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A critical reflection of ‘Octasynthesis’ as a tool for transdisciplinary thinking

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Blog picture: A critical reflection of ‘Octasynthesis’ as a tool for transdisciplinary thinking

Globally, societies face challenging and interconnected human and environmental problems. Many of these problems are mired in immense complexity, and involve bewildering networks of different drivers, all interacting with each other in diverse ways. Furthermore, these difficulties are compounded by inherent, future uncertainties. It is simply impossible to accurately predict how complex problems will evolve. Yet failure to act promptly and effectively will likely have severe, negative impacts for future generations.

So are there any approaches that might help us to manage these problems? I found inspiration at Facing the Future 2016: ‘Realising Resilience’; a conference organised by the James Hutton Institute and the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience. Facing the Future (FTF) explores transdisciplinary approaches to managing complex human-environmental problems. I was particularly intrigued by a process called ‘Octasynthesis’, which was trialled on attendees. This is a new tool to promote transdisciplinary dialogue, developed by Tony Hodgson at Decision Integrity

‘Octasynthesis’uses the three-dimensional geometry of an octahedron to structure sets of group dialogues across a range of topics. A different topic is associated with each of the octahedron’s six vertices.  At the conference, we used six of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), representing six different aspects of resilience, as shown in Figure 1 below. Next, participants were asked to represent the SDG most relevant to their research interests. We subsequently engaged in discussions with groups representing other SDGs in order to identify and explore synergies across different aspects of resilience. The idea was that each vertex of the octahedron would interact with the other vertices to which it was geometrically linked, and would thus help identify connections between all of the SDGs. A more detailed explanation of octasynthesis can be found in this report from the conference.

Figure 1: Sustainable Development Goals as Nodes on the Octahedron

The rationale behind Octasynthesis is that the complex nature of human-environmental problems makes them impossible for any individual to fully understand. Each of us has knowledge gaps resulting in challenges and opportunities to confront human-environmental problems being missed. However, everyone has expertise and experience in their own field and in their own everyday life. If this expertise is pooled in an effective and structured way and used for deliberation, then the diversity of knowledge could help to fill the gaps in collective knowledge, thus enabling a more holistic approach to confronting human-environmental problems.

The Octasynthesis did enable me, and other participants, todeveloprecommendations for reformulated SDGs that aimed to reflect a more transdisciplinary perspective. For example, one of our recommended goals was to: ‘cultivate nature-based wellbeing at the local level through the creation of community-led healthscapes that place prevention at the forefront of economic, ecological, and climate action.’ This goal combines the interests of three different SDGs, namely ‘Good Health and Wellbeing,’ ‘Climate Action,’ and ‘Life on Land’.

Octosynthesis was also an enlightening experience, which made several of us more aware of others’ perspectives. Many participants thought the process highlighted the complexity of human-environmental problems. Indeed, during the process, I identified connections, interdependencies and potential solutions that I had not previously considered. For example, the relevance of infrastructure design as a tool for bringing about sustainable and equitable access to energy was something I had not thought of before. So in these aspects, Octasynthesis was useful.

However, I perceive three interrelated challenges for using Octasynthesis – and perhaps any such transdisciplinary tool. Firstly, linking the recommendations from different disciplines led to a significant loss of detail. In fact, I would argue that so much detail was removed in creating the syntheses that the final recommendations for reformulated SDGs bore little correspondence to the in-depth discussions upon which they were based. Secondly, given this lack of detail, the transdisciplinary consensus achieved was, in my judgement, superficial and only possible to achieve at all for the least contentious issues. I suspect that such a process would be far more difficult with participants holding opposing worldviews. Thirdly, whilst the process enabled us to identify some interesting synergies, octasynthesis did not take us far in considering the practical implications. However, perhaps we might have achieved this if we had more time and resources than those available within a two-day conference.

In conclusion, my experience of Octasynthesis served as a reminder that problems linking human and environmental systems are incredibly complex, that no one individual can understand them in their entirety, and that no single, linear solution exists. It also emphasised how enlightening it can be to recognise and explore  alternative perspectives. On the other hand, identifying synergies between disciplines may be more problematic on more contentious issues, and developing practical solutions may be limited by time and resource constraints.  I therefore argue that if we are to make real progress in tackling complex human-environmental problems, we need to devote sufficient time and resources to the challenge. However, this problem is not unique to Octasynthesis, and future research could draw interesting comparisons between the pros and cons of Octasynthesis and of other transdisciplinary tools and approaches.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.