Designing Our Children’s Future: calling for a science of design, complexity and collective action

It is sometimes said that biology flows downhill — we are endlessly concerned with the well-being and competency and future adaptive success of our children.

The strategic challenge of promoting well-being and competency and adaptive success is ever-present, and scientists continue to investigate and debate optimum strategies of childhood program delivery. Effective program delivery also necessitates engagement with politicians and economists and community members, and all stakeholders upon whom the success of childhood programs depends.

There is an excellent book I read recently, Childhood Programs and Practices in the First Decade of Life: A Human Capital Integration, which highlights some of the academic, practical, political, social, and economic challenges that face people working in the area of childhood program design and delivery. Reading this book made me think about a very significant need that I believe permeates psychological science: We need a science of design, complexity, and collective action — a new type of applied systems science — to supplement our psychological science.

Problems and challenges associated with the generic issues of design and complexity permeate applied psychological science. For example, although research suggests that preschool programs can facilitate enduring psychological and social benefits over the life-course, continued evaluation of programs is always needed as part of the iterative redesign process, and also as part of the political and economic persuasion process, that is, to sustain continued investment by national and local government. Also, as culture, demographics, infrastructures, and local contexts change, there is always a requirement to reconsider the design of programs.

Similarly, programs that have been shown to be effective in one region may not replicate well outside of the original research context. Certain capacities are needed to operate and sustain the program with high quality, including having an organization and community that are fully knowledgeable and supportive of the program, a staff that is well trained and supported in the conduct of the program model, and real-time information on implementation of the program and its achievement of benchmarks to guide efforts in continuous quality improvement.

At the same time, unrealistic expectations can distort public opinion and political decision making. For example, while preschool education programs for children such as Head Start were originally touted in the political arena as a silver bullet to end poverty, crime, welfare dependency, and boost national IQ and educational achievement, the results of intervention research were more modest than expected. Even before the evidence was in, Head Start’s planners were reasonably modest in their expectations and never believed that a brief summer program would have much effect on life-course poverty and other big social problems. The problem is that the academics did not do a good job convincing policy makers and the public of this reality. The subsequent gap between the high expectations of the politicians and the public and the more realistic and modest expectations of the academics had a negative impact on research and program development.

Researchers and practitioners face a major challenge as they strive to design and implement effective programs that are cost effective and sustainable. The challenge of program design and collective action in the implementation of these programs can only be achieved by investing in a form of systems science that is generic enough in its design approach to facilitate the integration of knowledge and perspectives of multiple stakeholders.

Part of what is needed is (a) a social network of highly knowledgeable scientists and practitioners who, collectively, have a deep understanding of children and are (b) willing to come together as a team in the context of (c) a local problem situation and (d) work with local stakeholders to structure the local problem situation and (e) import their expert knowledge alongside the expert local knowledge of stakeholders in the design of resolution structures that inform the adaptive action of individuals and groups. If psychologists embrace this goal, psychology will need to embrace applied systems science.

Specifically, to bring about coherent, integrated change, we need an applied system science that incorporates at least five elements. According to John Warfield (Warfield, 2006), systems science is best seen as a science that consists of nested sub-sciences. It is presented most compactly using the notation of set theory. Let A represent a science of description. Let B represent a science of design. Let C represent a science of complexity. Let D represent a science of action (praxiology). Let E represent systems science. Then

A  [  B  [  C  [   D  [  E

We can learn something of systems science by first learning a science of description. Then we can learn a science of design which includes a science of description. The science of design is fundamental if our goal is to redesign systems. Next we can learn a science of complexity which includes a science of description and a science of design. The science of complexity is fundamental if our goal is to integrate the knowledge and perspective that different people have in relation to key problematic design issues. Next we can learn a science of action which includes a science of description, a science of design, and a science of complexity. The science of action is fundamental if our goal is to catalyze collective action for the purpose of bringing about system changes that are grounded in the science of description, design, and complexity. Effective applied systems science needs to embed these elements, one within the other.

As it stands, while the research on childhood program efficacy is seeking to guide the way we invest in our children — with key recommendations derived from psychological, social, economic, and political levels of analysis — the integration that is being constructed draws largely upon the science of description. By adding a science of design, complexity, and action we not only achieve a higher-level integration, we also shift the centre of power and influence and persuasion beyond the academic domain and into a domain of enquiry that includes all those who seek a better future for their children.

Originally published May 29, 2012 in ‘In One Lifespan’

Some links contained within this post are external


Reynolds, A., Rolnick, A., Englund, M., Temple, J. (2010). Childhood Programs and Practices in the First Decade of Life: A Human Capital Integration. Cambridge University Press

Warfield, J.N. (2006). An introduction to systems science, Singapore, World Scientific.

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