When it comes to the history of science, social scientists are often viewed by worldly, grey-bearded physicists as the new kids on the block – or, at best, a bunch of rowdy adolescents still trying to figure out their purpose in life.
Like many people, I hope for a better world. I hope for a world where there is less ignorance and violence and more wisdom and peace, less suffering and illness and more wellbeing and health, less closed-mindedness and selfishness and more open-mindedness and altruism. Like many people, I hope we can transcend egocentrism, embrace the fullness of life around us, and sustain the wonderful diversity of life on our planet. I hope that we can cultivate the ability to redesign our world such that there is greater collective freedom, equality, justice, democracy, sovereignty, and good governance of our global commons.
In December 2013, Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95. Tributes rang out all over the world. Mandela was an inspiration to millions, if not billions, of people. He gave voice to the oppressed; he demonstrated unsurpassed resilience and resolve as an advocate of freedom and democracy; and, most notably, he brokered a new peace and a new constitution for South Africa in the face of intense and sustained opposition.
In the last twenty years, technology has emerged that creates new possibilities for storytelling, creativity and creative education. Innovative and pervasive technologies have been developed, mobilising and ubiquitising computing and digital media.
The gap between the poor and rich of the world has been widening over the past few decades. Differences in health between social classes are becoming greater and the combined effects of social inequality and low socio-economic status are shown again and again to have a negative effect on physical, psychological, and social well-being of individuals. It’s not easy to escape intergenerational cycles of poverty and low socio-economic status, particularly when free market ideologies reinforce the idea that social inequality is a ‘natural’ feature of our societies. But social inequality is a problem that cries out for intervention and many international organizations, including the World Health Organisation, highlight the need for intervention in this context. Naturally, this requires a deep understanding of the dynamics at play, such that targets for intervention can be identified.
People sometimes talk about the need to bring academic disciplines together to tackle complex societal problems. It makes sense. Different disciplines bring different knowledge and methodological skill to problematic situations, and a good synthesis of this knowledge and skill can often help a group arrive at more effective and efficient solutions to problems. But there’s a problem with the general design of our education system: we generally don’t focus much attention on cultivating interdisciplinary skills and dispositions in students, and we generally don’t provide students with an option to receive an interdisciplinary education.
In his book, Societal Systems: Planning, Policy and Complexity, John Warfield (1976) — motivated by our inability to resolve societal problems — focused on developing methods to support our collective intelligence. Although Warfield was writing 40 years ago, in 1976, his words resonate today, in 2016:
“Examples of important societal problems abound – wars, crime, poverty, urban problems, regional problems, international problems, inflation, malnutrition, starvation, and disease. Experience shows how imperfectly we deal with these problems…Shortages impend in energy, food, water, affection, wilderness, knowledge, personal freedom, and wisdom. Excesses impend in pollution, population, crime, hatred, war, ignorance, and human suppression…Societal problems, being interlocked, challenge human ingenuity” (p. 1 – 3).