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Research Councils and Societal Transformation: What is a “grand challenge” and how can collective efforts to encourage research make a difference?

  • Ecole des Ponts Business School; University of New Brunswick; University of Stavanger


Research Councils and Societal Transformation: What is a "grand challenge" and how can collective efforts to encourage research make a difference? A few personal reflections by Riel Miller in light of meetings and discussions organized by the Research Council of Norway.
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Research Councils and Societal Transformation: What is a “grand challenge”
and how can collective efforts to encourage research make a difference?
A few personal reflections by Riel Miller in light of meetings and discussions
organized by the Research Council of Norway
First a story: Records have it that in 1898 the first international conference on
urbanism was convened in New York City [Morris, 2007]. Given the scale of the
agenda and the fact that many participants had traveled for a long time to get to the
conference, the organizers set out a ten-day agenda. However, after three days the
proceedings were brought to a halt and the conference disbanded. The consensus
was that they had encountered an intractable problem to which there was no
solution the ever-mounting waste generated by urban horses.
Perhaps back in 1898 they were more modest or unimaginative since it is hard to
see a group of intrepid conference goers in today’s world ever giving up before the
closing bell no matter how daunting the problem. As for the case of urban horses,
as we all know, in retrospect it appears as if the horseless carriagebrought the
problem to an end. Of course this solution was not the outcome of a conference of
eminent experts designating horse manure as a “grand” challenge and advising
governments to invest immense amounts of money for innovative research leading
to a new less polluting horse. The solution was an amazing combination of
unforeseeable emergent phenomenon like Henry Ford’s much more efficient
assembly line and the higher wages he offered workers in light of their greater
Only hindsight tends to depict the solution to the problem of urban horses as a
model for continued faith in the belief that we can find technological fixes for many
of our current challenges like climate change, water shortages, epidemics,
illiteracy, and even ‘so called’ resource limits. To continue telling stories about cars,
it is as if your car starts to break down and just at that moment, while you are
pulling over to the side of the road, a mechanic arrives, fixes your car and allows you
to continue merrily upon your journey. Such reassuring fantasies about the future
and our ability to prepare on the basis of ‘reasonably’ good prescience are quite
understandable. Indeed this is currently the burden laid on research councils, they
will be clever and responsible, they will show great prescience by investing
unerringly in the research needed to fix current and future problems. When
breakdowns happen, science and technology comes to the rescue.
This story may be somewhat of a caricature, but in people’s every-day scenarios of
the future it is a role attributed and assumed by governments and the science-
technology community. Of course this story is both empowering and flattering for
the research community as well as very easy to assimilate into our everyday
imagining of the future, since we are so surrounded by the fruits of science and
technology. Add to this that the 20th Century was above all else marked by the
triumph of two beliefs one is the human capacity to master the universe and the
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other is the power of planning to make it so. From trench warfare and the delusions
of a “thousand year Reich” to the diffusion of the administrative organization, public
and private, throughout the world, it is the engineering view of how to get things
done that dominates. When the world is looked at from this paradigm all that is
needed is a clear goal, good research and preparation, resolute and disciplined
implementation, along with a pinch of innovation and a little bit of luck, and presto
you get what you want less C02, less illiteracy, less poverty, less use of raw
materials, etc.
The discussions sponsored by the Research Council of Norway around the future of
research and the meaning of the Grand Challenges (Lund Declaration version)
suggest that the danger is not that we will ignore humanity’s “grand” challenges but
that we will try to address them using the industrial era paradigms that got us into
this mess in the first place. From this perspective there are two beliefs underpinning
the basic concept of a “grand challenge” one is the idea that challenges can be
described as a “problem-solution pair and the other is that technological or
innovative research driven breakthroughs are the solution. The danger of these
beliefs arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and interactions
of intra-, inter- and extra-systemic change. It is not that intra-systemic change,
improvements and reforms are not good, nor that they have no chance of playing a
role in both endogenous systemic transformation and exogenous, it is just that on
the basis of this approach the attributes and distinctions that give shape to inter-
and extra-systemic change are largely invisible.
As a result the dominance and defensiveness of entrenched systems prevail,
unaware and unable to even consider systemically distinct aspects of what is
currently actionable. This lack of systemic perspective reduces strategic choice to
endogenous system reform, efforts at preservation system immortality. The real
question from a strategic perspective is to understand if current actions can be
characterized as a) neglect, benign or otherwise, if ‘other’ systems emerge, b) active
opposition to ‘other’ systems, or c) searching for ways to encourage
experimentation and/or compositional change that encourage ‘new’ systems and
new systemic configurations. If there is little or no capacity to ask non-endogenous
questions then all that is left is to “solve the problem” through clever preparations
that will fix what is broken, like the technological breakthrough that with hindsight
appeared to solve the problem of horse manure. But as we know such associations
are not causality.
When we look more closely at the historical record we see that the tool was not the
main catalyst or driver of change. We now know that without universal compulsory
schooling, urban governments organizing water and waste systems, alternating elite
power through electoral processes, open borders and enabled markets, it is unlikely
that many of the scientific and technological advances of the 20th Century would
have happened at all. And even if they had been “invented” the surrounding context,
the economic, social and governance conditions, might have proved to be rather
infertile ground for adoption and diffusion of the new tools.
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Taking this more societal perspective to “grand” challenges suggests that the
“problem” that was “solved in the past might be better described, not in mechanical
or technological terms, but in more systemic organizational and operational terms.
In the case of the move to urban industrial as opposed to rural agricultural society
some of the key changes were in such realms as: the rules and institutions that
address illiteracy; the governance models that organize, finance and regulate the
provision of clean and inexpensive drinking water and garbage collection; the values
and rules for power sharing that attenuate the monopoly of monolithic elites; the
lived experiences of diversity and the tangible results of the scientific method that
reduced xenophobia and superstition.
From this perspective all of these “grand” changes were the outcome of largely
unanticipated, willy-nilly organizational experiments inspired by shared as well as
disputed hopes, social and political conflict and difference. It is worth remembering
that the right to vote and universal schooling were both bullet points in Marx’s
Communist Manifesto. As things turned out, eventually, after many initiatives failed
and a few new forms of organization proved to be viable (even if not optimal), what
worked was emulated and adapted. Partly through intention, volition and action,
elements of new systems were built up. Gradually, in a process of iterative and
compositional shifts the balance of systemic dominance, practical and symbolic,
changed. There was no prior design, rather evolutionary emergence generated a
collage that like an impressionists painting morphed from one image into another, a
change of era, a change of systems.
During such periods of systemic change, as has been remarked by more than one
historian (see D. McClosky), it is very difficult to discern the contours of the new
order. Furthermore efforts to preserve the past often give rise to unintended
consequences. Existing structures, methods and ways of making sense of the world
serve as poor guides for action. In this transitional situation, as the mix and
relationships of complex systems are transformed, there is even less direct causality
and predictability in the relationships between research and societal outcomes,
problems and tools, implemented solutions and actual outcomes. Does this mean
that nothing can be done? That the only thing to do is to sit back and watch the
typically painful and anxiety-ridden decline of the old regime while waiting to see
what will emerge from the ashes?
Such a passive response is, in my personal view, morally unacceptable. The ills of
our current world, discerned on the basis of values that respect human dignity and
Senian freedom, call for action. The question is what kind of action and, in the
context of a discussion of the role of research councils, what is the role for collective
efforts that mobilize intention and resources as a way to advance human
knowledge? The first thing for Research Councils to do, as they attempt to take into
account the “grand” challenges, is to avoid the trap of seeking solutions to the
problem. Of course this is the most tempting and self-evident course.
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“Grand” challenges are not like equations that can be “solved”. It is not just a
question of finding the right knowledge and applying it. Complex systemic change
happens through the emergence of novel conditions creative, inspired and
spontaneous phenomena that change the conditions of change. As Buzz Hollings
recently pointed out:
“Society is now at a stage in history in which one pulse is ending and
another beginning. The immense destruction that a new pulse signals
is both frightening and creative. It raises fundamental questions about
transformation. The only way to approach such a period, in which
uncertainty is very large and one cannot predict what the future holds,
is not to predict, but to experiment and act inventively and exuberantly
via diverse adventures in living.”
C.S. “Buzz” Hollings, IIASA, Summer 2010
However, as reflected in some of the discussions hosted by the Research Council of
Norway, at the moment, in light of the pervasive discourse of national
competitiveness and the transition to a knowledge economy/society, there is
evidence of a serious mis-understanding about the nature of today’s “grand”
challenges. Although the rhetoric does not always reach such proportions, it is often
as if the Cold War rivalry of the 20th century has turned into a sort of race by already
industrialized countries to stay on the summit of the industrial innovation
mountain. Such efforts, like during the Cold War, get dressed up in the guise of
assisting humanity, but more often than not are about helping “national” champions
or today how to keep Europe strong. As an alternative to this backward looking
way of framing the “grand” challenges the discussions hosted by the Research
Council of Norway point to two sets of conclusions points 1 to 6 are about
business-as-usual, point 7 sketches some alternative directions for “exuberant”
Problems with the GCs
1. The GCs foster a problem-solution way of thinking about what needs to be
2. The GCs pose the problem in a way that encourages a technological fix
3. The GCs, in the context of the competitive knowledge economy-society
discourse, yoke research to playing a role in a global innovation race aimed
at preserving Europe’s high rank a top an industrial pyramid that is shrinking
in relative terms (due to successful efforts to enhance efficiency in research,
innovation, production, delivery, etc.).
4. The high political stakes of ‘winning’ the GCs for the sake of ‘saving’
humanity’s future and the anxiety about the future that is integral to the
political meaning of the GCs make it extremely difficult to explore the idea
that the GCs pose the wrong question and may be reinforcing the paradigms
that created today’s disappointments and fears.
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5. Thus the GCs as guiding frames for current policy, often leveraging self-
aggrandizing over-dramatization, reinforce existing approaches to both the
role of science/technology in society and planning as problem-solving; even
though such views have clearly played a central role in generating current
hardships, fears and disappointed hopes.
6. This means that those who are attempting to set the research priorities and
allocate resources accordingly run the risk of reinforcing exactly what they
are hoping to overcome disrespect through instrumentalization
(mechanical problem solving) for the planet, the community and the self
(body, mind, spirit).
Exuberant experimentation?
7. Is there an alternative to a GC approach? Discussions pointed to a number of
useful directions.
a. Research into more systemically open strategic futures thinking.
First much closer attention needs to be paid to the different attributes
and opportunities for action presented by intra-, inter- and extra-
systemic relationships. In practical terms this means more research
on how to gain systemic and paradigmatic perspectives (distance
from currently dominant anticipatory assumptions Miller, 2010b),
in particular by focusing on new ways to engage with discontinuity
using experimentation and action research methods (Miller, 2011b).
b. Greater use of non-predictive approaches to developing
anticipatory assumptions. Second that the images of the future
being used to identify, motivate, justify and craft action today can be
made more explicit in ways that help to identify implicit systemic
assumptions in particular anticipatory assumptions. In practical
terms this calls for a resolutely non-predictive approach to
anticipation because this opens up a whole range of new and more
creative images of the non-existent, unforeseeable future. These
images, in turn, facilitate identification and sense-making with respect
to: system parameters, shifting system borders, system interactions
and non-continuous system emergence.
c. Embracing complexity: process-as-product, policies seek
uniqueness not scalability or replicability. Third that the vast
majority of the images of the future currently being used to shape
action not only fail to satisfy the criteria of today’s more advanced
understanding of the emergent nature of complex systems
but also
stifle creativity and waste information by seeking replicable and
scalable “preparatory” conclusions (generalizable pre-emptive
solutions). Here again the practical steps involve moving away from
treating the future as if it existed and only needs to be discovered
This is more than ignorance, modeling limitations or chance, it is the role of
novelty in creating systemic discontinuity.
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towards engaging in local, real-time research that harnesses collective
intelligence to welcome and makes sense of specificity and the
continuous emergence of unforeseeable novelty. With greater
capacity to make sense of change and emergence the task in the
present, with a limited and modest role for planning, is to act in ways
that are consistent with values, not on grandiose and dramatic
undertakings meant to ‘colonize’ the future and impose legacies (even
if of a different kind) on the future. It is such colonization and
inevitably erroneous planning that produced the current
unsatisfactory context. Imagine perfecting yesterday’s approaches as
a way to be “better prepared” for the future. Would the perfect school,
the perfect national innovation system, the perfect hospital or factory,
solve today’s problems? Such immodest ambitions, both in terms of
the potential effectiveness of a given model and the ability to ‘perfect’
it, betray a lack of confidence in future generations to take advantage
of their novelty rich present as well as a paternalistic type
responsibility to determine future outcomes.
d. Everything is scientific: experiment, hypothesis test, make failure
as valuable as success throughout society (Mode 3 research as
learning and learning as research). Fourth, following on the
previous points, collective efforts to enhance the effectiveness of
research in realizing public good (in both senses of non-appropriable
value and collective well-being), need to experiment with new
power/sense-making systems in order to facilitate research that
produces both hierarchical and non-hierarchical (heterarchical non-
comparable) knowledge. Since there are no “winning” sectors or
universal technical fixes the shift is towards fluid and constant
research throughout society, including non-hierarchical knowledge,
that can embrace complexity by respecting the information generated
and appreciating continuous unforeseeable novelty. In practical terms
this means focusing attention on the conditions for network fluidity
(entry, exit, birth, death) in other words trust, transparency and
transaction systems, the sense making capacity of society as it
constantly evolves. Here the tangible side, as discussed in the
meetings, entails experimenting with new institutions, like evaluation
and validation systems that would allow for human capital banking as
well as peer to peer payment and copy-left tracking systems, etc.
Some references to articles with more complete bibliographies on the anticipatory
systems approach to embracing complexity and the first urbanism conference in
1898 in NYC:
Miller, Riel, (2011b), “Using the Future: A Practical Approach to Embracing
Complexity”, Ethos Journal of the Singapore Civil Service, Singapore,
November, forthcoming.
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Miller, Riel, (2011a), “Being Without Existing: The Futures Community at a
Turning Point A Comment on Jay Ogilvy’s ‘Facing the Fold’”, Foresight,
Emerald, Vol. 13, No. 4
Miller, Riel, (2010b), “Which Anticipatory System for University Foresight? A
Postscript”, in Blueprint for Organizing Foresight in Universities, Executive
Agency for Higher Education and Research Funding, Romania.
Miller, Riel (2010a)“Introduction to a Special Issue on Anticipatory Systems
and the Philosophical Foundations of Future Studies”, co-edited with Roberto
Poli, Foresight, Emerald, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2010
Miller, Riel (2009), “To Experiment or Not to Experiment: That is the
Question”, Optimum Online: The Journal of Public Sector Management,
Volume 39, Issue 2, June, p. 21-25.
Miller, Riel (2007), “Futures Literacy: A Hybrid Strategic Scenario Method”,
Futures: the journal of policy, planning and future studies, 39, Elsevier, Pp.
341-362, May.
Miller, Riel, (2006), “From Trends to Futures Literacy: Reclaiming the
Future”, Centre for Strategic Education, Seminar Series Papers, No. 160,
Melbourne, Australia, December.
Morris, Eric, (2007) “From Horse Power to Horsepower”, Access, No. 30,
Spring 2007.
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