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

“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.”

Raising the game: A new approach to understanding decision making

by Melina Filzinger, IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Strategic board games are staple entertainment for families all over the world, but what many do not know is that games can also be a valuable research tool. As her project for the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), Sara Turner is piloting an experiment that uses a game called the Forest Game, developed by IIASA and the Centre for Systems Solutions, to find out how policy decisions are made and how they change over time. “Games let you abstract from the specifics of a real-world case, but are more human-centric than, for example, computer simulations,” says Turner.

Interface of the Forest Game, © IIASA

In the Forest Game, a group of five to ten players is asked to make decisions about the management of a forest together. Harvesting trees yields returns for the players, while harvesting too many of them might destroy the forest or increase the risk of flooding. There are some uncertainties in the game – for example, the players do not know exactly how resilient the forest is. The goal of the research project is to run multiple iterations of the game with different players and starting conditions, and trace how group discussions and the resulting decisions change over time. This helps to generate hypotheses about the ways in which individuals interact to generate policy outcomes. Each game takes about an hour to play.

Even though the Forest Game deals with forest management, this is only one example of a broader class of decision-making dilemma: when a resource is limited, and it is costly to prevent access, people will tend to over-exploit the resource. This in turn leads to a wide range of problems, from over-fishing to air pollution. Although games cannot capture the complexity of real situations, they can still help us understand the core dynamics of the problem and develop ideas and strategies that are relevant to solving it. “The game is not designed to be directly applicable to real life, but it helps to come up with hypotheses that you can then compare to real-life cases,” explains Turner.

Questions about the sustainable management of resources have been studied for decades, but not a lot is known about the role values play in shaping group decision making and the stability of the implemented policies. To investigate this, each participant is asked to fill out a short ten-minute survey assessing their core values and beliefs, after which they are put into a group with people who either have a very similar or very different worldview from them. “It is really interesting to put a person in a decision-making context with other people and get some insight into how they work through that problem,” says Turner.

© Sara Turner

For example, if you are a person that strongly values equality, in the game you might be likely to argue in favor of a policy where all participants obtain the same amount of returns, regardless of the number of trees the individual player chooses to harvest. If many players in the group share your belief, that policy might be more likely to be implemented than in a very diverse group.

Another interesting question whenever you run a game for research purposes is, “Who are the right players?” Some games are targeted at real-world policymakers, but often games can also be educational for the broader public. ‘’People learn a lot during games, because of the way that information is processed and experienced,” says Turner. That is why many participants, although they might not see a connection between the game and their life at first, find themselves relying on the insights they gained while playing when faced with similar situations in the future.

In this case, the goal is to study group decision-making processes in general, so the details of who is playing are not particularly important. However, to obtain groups of players with heterogeneous worldviews, a high degree of diversity is preferable.

While the game has previously mainly been played by YSSP participants and students of the University of Vienna, Turner is currently trying to recruit a more diverse set of players from both within and outside of IIASA. “It would be ideal to have a pool of participants who come from a wide variety of educational and cultural backgrounds,” she says.

If you are interested in participating in the Forest Game, you can write Sara Turner an e-mail to turner@iiasa.ac.at.

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.

Human behavior is the most important factor

By Melina Filzinger, IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Imagine you are heading home from work and are stuck in evening rush hour traffic. You see an opportunity to save time by cutting another driver off, but this will lead to a delay for other cars, possibly causing a traffic jam. Would you do it? Situations like these, where you can benefit from acting selfishly while causing the community as a whole to be worse off, are known as social dilemmas, and are at the heart of many areas of research in economics.

Tum Nhim (left) discusses water sharing with farmers and local authorities in rural Cambodia. © Tum Nhim

The social dilemma becomes particularly important when considering so-called common pool resources such as water reservoirs that are depleted when people use them. For instance, picture several farmers using water from the same river to irrigate their farmland. The river might carry enough water for all of them, but if there is no incentive for the upstream farmers to take the needs of the farmers living further downstream into consideration, they might use more than their share of the water, not leaving enough for the rest of the group. Situations like this are particularly relevant in developing countries, where small-scale farmers that manage the irrigation of their farmland themselves play a significant role in ensuring food security.

Growing up in southwestern Cambodia, YSSP participant Tum Nhim saw how the surrounding farmers shared water among themselves, and how important water was to their livelihoods. Not having enough water often meant that there were no crops for a whole year, and many farmers were forced to take on loans in order to feed their families. “Now that climate change is starting to affect Cambodia, and water scarcity is becoming an even bigger problem, it is more important than ever to investigate fair and efficient ways of sharing water,” explains Nhim.

As a water engineer, Nhim used to design and build water infrastructure. He however soon learned that not considering how human decision making affects the water supply will cause situations where the infrastructure provides enough water, but some farmers are still left high and dry. “I think that human behavior is the most important factor to consider when managing common pool resources,” he says.

To find possible solutions for distributing water in a way that yields an optimal outcome for the community, Nhim and his colleagues from the IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program use a bottom-up approach–they model the behavior of a number of individual farmers that interact according to certain rules. The researchers can then look at the collective outcome of these interactions after a certain time and ask questions like, “Will the farmers cooperate?” or, “Will some farmers be left without water?” In their model the researchers take into account both the water itself, a common pool resource, and the water infrastructure, which is not depleted by use.

Several mechanisms can be used to ensure the fair distribution of water. Some of them are formal; like laws and regulations, but it is often difficult to keep people from extracting water, because using a given water resource might be a long-standing cultural tradition or legal right. There are however also more informal mechanisms that can help. For example, individuals often prefer to be good citizens in order to ensure that they have a high social standing in their community that will bring them benefits.

This reputational mechanism is especially relevant in small communities with everyday contact between members. If someone takes too much water, or doesn’t invest in the common water infrastructure, they will gain a bad reputation, which will in turn limit their ability to get support from their neighbors later on.

The main question Nhim is investigating in his YSSP project is if this mechanism can spread across several villages that share a common water resource and irrigation infrastructure, and lead to an outcome where everyone cooperates. If this turns out to be true, the reputational mechanism could be a very inexpensive and natural solution for managing common goods across several communities.

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.