Engine, our technology platform. We use it to visualize stakeholders, issues, activities, and value chains together while testing how they interact. It's a powerful way to to turn shared knowledge into real world outcomes at transformative speeds.
We position math and science as independent arbiters of truth. Let’s not forget who is really doing the talking.
Motherboard is a great place to get a little breather during the workday. That’s where I stumbled across an article about “A Typology of Street Patterns,” a new study published in the Interface, a journal of the Royal Society. The authors of the study propose a new quantitative method to classify cities according to their street pattern.