Tools, Tools Everywhere and not a Hammer in Sight!

Complexity in Policy Evaluation

By Pete Barbrook-Johnson (né Johnson)

Members of the Sociology department, alongside colleagues from across the University of Surrey, have been working on the ERIE project for the past six years. One of the main outputs of the project is the development of a suite of software tools designed to help anyone and everyone make decisions and think strategically. The tools have been designed with government, industry and charity sector activities in mind, but they can be applied to a very wide range of topics, from managing your health and exercise, to understanding how we might better collaborate with colleagues across the University, and even bringing together students to share and build knowledge.

Have a look, get involved…

You can read about and start using these tools at SteerPlex.org.uk. I encourage all readers to take a look, and have a quick think about how one or more of the tools could be helpful for you, whether you are a researcher, teacher, student, work in government, industry or the charity sector, or anywhere else! The tools are not yet final products with jazzy graphics, but are prototypes. We are keen to develop them, and are open to pilot studies and further testing. Get in touch if you are interested.

There are nine tools in total; those most easily applied to a wide range of topics include: Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping and the Complex Control Tool, which help you to construct and analyse simple ‘fuzzy’ causal models of a topic with others. This is a powerful way to engage people and share knowledge. Spatial Networks, which helps you to include spatial considerations when constructing network graphs. There are two examples of agent-based modelling, which can help you formalise your knowledge of a topic, and be used to build simulations to improve understanding of its workings. There is also an example of a Serious Game (think of a flight simulator for decision-making), to help us ‘play’ through scenarios that we have designed with others, as they react to our decisions.

Complexity Science and participatory approaches…

Complexity Science and a participatory approach to research and decision-making underpin all the tools’ design. Complexity Science deals with ‘systems’ made up of many interacting components. Many things may be referred to as a ‘system’. A city, an industrial sector, the whole economy, and societies are potential examples of systems. The components in a system might be people, organisations such as businesses and government, or the physical environment. A system becomes complex, rather than complicated, when there are many interactions between the different components in the system, and perhaps there are many different types of components. These interactions, and the influences they have, make the system difficult to understand, and make the system exhibit certain behaviours such as tipping points. A car engine is complicated, but not complex, because we understand it and can predict its behaviour accurately; whereas an economy is complex because we cannot reliably predict its overall behaviour. Complexity Science has developed over the last fifty years or so to help with studying and understanding complex systems.

A decision process may be participatory if those that are affected by, and implement, that decision are included in the decision making. Research may be participatory if it uses the knowledge of those who ‘live’ the topic being researched. Workshops and meetings are often used to bring people together in participatory processes.

Changing our way of thinking…

Acknowledging and embracing the complexity of the real-world and using a participatory approach are things that Sociology does well already. But other disciplines, and many policy-making processes, have historically done this less well. Some people have also suggested that even when others ‘talk a good game’ about complexity and participation, it is often little more than lip service, and decision-makers may still fall back on lazy or simplistic ways of thinking and exclude key people from decisions.

Hopefully, efforts such as the ERIE project and its toolkit help to push back against this common inclination to look at the world in simplistic ways, and assume we know best. I certainly hope SteerPlex.org.uk can help you to generate an improved understanding of the complexity of topics pertinent to you, and to engage those to whom it is also important.