(7) Stimulating learning processes in a complex system

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

You have talked about connectivity, diversity and redundancy as factors that make a system resilient. However, even if we design the system with an optimal links and diversity and redundancy of nodes, would that be enough to say that the system is resilient? When we are talking about the urban governance system, we all know that challenges that this system faces are constantly changing. It something as a “perfect structure” of the system even possible? Isn’t that an oxymoron, because perfection implies one single state, rigidity, which we have definitely learn is not working very well in any system.

That is the core of the resilience thinking, yes. There’s no perfect solution or perfect structure of a system’s network that will guaranty resilience. It’s all about ability to adapt to inner and outer change. And for that we need to constantly update existing knowledge, awareness about the circumstances in the system, and maintain desired functions through the phases of disturbance and change. That can only be achieved by constant learning in the system. Prior to learning we need to be able to create new knowledge. And here is the trick: there is no way to create new knowledge if we are not able to constantly re-evaluate existing knowledge, internalised values, and old understandings of a system.

That’s why you’ve mentioned before that “stimulating learning processes” is one of the basic guidelines to design a resilient system.

Exactly. If you don’t learn to swim in a wild water, you drown. We all know that the history hasn’t been very kind to any rigid political or social system.

Luckily for us. But again it is clear that it is important to constantly learn, leave behind the concepts that no longer work. But is it possible to apply this thinking when dealing with the city governance processes? Or with any other social group, for that matter?

It is possible, and I’ll tell you now about a model I see as very hopeful. One of the key approaches to manage systems that aim to support learning is called adaptive governance. This concept has gained recognition as a framework for managing systems in which learning is considered central.

In adaptive governance a key focus of learning tends to include knowledge sharing across scales. This cross-scale focus of learning is pursued because developing adaptive governance prioritises the creation of new social norms and cooperation between nested organisational structures, and engaging bridging organisations.

How can learning processes be stimulated in adaptive governance?

In my opinion, first we need to understand the obstacles, and then find adequate solutions to overcome them. Big obstacle for learning is power asymmetry in social systems. Power asymmetry has an important impact on how the learning is harnessed. For instance, relatively more powerful actors can dominate poorly implemented learning processes and assert the influence of their own knowledge, thereby covering up other voices within communities. Likewise, powerful organisations on a national level can restrain the potential contribution of learning and innovation at the local scale. The cross-scale focus of learning can help to deal with this issues.

Anyone who follow the public discussion on climate change, or urban development plans, or politics, would easily agree with you on this. The facts do not matter by themselves, it’s about how powerful is the one that knows those facts for them to matter. You say that enhancing cross-scale learning processes can help fight power asymmetries that obstruct learning. Can you suggest any concrete ways to do it?

Current research about how learning can be used to enhance resilience is dealing with understanding of different types of learning, and with how institutions can enable and direct learning.

That research shows how to systematically integrate diverse knowledge systems, and how better combine management with learning. For example, when implementing urban green infrastructure, it is important for the success of the project to combine scientific and local knowledge about ecosystem services on a particular site, and absolutely crucial that the managing institutions have continuous access to that knowledge. For that to happen, we need adequate policies. And that’s all another story to tell.

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