Creativity: a change in thinking for a sustainable future

Laura Mononen in Passage

Laura Mononen experiencing a creative ”world flow” in the art installation ‘Passage’ by Matej Kren in Bratislava | © Kati Niiles


By Sandra Ortellado, IIASA 2018 Science Communication Fellow

If fashion is the science of appearances, what can beauty and aesthetics tell us about the way we perceive the world, and how it influences us in turn?

From cognitive science research, we know that aesthetics not only influence superficial appearances, but also the deeper ways we think and experience. So, too, do all kinds of creative thinking create change in the same way: as our perceptions of the world around us changes, the world we create changes with them.

From the merchandizing shelves of H&M and Vero Moda to doctoral research at the Faculty of Information Technology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, 2018 YSSP participant Laura Mononen has seen product delivery from all angles. Whether dealing with commercialized goods or intellectual knowledge, Mononen knows that creativity is all about a change in thinking, and changing thinking is all about product delivery.

“During my career in the fashion and clothing industry, I saw the different levels of production when we sent designs to factories, received clothing back, and then persuaded customers to buy them. It was all happening very effectively,” says Mononen.

But Mononen saw potential for product delivery beyond selling people things they don’t need. She wanted to transfer the efficiency of the fashion world in creating changes in thinking to the efforts to build a sustainable world.

“Entrepreneurs make change with products and companies, fashion change trends and sell them. I’m really interested in applying this kind of change to science policy and communication,” says Mononen. “We treat these fields as though they are completely different, but the thing that is common is humans and their thinking and behaving.”

Often, change must happen in our thinking first before we can act. That’s why Mononen is getting her doctorate in cognitive science. Her YSSP project involved heavy analysis of systems theories of creativity to find patterns in the way we think about creativity, which has been constantly changing over time.

In the past, creativity was seen as an ability that was characteristic of only certain very gifted individuals. The research focused on traits and psychological factors. Today, the thinking on creativity has shifted towards a more holistic view, incorporating interactions and relationships between larger systems. Instead of being viewed as a lightning bolt of inspiration, creativity is now seen as more of a gradual process.

New understandings of creativity also call on us to embrace paradoxes and chaos, see ourselves as part of nature rather than separate from it, experience the world through aesthetics, pay careful attention to our perception and how we communicate it, and transmit culture to the next generation.

Perhaps most importantly, Mononen found in her research that the understanding of creativity has changed to be seen as part of a process of self-creation as well as co-creation.

“The way we see creativity also influences ourselves. For example if I ask someone if they are creative, it’s the way they see themselves that influences how creative they are,” says Mononen. “I have found that it’s more crucial to us than I thought, creativity is everywhere and it’s everyday and we are sharing our creativity with others who are using that to do something themselves and so on.”

This means on the one hand that we use our creativity to decide who we are and how we see the world around us for ourselves. But it also means that the outcomes and benefits of creativity are now intended for society as a whole rather than purely for individuals, as it was in the past. It may sound like another paradox, but being able to embrace ambiguity and complexity and take charge of our role in a larger system is important for creating a sustainable future.

“From the IIASA perspective this finding brings hope because the more people see themselves as part of systems of creating things, the more we can encourage sustainable thinking, since nature is a part of the resources we use to create,” says Mononen.

Mononen says a systems understanding of creativity is especially important for people in leadership positions. If a large institution needs new and innovative solutions and technology, but doesn’t have the thinking that values and promotes creativity, then the cooperative, open-minded process of building is stifled.

Working in both the fashion industry and academic research, Mononen has encountered narrow-minded attitudes towards art and science firsthand.

“Communicating your research is very difficult coming from my background, because you don’t know how the other person is interpreting what you say,” says Mononen. “People have different ideas of what fashion and aesthetics are, how important they are and what they do. Additionally, scientific concepts are used differently in different fields.”

“We are often thinking that once we get information out there, then people will understand, but there are much more complex things going on to make change and create influence in settings that combine several different fields.” says Mononen.

For Mononen, the biggest lesson is that creativity can enhance the efforts of science towards a sustainable world simply by encouraging us to be aware of our own thinking, how it differs from that of others, and how it affects all of us.

“When you become more aware of your ways of thinking, you become more effective at communicating,” says Mononen. “It’s not always that way and it’s very challenging, but that’s what the research on creativity from a systems perspective is saying.”

Insights into the future of agriculture from past human climate change responses

Ancestral Puebloans

© Marcus Thomson

By Marcus Thomson, researcher, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

While living in Cairo in 2010, I witnessed first-hand the human toll of political and environmental disasters that washed over Africa at the end of the last century. Unprecedented numbers of migrants were pressing into North Africa, many pushed out of their homelands by conflict and state-failure, pulled towards safer, richer, less fragile places like Europe. Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, climate change was driving up competition for scarce land and water, and raising pressure on farmers to maintain the quantity and quality of their crops.

It is a similar story throughout the developing world, where many farmers do without the use of expensive chemical fertilizer and pesticides, complex irrigation, or boutique seed varieties. They rely instead on traditional land management practices that developed over long periods with consistent, predictable conditions. It is difficult to predict how dryland farmers will respond to climate change; so it is challenging to plan for various social, economic, and political problems expected to develop under, or be exacerbated by, climate change. Will it spur innovation or, as has been argued for the Syrian civil war[1], set up conflict? A major stumbling block is that the dynamics of human social behavior are so difficult to model.

Instead of attempting to predict farmers’ responses to climate change by modelling human behavior, we can look to the responses to environmental changes of farmers from the past as analogues for many subsistence farmers of the future. Methods to fill in historical gaps, and reconstruct the prehistoric record, are valuable because they expand the set of observed cases of societal-scale responses to environmental change. For instance, some 2000 years ago, an expansive maize-growing cultural complex, the Ancestral Puebloans (APs), was well established in the arid American Southwest. By AD 1000, members of this AP complex produced unique and innovative material culture including the famed “Great Houses”, the largest built structures in the United States until the 19th century. However, between AD 1150 and 1350, there was a profound demographic transformation throughout the Southwest linked to climate change. We now know that many APs migrated elsewhere. As a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles, I wondered whether a shift to cooler, more variable conditions of the “Little Ice Age” (LIA, roughly AD 1300 to 1850) was linked to the production of their staple crop, maize.

I came to IIASA as a YSSP in 2016 to collaborate with crop modelers on this question, and our work has just been published in the journal Quaternary International.[2] I brought with me high-resolution data from a state-of-the-art climate model to drive the crop simulations, and AP site information collected by archaeologists. Because AP maize was quite different from modern corn, I worked with IIASA soil scientist Juraj Balkovič to modify the crop simulator with parameters derived from heirloom varieties still grown by indigenous peoples in the Southwest. I and IIASA economic geographer Tamás Krisztin developed a statistical technique to analyze the dynamical relationship between AP site occupation and simulated yield outcomes.

We found that for the most climate-stressed high-elevation sites, abandonments were most associated with increased year-to-year yield variability; and for the least stressed low-elevation and well-watered sites, abandonment was more likely due to endogenous stressors, such as soil degradation and population pressure. Crucially, we found that across all regions, populations peaked during periods of the most stable year-to-year crop yields, even though these were also relatively warm and dry periods. In short, we found that AP maize farmers adapted well to gradually rising temperatures and drought, during the MCA, but failed to adapt to increased climate variability after ~AD 1150, during the LIA. Because increased variability is one of the near certainties for dryland farming zones under global warming, the AP experience offers a cautionary example of the limits of low-technology adaptation to climate change, a business-as-usual direction for many sub-Saharan dryland farmers.

This is a lesson from the past that policymakers might take note of.

[1] Kelley, C. P., Mohtadi, S., Cane, M. A., Seager, R., & Kushnir, Y. (2015). Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201421533.

[2] Thomson, M. J., Balkovič, J., Krisztin, T., MacDonald, G. M. (2018). Simulated crop yield for Zea mays for Fremont Ancestral Puebloan sites in Utah between 850-1499 CE based on temperature dailies from a statistically downscaled climate model. Quaternary International. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2018.09.031

Interview: A great opportunity for Brazilian PhD students and postdocs

Rafael Morais

Rafael Morais is a recent participant in the IIASA-CAPES Doctorate Sandwich Program, he spent nine months at IIASA working in the Energy program.

In 2016, the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) partnered with IIASA on a new initiative offering support to doctoral and postdoctoral researchers interested in collaborating with established IIASA researchers. As part of this initiative, IIASA and CAPES annually offer up to three fellowships for Brazilian PhD students to spend three to twelve months at IIASA as part of the joint IIASA-CAPES Doctorate Sandwich Program, as well as up to four postdoc fellowships that enable Brazilian researchers to work at IIASA for up to 24 months.

Rafael Morais, a PhD candidate at the Energy Planning Program of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, was part of the first group of Brazilian PhD students funded by CAPES to participate in this program. He spent nine months with the Energy Program at IIASA in 2017. We recently caught up with him and asked him about his research and what the fellowship has meant to him:

What is your PhD research about?

My research involves modeling the contribution of renewable energy sources in electric systems. My doctorate thesis includes a case study on Brazil, where we have large potential for wind and solar power generation in various regions. My main objective is to investigate how total costs develop considering the number of wind and solar plants in the Brazilian electricity system.

Why did you choose IIASA for your doctorate program (over other places)?

I chose IIASA because it is a very reputable think tank for energy and model development. People are very capable and well prepared. They have been working on energy systems modeling for many years, and their experience motivated my decision to come to IIASA. I talked with some people that were at IIASA before me and they were all very grateful for the experience. Another important factor was that it is an international institute, where one can have contact with people from many different countries, and the main language is English.

Rafael Morais

How did your participation in the program benefit you?

I had the opportunity to get into contact with diverse approaches to my research questions, thus enriching my thesis. Unlike my home institution, IIASA does not have only energy experts, but also computer scientists, mathematicians, and physics experts, all working in the same group, and all contributing to a great modeling team. Being here was an excellent opportunity to collaborate with them. As my first experience abroad, it was also a chance for me to grow and develop other skills, both on a professional and a personal level.

Would you recommend that people apply for the IIASA-CAPES doctorate program?

Yes, I would definitely recommend it! IIASA is a very nice place to work. People really care about a harmonious work environment, and IIASA staff are always available to help you with any issue. Apart from that, the people that I worked with during my time here are very knowledgeable and kind. In short, it was a great experience being at IIASA for nine months during my PhD.

Applications for the 2019 IIASA-CAPES Doctorate Sandwich Program and Postdoctoral Fellowship Program opened on 1 September 2018 and will run until 15 October 2018. Candidates have to apply to both CAPES (on the CAPES website) and IIASA. Successful applicants will be informed of the selection results by mid-December 2018. Selected candidates are expected to take up their position at IIASA between March and October 2019.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

“Ecocivilization”: balancing society and ecology in Chinese coastal fishing communities

© Huating | Dreamstime.com

By Sandra Ortellado, 2018 Science Communication Fellow

China is the world’s biggest producer of both wild and farmed fish, yet the massive commercial fishing industry threatens thousands of years of tradition in ocean and freshwater fishing, as well as the livelihoods of coastal fishing communities.

In the past decade, some coastal ecosystems and environments have been destroyed and polluted in the process of industrialization. Millions of tons of fish are caught in Chinese territorial waters each year, such that overfishing of high value commercial species has led to a drastic decline of some native fisheries resources and species.

In response, the Chinese government released a five-year plan for protecting marine ecosystems and restoring wild capture fisheries. The plan promotes an agenda of “ecocivilization,” which emphasizes land–sea coordination, green development, and social–ecological balance.

It also calls for the introduction of additional output control measures, which directly limit the amount of fish coming out of a fishery. Existing input control measures restrict the intensity of gear used to catch fish, but they may not be sufficient to protect ecosystems.

Yi Huang, a member of this year’s YSSP cohort, has made it her goal to figure out how social ecological balance can be achieved even as fishery regulations shift towards increased input and output control.

Given the size of China’s fishing industry, large scale change requires the abstract concepts of “ecocivilization” to be translated into action, compliance, and enforcement at the local level. That means engaging with individual fishers, their communities, and their way of life, says Huang.

“If you want to control overfishing; the object of fishery management policy are fishers. So you need to understand human behavior to help you control overfishing.”

Huang’s project investigates how changes in fishery management will affect demographic, geographic, and socioeconomic trends in the Chinese fisher population. With the guidance of her supervisors, she’s also developing a bioeconomic model to analyze how output control measures like catch limits will affect ecological and socioeconomic conditions.

“I just want to figure out how to improve enforcement of this kind of policy and see if we can use it to solve the overfishing problem at the same time as giving those in the fishing industry a better life,” says Huang.

Current input control measures like licensing systems, vessel buyback programs, closed seasons, restricted areas, and fisher relocation programs are meant to discourage overfishing and transition towards more sustainable practices. Nevertheless, a decline in fishing vessels and restricted fishing seasons only resulted in an increase in total vessel engine power and large spikes in fishing activity just prior to the closed season.

According to the Chinese fishery statistical yearbook, the number of people employed in the fishing industry proliferated to 13.8 million in 2016, so in recent years the government has issued subsidies encouraging fishers not to fish in the off-season and to change vocation. Older fishers are hesitant to abandon an identity that has been passed down from generation to generation in their families. However, younger generations with access to higher education are lured by the prospect of more stable work outside of their fishing communities, which could really change the socioeconomic and demographic structure of coastal villages.

With the potential for increased output controls to incur drastic changes in coastal communities, it’s more important than ever that regulations are carefully designed with both socioeconomic and ecological factors in mind.

Huang hopes her research will help inform the process of policy development, which involves balancing the needs of both vulnerable fisheries labor and delicate ecosystems.

“When policymakers want to use output control in fishery management, maybe they will think more about the fisher or the socioeconomic aspect of the resolution,” says Huang.

“My research is at the national level, but when they design a regulation it’s at the local level, so my research can teach them how socioeconomic surveys at the local level can be used together with ecological research when they are preparing for regulations.”

Huang, who studied sociology at the Ocean University of China before starting as a PhD student in Marine Affairs at Xiamen University, has spent the past ten years researching coastal fishing communities. She has a deep fondness for the people she surveyed, who welcomed her into their homes and showed her the beauty of the environment that sustained them.

“I want to protect the ocean and the people that connect with it,” says Huang.

A sociological perspective has given Huang an eye for nuance and an appreciation for things that don’t turn out quite how you expect, as they often don’t in scientific research—especially when it attempts to explain human behavior.

For example, Huang says that although fishers may look like countryside people, they act very differently from farmers.

“The ocean has a lot more risk involved than planting on land,” explains Huang.

Because Chinese fishery regulation is currently focused almost exclusively on analyzing resources from an ecological perspective, she thinks sociology and anthropology research could add another revealing dimension to the approach.

“After doing surveys and analyzing the data, I will find maybe I’m wrong or maybe there is something more. That’s why I’m really interested in this kind of research,” says Huang.

As her research project develops, Huang says she’s grateful for the feedback of her supervisors and peers at IIASA, who both challenge and encourage her.

“Even when they have some critical comments on my research, I feel more confident that my research is meaningful, that they support me, and that they’re really interested in my research,” says Huang. “That’s what I can feel every day.”

Reimagining the workforce of the future

© SasinTipchai | Shutterstock

By Sandra Ortellado, 2018 Science Communication Fellow

Science fiction depicts the future with a combination of fascination and fear. While artificial intelligence (AI) could take us beyond the limits of human error, dystopic scenes of world domination reveal our greatest fear: that humans are no match for machines, especially in the job market. But in the so-called fourth industrial revolution, often known as Industry 4.0, the line between future and fiction is a thread of reality.

Over the next 13 years, impending automation could force as many as 70 million workers in the US to find another way to make money. The role of technology is not only growing but also demanding a completely new way of thinking about the work we do and our impact on society because of it.

Rather than focusing on which jobs will disappear because of technological disruption, we could be identifying the most resilient tasks within jobs, says J. Luke Irwin, 2018 YSSP participant. His research in the IIASA World Population program uses a role- and task-based analysis to investigate professions that will be most resilient to technological disruption, with the hope of guiding workforce development policy and training programs.

“We are getting better and better at programming algorithms for machines to do things that we thought were really only in the realm of humans,” says Irwin. “The amount of disruption that’s going to happen to the work industry in the next ten years is really going to impact everyone.”

However, the fear and instability created by the potential disruption elicit chaos, and the response is hard to organize into constructive action. While the resources remain untapped, creativity and imagination are wasted on speculation instead of preparation.

“I couldn’t stand that there’s all this great evidence-based work out there about how we can improve people’s lives and no one is using it,” said Irwin, “I’m trying to align a lot of research and put it in a place where you can compare it and make it more useful and more transferable between the people who would be talking about this: educators, policymakers, employers, and anybody in the workforce.”

Using a German dataset with vocational training as well as time and task information, Irwin will break down jobs into the specific cognitive and physical skills involved and rank the durability of each skill.

Based on the identified jobs and skills, Irwin will go on to draw connections between labor-force capabilities and education policies. His goal is to scale the findings of the most resilient skills to the German labor system so that policymakers and academic institutions can retrain currently displaced workforces and reimagine the future of human work.

After all, while about half the duties workers currently handle could be automated, Mckinsey Global Institute suggests that less than 5% of occupations could be entirely taken over by computers. The future of predictable, repetitive, and purely quantitative work may be threatened, but automation could also open the door for occupations we can’t even imagine yet.

“I think people are amazing and that they have a lot more potential than we are currently capable of fulfilling,” says Irwin.

The World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of children today will end up in careers that don’t even exist yet. For now, an increasingly self-employed millennial generation works insecure, unprotected jobs. The new gig economy, characterized by temporary contracted positions, offers independence but also instability in the labor market.

Without stable work, people lose a sense of security, and that can be dangerous for a policy system that isn’t built to handle uncertainty.

The last industrial revolution caused two or three generations of people to be thrown into poverty and lose everything they had because it was all tied into their job, recalls Irwin.

“Everything gets bad when things are uncertain,” says Irwin, “And this is a very uncertain time. We need to have a better idea of what’s coming so we can actually make some change.”

Irwin, who earned his Master’s in Public Health in 2014, wants his work to have a preventative focus, trying to find those things that not enough people are talking about, but have the potential to make a huge impact on public well-being.

“Especially in the United States, where I live, we’re so tied up with our jobs—it seems like it’s over half our identity,” says Irwin, “We live to work in America.”

In a place like the US, where a job is not only a source of income, but also an identity and a health factor, Irwin’s research offers hope that technological disruption can foster opportunity instead of chaos.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.