Think Piece: What is Reality?

As a species, we achieve amazing outcomes from landing some on the moon to curing diseases. Yet extreme poverty and other social injustices still thrive in our society. Much of our success can be attributed to our mastery of reductionist science. Reductionist science sees the world as a big machine. Reductionist thinking goes, if scientists can understand the parts of the machine then an explanation for the whole can be given. For tame problems like moon landings reductionist science serves humankind well. However, questions of equity and justice require not only an ability to understand the parts but also how the parts act when integrated into a whole. Problems requiring an understanding of the whole and its parts are called wicked problems. The real challenges facing us are no longer tame problems but wicked problems that means the science we practice and teach science needs to shift. This post puts forward a case that a Sustainability program needs a clear philosophy that focuses on and acting to address Wicked Problems by teaching students how to integrate three types of thinking: systems thinking, design thinking and dialog thinking.

We are trained to translate the question “What is reality?” into: 

What is our ontological view? By ontological, I refer to the definition:  relating to or based upon being or existence (   

A core idea is “what is the nature of the reality in which we live?”  In our early years, we (all of society) were trained to believe:  

  • Although not perfect democratic governments served the long-term interest of citizens.    
  • The rationality of Popperian science will always solve the problems facing humanity. 
  • Human actions are separate from nature and on a scale that the two could be considered in isolation.   

A quick glance at any news site will tell you these assumptions are no longer true.  In other words, our assumptions about the nature of reality are no longer true or at a minimum do not hold consistently.  The problems we face today (climate change, poverty, etc.) are not reducible into simple parts where traditional (discipline-based ) science can be applied to solve.  Today we face wicked problems that typically get worse when only traditional science is applied.  As a result, we are not preparing students as well as we might.

The change in reality (or our perception of it) signals a fundamental shift in how science is practiced and taught.  We are now in the Anthropocene which argues that human impacts are the most influential on the planet’s ecosystems. This signals a change in science if we believe Thomas Kuhn.  Traditional science is still needed and alive and well, but it is applied in a different context.  Kuhn explains that new approaches to science emerge when the old approaches don’t completely answer all the problems to which it is applied.  He gives the example of Newtonian physics and Quantum physics. Newtonian physics did not disappear, it just is more applicable under certain conditions.   We see the same with sustainability science which arose in response to wicked problems.

In 2000, Kates 1]Kates, R. W., Clark, W. C., Corell, R., Hall, J. M., Jaeger, C. C., Lowe, I., … Svedin, U., 2000. Sustainability Science. Science, 292, 641.  and many prominent scholars identified the first list of core problems that sustainability science seeks to answer.  Kates 2]Kates, R. W. 2011. What kind of a science is sustainability science? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(49), 19449–19450. later refined these to: 

  • What shapes the long-term trends and transitions that provide the major directions for this century? 
  • What determines the adaptability, vulnerability, and resilience of hu- man–environment systems? 
  • How can theory and models be formulated that better account for the variation in human–environment interactions? 
  • What are the principal tradeoffs be- tween human well-being and the natural environment? 
  • Can scientifically meaningful “limits” be defined that would provide effective warning for human–environment systems? 
  • How can society most effectively guide or manage human environment systems toward a sustainability transition? 
  • How can the “sustainability” of alternative pathways of environment and development be evaluated? 

Personally, I aligned my dissertation to two of these questions and demonstrated how (Business) Management Science could be used in Sustainability Science. The problem is a list of questions is not a methodology nor does it easily lend itself to solving real problems.

At its core sustainability is an applied science like engineering or agriculture seeking to solve problems.   It is also both a natural and social science.  I assert a core assumption of a Sustainability programs is:  

Sustainability programs are here to solve or at least address problems versus only thinking critically about them.  

If you doubt it is an applied science or needs to be, and that we need to take actions then sit in the undergrad interviews and listen to their angst about climate change. In practice, this means we are preparing students to act (be change agents).  If we want them to be effective, we can’t just teach them business, or ecology, or energy, or biology, or urban development.  Rather, we need to coherently integrate our teaching to focus on addressing wicked problems, which is in itself a wicked problem.     

Wicked Problems – Network versus Linear

The traditional view of problems was linear.  The new reality looks like a network depicted in the graphic.  Where does a problem start and stop?  These are the questions we need to answer today.  How do we do that?   How do we address wicked problems? 

Without writing a dissertation I suggest we need to teach students how to integrate three types of thinking:  systems thinking, design thinking and dialog thinking. 

Three Ways of Thinking 

Below is a brief (not complete) synopsis of the three ways of thinking. 

Systems Thinking: 

Systems thinking is an abstract approach to learning and conceptualizing how all problems exist in a system (a big picture view). It helps us think about the dynamics and boundaries of systems.  It is useful for thinking about changes over time.   It also includes knowledge about the system.  Systems thinking supports generating knowledge about current and future states of a system and how to change (i.e. strategy) that system.

Simple goal: View the world and problems as interconnected activities. 

Traditional conceptualization of systems thinking

Dialogue Thinking: 

Human behavior is the focus of sustainability. Deforestation, invasive species, and any other environmental impact is exasperated and accelerated by human decisions. Frankly, if humans did not exist the natural systems would function fine. Thus, sustainability is about influencing and managing human behavior so we don’t cause our own extinction. Dialogue thinking supports shaping human behavior by using social learning to come up with solutions that are meaningful to all stakeholders.  Since wicked problems are tied to values, dialogue thinking not only articulates preference but also acts to clarify values.  Values are the ultimate basis for evaluating solutions. 

Simple goal: Facilitate problem solving dialogue. 

Managing group dialog

Design Thinking 

Design thinking is human-centered, action oriented and looks to approach complex problems through a methodology of learning by doing.  The goal of design thinking is to come up with solutions that create value. I personally argue it links to dialogue thinking via the empathize step and system thinking with the Define Step.  It is focused on actions and solutions not just thinking. 

Simple goal: Structured approach to problem solving. 

Image result for design thinking

Three Ways of Thinking summarized 

What would I do differently? 

Systems ThinkingDialog ThinkingDesign Thinking
DomainsData and StrategyPeople and StrategyAction and Strategy
View the world and wicked
problems as interconnected activities
Facilitate problem solving dialogue for wicked problems. Structured approach to problem solving for wicked
You need to systematically see the big pictureYou need to help people clarify their values as they talk to each otherYou need to be able to systematically
solve problems

To answer a question from Natural science faculty “What would I do differently?”. First, you can continue to teach students to solve tame problems. The basics of science do not change. Second, you can teach students to work with others to change how society values and prioritizes problems. The reality is you can collect all the data in the universe but if people do not understand it or more importantly care about it then no action happens.  Third, you can stop with magical thinking which has taken hold in all of society including natural scientists. The magical thinking is we can only think of ourselves and continue to do what we have always done and somehow sustainability will happen.

Here is one of my current classes:  

SUS516 Sustainable Decision Analysis 

Systems ThinkingDialog ThinkingDesign Thinking
DomainsData and StrategyPeople and StrategyAction and Strategy
SpecificsCarbon Cycle

Ecosystem Services
Water Cycle
Personal Carbon Footprint
How to engage with corporate decision makers

Work in groups
Empathize with people’s economic and environmental needs

Ideate reductions in water and carbon
Percent of class70%10%20%

It is not a natural science class but touches on the chemistry of greenhouse gases, ecosystem services etc. because students need to understand how a company’s carbon footprint is connected to other systems.  Similarly, I explain how to use the different measures as part of a decision making (dialogue) process.  Lastly, we look at areas for improvement using the data to guide us.  

If we are graduating people who are going to enact positive change then we might see an Applied Ecology class look like the following (this is a complete brainstorm to clarify an idea): 

Systems ThinkingDialog ThinkingDesign Thinking
DomainsData and StrategyPeople and StrategyAction and Strategy
SpecificsCarbon Cycle 

Ecosystems  -Water Cycle – etc. Etc. 
How ecology can be used to engage stakeholders

R as a took for engagement
Empathize with environmental impacts

Ideate changes in ecosystem management
Percent of class70%10%20%

Closing Summary 

We want to graduate problem solvers and not just technicians.   The world has changed, and we need to change. 


1 Kates, R. W., Clark, W. C., Corell, R., Hall, J. M., Jaeger, C. C., Lowe, I., … Svedin, U., 2000. Sustainability Science. Science, 292, 641.
2 Kates, R. W. 2011. What kind of a science is sustainability science? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(49), 19449–19450.

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