Notes - Dynamic Complexity and Resilience Thesis/ISR-G

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by Leon Santen

These are notes for my thesis and independent study with Linda Vanasupa.

Preliminary title: Creating collective resilience, empowerment, and social innovation in higher education through immersive, community-based learning experiences and an integrated understanding of all the sciences


Modern science has reached a paradoxical position, in which the international community has acquired overwhelming amounts of knowledge by the means of ever-increasing specialization. However, those insights, oftentimes separated by discipline, leave us with little understanding to fight our current time’s structural disconnects (Scharmer 2013). We argue that life in the 21st century is one of dynamic complexity that asks for non-linear and organic thinking to engage in sustainable and effective problem-solving efforts, often called sustainable development (Holling 2001). At Olin College of Engineering, the disruption caused by the 2020 pandemic created a moment of campus-wide reflection that lead to an independently organized micro-campus of 15 students at a family-owned off-grid permaculture farm in North Carolina. This social enterprise showed a need for an integrated understanding of science and served as evidence that immersion into nature, sustainable living, and an intentional community can lead to a better understanding of our ecosystems and social-ecological systems. We see an opportunity in higher education to leverage our collective ability to create change and initiate social innovation by teaching an integrated, transdisciplinary understanding of science and opening up spaces and time for students to act upon emerging opportunities to contribute to and scale-up social innovation.


For more thoughts and the introduction, please follow this link to the Thesis outline - resilience and dynamic complexity.

The shift in our ontological understanding of nature

Coming from a century mainly driven by insights from the reductionist sciences and specialized disciplines, the western sciences look at the world around us (nature) by analyzing small pieces of the larger system. As in every reproducing organism, the increasing specialization in the natural sciences (e.g. subject specialization in master's degrees) is a reflection of the internal reductionist characteristic in the various disciplines. Therefore, we perceive nature as set of objects with different properties that can be analyzed, manipulated, and predicted. The relationship between different objects has only lately come into our focus. When we look at the relationships among the world around us, we observe that nature is an interconnected web, which does not prevail linear characteristics. Our science education from high school (chemistry, physics, mathematics) fails to give us an intuition for the complexity and characteristic of the interplay in nature. This issue brings up the following question:

What essential scientific understanding is needed for a technologist in a world that is fundamentally dynamically complex?

A new science of holism is needed to convey an understanding of the world around us and all its layers; the natural, social, and critical epistemological realms. As this ontological shift is slowly taking place, we attempt to provide appropriate models, methods, language for phenomena, and threshold understandings that account for a dynamically complex world.

The following categories attempt to embrace and suggest the emerging shape of a holistic epistemology. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion 3. A new science that sees the interconnectedness of nature will therefore change our belief of what nature is (compared to the reducinist sciences).

1. Models for a holistic world

Insights/concepts that inform a holistic epistemology: structure conditions behavior, emergence as a phenomenon, fractals or emergence on different scales, the role of fields (disciplines), self-organization

2. Methods of study that respect the nature of reality

The scientific method does not seem to be sufficient to account for learning on the way, drastically slowing down the discovery process. Furthermore, the researcher should be immersed in the study space.

Emancipatory action research as an example for a research method that recognizes the nature of reality.

3. Language for natural phenomena

A new approach to science requires a collective, shared understanding of natural phenomena. We need concepts to share and describe phenomena emerging in reality. Fields of study that offer such language are systems thinking, concepts for dynamically complex systems, indigenous knowledge that perceives the world through a holistic lense.

4. Threshold understandings of our current disciplines

Some of these understandings arose from the reducinist sciences and should be understood inside the shift toward a holistic epistemology.


  • Autopoiesis as an example of reproduction of the internal characteristics, parts in a cell are only alive when in symbiosis with others.
  • The way we think about the world is not how we perceive the world with our senses. Our left half of the brain overwrites the sensory input and perception from our right side of the brain 4.
  • the line between animate and inanimate is blurry. This is not a surprise considering how vital to life inanimate matter is.


  • energy fields

5. Questions and knots to untangle for a change

How can we transform the scientific landscape into a trans-disciplinary, co-creative project?
What kind of internet interface do we need to support co-creation with transparency, dialectic, peer-assement, and accessibility?
How can we transform educational institutions into places that create communities and drive social innovation beyond the 4-year enrollment?

Recommendations for higher Ed institutions

  • create a valid and accessible feedback loop. For instance, keep a keyboard and mail box in the dining hall where students can input any form of feedback. Make it visible to students.
  • transparency: publish all the money flows within and outward from the institution. The system can only be aware of itself when it can see itself.
  • allow a platform for political dialogue to fight the consensus that politics and policies are far away from us.
  • allow a collective co-creative project. Imagine an Olin Wikipedia where all insights from courses and research are saved. You have any question about a project or where to find something on campus? You know where to search! Anyone can add and edit.

Living and co-creating in community

Our collective power lies in creativity. If we are meaningfully bonded through a collective aspiration and purpose, we can create long-lasting change and social innovation. Below are insights from the experimental Olin semester at Woodland Harvest Mountain farm and tips for a successful experience for students and mentors.

collective vision and approaches for communal co-creation

It seems to be crucial to uniting a group with a collective vision, goal, and purpose. If expectations are aligned, a satisfying group experience is much easier to achieve.

Insights from fall 2020 semester

Judgment permeates most institutions. How can we find shelter and safety without judgment? Do we need to feel safe first to refrain from applying judgment to other people's actions? Why do we not assume that someone else might have had a good reason for an action, behavior, or statement? Judgment is linked to grading and the nature of hierarchical reviewing. If a professor grades a report, their legitimate judgment permeates the student's perception of their own work. They might even forget why they chose that title, on which their professor commented.

We are only free in our minds. Why do we expect students to always report in words? If we allow ourselves to merely discover in our brains, we free ourselves from the constructs and rigidity that language inevitably creates. Why is it not enough to do something? Why do we always need to deliver words for the things we do in the world? I want to be among people that do something. I care less about how they write about what they do. Considering the dualistic ("one or the other") nature of many of our words, it seems obvious that it must be hard for students to embrace the un-understandableness of the world. Buddhism stays away from dualistic terms (body - soul, mankind - god) because it understands the totality of things and interconnectedness that leads to a complexity that goes beyond defined boundaries and black-and-white thinking.

How can we give education meaning that goes beyond semester-long hands-on projects?

We only take a break when we're sick. As soon as we're sick the door opens to relax. Why do we need to have a weekly schedule that continues throughout the entire semester without any divergences? Such a repetitive routine attenuates any enthusiasm for the project work itself as you will have to inevitably face it. It doesn't matter whether or not you choose to engage with the project; if it's already in your calendar, there is no need to self-initiate engagement with the material. SCOPE was on every Tuesday (8-10AM), every Wednesday (6-7 PM), every Thursday (8-10AM), and every Friday (12-5PM). Good luck connecting with the material outside of your mental obligation zone. The only break from the five-hour Friday meeting was after thanksgiving. It felt as if I had never even been able to imagine what a free Friday was like. Why do we stick to weekly schedules in such a pathological manner? Anything that is not the exact plan is a failure - 14 vacation days per year are a good example.

Why do we never design for ourselves? Why don't we apply Sustainable design projects to our living spaces? Why do our living spaces not allow for design interaction? Because they’re finished. Do we need unfinished environments that invite us to be modified? In the modern Western house, our environments start empty and are highly controlled. Everything that we add, change, or improve is an active decision that changes the untouched surfaces of our rooms. Every product that we buy to place in our rooms is a perfectly designed solution to a problem. We are in full control. At a farm, in contrast, everything is messy at first, and one needs to make an active effort to bring satisfying structure and beauty into the world. I believe that the latter way of living comes closer to the character of the world we live in. Modern households are deceiving in their perfection and don't invite for engagement.

We, humans, want things to be frictionless but the reality is that every step and action creates struggle because we’re smart enough to realize and see the mess. Is that the meaning behind Buddhism’s message: “Life is struggle”.

From AlJazeera news: We need to go back to learning how to function as a society, people being together. Technology is not good or bad or neutral, is it what the intrinsic motivation behind it is. It’s a myth that Data is something we have within us. Its value is created by the interest that companies are allowed to put into it.

We create heaven and hell on earth ourselves (Buddhism). Christianity has this idea of fate which is counterproductive and creates a disconnect as it doesn’t underline everyone’s responsibility to the work on themselves in order to create the desired state of heaven. Don’t work hard, be critical with yourself.

This WHMF experience was magical in so many ways, but I'm only slowly starting to understand that this is a lived form of research even though the orthodox definition of research doesn't apply. One could call this Emancapatory action research after Ledwith, 20175. This brings up a question to myself: how can we look at the spring 2021 semester as participatory/emancipatory action research?

An unchecked positive loop will ultimately destroy itself.

Wait and create an environment where people want to do something. But humans need time to change. Humans need to learn how to learn, how to become a learning society. Encouring reflection, learning, and personal choice.

Current science allows us to rule out a range of future as unrealistic. Relatedly, goal setting is rather a psychological than a scientific or technical aspect of project work.

To be considered challenging, a goal must be relatively difficult but still realistically attainable. If a goal is too easy, then people are not motivated by it (e.g., change a light bulb?). Similarly, a goal that is clearly unrealistic and overly difficult causes people to give up and not even take the first steps toward achievement (e.g., go completely carbon neutral?) (Locke and Latham, 1990). Thus the best goals are specific, realistic, and challenging and can be broken down into specific behavioral steps. This type of goal results in the highest levels of motivation and achievement. Only a few studies have examined goal setting and sustainable behavior. One set of experiments examined goal setting and energy use.

Systems with humans will show : - limited predictability - bounded rationality - limited certainty - undetermined causality - evolutionary change (Hjorth 20057)

Hidden things control the system, especially where we don't have feedback loops. Where is the mailbox for all those frustrated students to voice their frustrations? Course evaluations are something quite different? Where is the course evaluation for students' experience for the institution, in which they live for four years?

Why do engineers not work with wood? Why do they think that they can only do things that go beyond carpentry and woodworking - i.e. working with metals and CNC machines.

There are so many meaningful group work insights and learning outcomes that arise from working on simple geometry with people - build a wall frame with timber. Make cuts that are the right size. Plan and build together. When we take group work to a more abstract level, the issue-points of group work also become more abstract, which makes it harder to act upon arising issues. To get to know your own working habits, styles of communication and planning, we don’t need complicated projects. Keep it simple! If it’s even then still tricky, that tells you more than a tricky project that becomes more tricky.

“Social innovation is not only a result of a brilliant idea or hard work of an individual. Successful social innovations are achieved through the interplay of “effective demand” (the “pull” factor) and “effective supply” (the “push” factor) (Westley 20108). At Olin College, the pull from the students was too low to plan a full-blown immersive education prototype for the spring 2021 semester. In comparison, up to 25 Wellesley College students showed interest to live at WHMF in the spring semester. My underlying assumption is that some Wellesley students believe regenerative agriculture, intentional community, and sustainable living are very much part of their identity as a pro-active inhabitant of this planet. Olin students might hear and consume less of such ideology but ironically believe that engineers will stop climate change.

The Design Nature project at the farm should be to design a playground for an animal. Rats, cats, dogs have so much fun on playgrounds.

What sciences form the basis for living in a world of dynamic complexities?

There is no right or wrong


  • How do we organize with several groups of three or more?
  • Grocery availability; food planning; which leftovers do we have? When will they spoil?
  • How to have a collective sense of what our needs are? What is the goal of the day?
  • Where are which tools? Will it rain or can we leave them at the worksite?
  • Who feels responsible for checking if work sites are covered from rain?

Climate/the elements/seasonal change

  • What is the winter going to be like? Can we predict it? Why does climate change make predicting harder?
  • Which plants can I plant right now to take care of my future self? Which beds need to be maintained?
  • How does an early sunset affect my life?

Indigenous wisdom

  • How to live in reciprocity?
  • Say thank you when you take something, leave gifts

Community and mental balance

  • When should we go to bed?
  • How do I maintain healthy relationships and vibes?
  • How much work is good for us? How little work is bad for us?
  • How to lead a group meeting - organize rituals, celebrations, moments of grounding
  • How to address conflict in a productive, non-discussion manner?

Ethical self and the world around me - How can I contribute to this world to live with each other in harmony? - What does fulfilling, meaningful work mean? - Which career paths are actually aligned with my values for others and myself? - Which work aligns with the mental and ethical standards for myself?

Biology - How to keep ourselves healthy? What are basic animal needs? - How does the world around us live? From what? - What happens to us, the house, the animals when temperature drop below freezing?

Study of tools

  • Operate tools safely and with confidence, build intuition for your own safety: hammers, electric drills, circular saw, rock bar…
  • Manage and keep track of tools.

Sport theory/anatomy /physical therapy

  • How do I carry heavy wood without hurting my back? How do throw a rock bar?
  • How to chop wood without hurting your back.
  • How do I hammer properly without putting to much pressure on my wrist?
  • What do I do when my back hurts?
  • How to be aware of your own body needs.

Mechanical physics

  • How do four people lift a heavy beam safely?
  • When is a structure sturdy (non-computational thinning and analysis)
  • Intuition of structure

Electrical world

  • How does electricity flow? Which direction? When is it dangerous? From which side do sparks come and why?
  • How do you work with cables? How do you connect electrical devices properly with cables? Cabel labeling, cable harness
  • How do you keep an electrical working space clean and safe?
  • Simple electronics: connect batteries in series/parallel,
  • Coding, Laptop work, CADing
  • Arduino programming
  • Website HTML coding for communication with other people
  • CAD 3D structure for FAE analysis
  • Photoshop, make stickers, design signs for people


  • amelioration - the act of making something better; improvement.
  • paradigm - a typical example or pattern of something; a model. or a set of linguistic items that form mutually exclusive choices in particular syntactic roles.
  • heterodox - not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs.
  • counterintuitive
  • panacea
  • expenditures & depreciation
  • leverage point or bandaid in Odalys's words
  • panarchy a term to describe a concept that explains the evolving nature of complex adaptive systems. P. is the hierarchical structure in which systems of nature (forests, grasslands), and humans (structures of governance, settlements, and cultures), as well as combines human-nature systems (agencies that control natural resources) and social-ecological systems are interlinked in never-ending adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal. - (from pan- and -archy), coined by Paul Émile de Puydt in 1860, is a form of governance that would encompass all others.
  • autopoiesis (from Greek αὐτo- (auto-) 'self', and ποίησις (poiesis) 'creation, production') refers to a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself by creating its own parts and eventually further components.
  • Collective intelligence - Collective intelligence (CI) is shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of many individuals and appears in consensus decision making.
  • Tektology is a term used by Alexander Bogdanov to describe a discipline that consisted of unifying all social, biological and physical sciences by considering them as systems of relationships and by seeking the organizational principles that underlie all systems.
  • teleological - relating to or involving the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise.
  • Vitalism is the belief that "living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things
  • vitalist-teleological - in the 1950s competing view to a mechanistic-causal philosophy around life/systems
  • pantheism - a doctrine which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God


  1. Scharmer, C. O., & Kaufer, K. (2013). Leading from the emerging future: From ego-system to eco-system economies. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

  2. Holling, C. S. (2001). Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological, and social systems. Ecosystems, 4(5), 390-405.

  3. Oxford Languages and Google - English | Oxford Languages

  4. Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insight | TED Talk. (n.d.). . Retrieved February 18, 2021, from

  5. Ledwith, M. (2017). Emancipatory action research as a critical living praxis: From dominant narratives to counternarrative. In The Palgrave international handbook of action research (pp. 49-62). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

  6. Manning, C. (2009). The psychology of sustainable behavior: Tips for empowering people to take environmentally positive action. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

  7. Hjorth, P., & Bagheri, A. (2006). Navigating towards sustainable development: A system dynamics approach. Futures, 38(1), 74-92.

  8. Westley, F., & Antadze, N. (2010). Making a difference: Strategies for scaling social innovation for greater impact. Innovation Journal, 15(2).