Thesis outline - resilience and dynamic complexity

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by Leon Santen


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 20131). 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 20012). At Olin College of Engineering, the disruption caused by the 2020 pandemic created a moment of campus-wide reflection that led 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 all the sciences 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.


The COVID pandemic has unveiled major systemic issues that regard nation-states as well as the international community. While the emergence of the internet and the digital revolution have strengthened and accelerated communication across the globe and created a stronger sense of interconnectedness, systems on the international, national, and local level have failed to offer social, economic, and spiritual support. While our collective ability to be resilient in times of disruption is low, academic disciplines have not failed to point out systemic disconnects that manifest in an ecological, social, spiritual-cultural divide (Scharmer 20131).

We are using 50% more resources than our planet can regenerate, and our climate patterns have become irregular leading to a decrease in diversity in our forests. In the United States, the wealth distribution is far from balanced with the top 1% representing a greater collective worth than the bottom 90% 3. The modern technology and industrial sector outsource their production to the developing world making use of the economic pressure in those countries to catch up with the advancements in the Western world. More than two billion people live on less than $2 per day. This strong social divide has lead to structures that suppress rather than encourage creative actions. (companies don’t listen to their customers; outsourcing results in a disconnect between company and situation in other countries; example: facebooks Free Basics program is imperialistic system to exploit need in other countries to catch up) On a personal level, individuals struggle to envision a meaningful, novel future for themselves despite an ever-increasing specialization on the job market. Such a perspective on life opens up little opportunity for change and creative actions, which are desperately needed for social change. Moreoften, responses to those divides come from the technological sector. Oftentimes, those technological band-aids don’t address the root cause and can easily deepen the cut because those implementing and developing the technology are unaware of parts of the system and its characteristics.

Institutions in higher education see the need to respond to those divides but have yet to figure out how to create a resilient society that goes beyond the institution’s walls. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) institutions have come up with numerous solutions to prevent climate change, but there are no larger social structures in place to engage in a co-creative implementation of those ideas. We argue that the educational approach to understanding and teaching the sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, social sciences, psychology, economics) at institutions of higher education has gotten stuck in disciplinary specialization that fails to draw trans-disciplinary connections between the different fields. Most students start to understand the physical world around them through physics and chemistry classes. Those disciplines offer linear systems thinking as useful tools to predict outcomes and manipulate our surroundings. However, linear systems are rare exceptions in our bio-physical world that is dominated by ever-changing complex systems. [one can’t make predictions about complex systems, only assumptions about possible development]] [[more on the nature of complex systems]. Understanding those complex systems, the biophysical and socio-political world around us, therefore, requires a familiarity with the dynamically complex characteristics of nature. We believe that an integrated understanding of the sciences, treating them as a web rather than drawers, will lead to a more intuitive and constructive engagement with issues occurring in the systems around us.

At Olin College, the disruption and uncertainty of the 2020 pandemic created a moment of collective reflection, in which students, alumni, staff, and faculty investigated needs and opportunities for the Fall semester of 2020. As a result of this campus-community collaboration, the college was open to receiving proposals from the community. With help from faculty, staff, and students, we asked for support for student pods with volunteering professors to work on urgent systemic issues. However, the path-planning committee shied away from implementing institutionally-led experiments. Therefore, we independently organized a micro-campus of 15 students at a family-owned off-grid permaculture farm, Woodland Harvest Mountain Farm, in the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina. The experience at the micro-campus served as strong evidence for a needed integrated understanding of the sciences ranging from logistics to physics, social sciences, and biology. As engineers seek to take on a meaningful role in healing our planet, they need to experience what it means to be part of an eco-system and interact with it. A typical streamlined college experience leaves little room to immersive yourself in nature and close-knit communities to even start to grasp the immensity and complexity of life that we are all a part of. Most campus facilities such as the dining hall, double dorm rooms, libraries, and student services optimize for disengagement setting the focus on academic work. However, a much broader and interconnected understanding is required to take responsible and effective action in our modern, complex world. While these forms of integrated understanding and knowledge are crucial, students need more than just the knowledge and identity around their field of interest. Students need spaces and time to act upon emerging opportunities that they start to sense. When they sense those opportunities, they can only act upon them as social entrepreneurs when they have the social and spiritual means to do so. The focus of higher education institutions needs to shift from academic analysis and experimentation to society-based methods that cultivate social entrepreneurs that than create social enterprises and in the long run wide-ranging social innovation (Westley 20104). Therefore, fostering our ability to live and work with each other doesn’t only strengthen our inter-personal networks but empowers students to take action when needed because they can make use of their social and creative capital.

Therefore, we see strong evidence that an educational environment that emphasizes an integrated understanding of the sciences and values the interconnectedness of living beings can lead to a more resilient society, improve their wellbeing and consequently make use of the most meaningful capital that we have: creativity.

What are the web-nodes for a new science of holism?

The following list is an open-ended collection of concepts and insights that are crucial to holistically understanding our reality.

  • Doughnut economics, create goals that honor the whole, un-learn traditional economic theory
  • autopoietic systems, what does it mean to be alive?
  • creating conditions to favor a certain outcome rather than controlling to predict the outcome
  • observation of your environment, apprehend as much as possible
  • interoception, listen to your body
  • empathy, listen to people not analyse them with our left side of the brain
  • self-governance, learn that we have the ability to live with and create policies ourselves
  • our body's metabolism, healthy breathing
  • proprioception on the level of our body, how does proprioception apply to organisms such as a college? Which structures favor proprioception of larger autopoietic organisms?
  • dynamically complex systems theory, what are the characteristics and limits of working with dynamically complex systems?
  • non-linear project management, how can we plan linearly if work does not evolve linearly? How can we write linear papers when insights are not linearly connected?
  • awareness of patterns in our world
  • the fractal nature of phenomena
  • change is the interconnection of people, social innovation theory, not a self-assertive personal path through life
  • Meadows list of leverage points (Meadow 19995), highest intervention is change of paradigms
  • cycles in nature, figure 8: exploitation --> conservation --> release --> reorganization --> exploitation
  • mentors are crucial to growing up
  • inter-generational engagement; or inter-system engagement
  • connection to nature is healing (Capra 20146)
  • reductionist sciences and where they are useful, clear boundaries for concepts that are limited in their abstractability and application
  • the status quo of our economic system and its ties to colonialism, "developing countries"
  • eastern - western history, two disconnected worlds
  • imperialism of knowledge, how western institutions dominate "worthy" science; Indian sociologist Claude Alvares on academic imperialism video/paper)
  • imperialism, superiority thinking, the ones who have everything and their duty to help others
  • the development of science from Aristotle to Galileo, Descarte, A. Smith
  • original forms of living with eco-systems, closed-loop life styles, "we shall live with animals"
  • white male supremacist culture and its ties to passive, receiving lifestyles that feed the capitalist system; co-creation is the beauty of life and creates independence
  • design for yourself, it is crucial to feel values, interests, and desire for beauty affect your work and creations
  • un-learning reductionist sciences, economic thought
  • rediscovering creativity, we need freedom, time, and unpressured productivity; fewer words, more visuals, more thoughts. Why are our inner thoughts not valuable?
  • illustration of crucial flows to allow for proprioception (money flows...)
  • first steps to take when learning smth: visualization, sketching, observation, exploration, synthesis (Schumpeter and others), immersive yourself
  • different approach to equations and math, what drives what? (from mechanics class)
  • Theory U, presencing, how to unveil our blind spots, through the eye of the needle
  • lateral thinking (design, difference/diversity is valuable) vs linear thinking, you can't know, have to sit with ambiguity, time-invariant
  • self-nurishment wisdom, diet needs, metabolism, how to cook
  • untangle the myth that science is better than humans

Reunderstanding the living being

In the Western educational system, physics, biology, and chemistry teach us skills to analyze and understand phenomena around us. The phenomenon of life is often tackled with a list of essential features that living beings exhibit. In traditional biology, homeostasis, organization, metabolism, growth, adaption, response to stimuli, reproduction are among the commonly identified features of living beings.

From a systemic perspective, life is identified as a self-organizing and autopoietic (self-reproducing) entity. What does it mean to be alive? Like actually be a living being? My theory and hope are that the re-understanding of what living beings are will inform us about being a good being yourself.

What makes anything alive?

If we compare swarm robots, artificial intelligence, and factories with plants, humans, or cells, a common shared feature among the living is that they can take care of themselves. They are entities concerned with self-maintenance (Capra 2014[^sytemsView]).

The spiritual and simultaneously technical insight that living beings defend their identity. In mathematical language, they defend and reproduce their topology. Once a brain cell is developed is stays a brain cell. Likewise, the heart, its own autopoietic system, will do everything to stay in heart-shape. Following the idea of life as autopoietic, occurring on many different scales, makes it hard to distinguish the boundaries of any organism. An organ is a self-reproducing entity within the human body. But animals and humans are self-reproducing entities that serve to create even larger self-reproducing systems such as a pack of wolf, protestant community, or college.

The autopoietic view on life shines a light on the living, re-producing nature of systems, in which living beings immerse themselves. A conservative institution such as Harvard seeks to maintain itself throughout the course of time and disruptions. Looking at systems that arose from living beings as autopoietic systems allows us to understand the nature of self-reproduction of human-made institutions.

An autopoietic system is to be contrasted with an allopoietic system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials (components) to generate a car (an organized structure) which is something other than itself (the factory). However, if the system is extended from the factory to include components in the factory's "environment", such as supply chains, plant/equipment, workers, dealerships, customers, contracts, competitors, cars, spare parts, and so on, then as a total viable system it could be considered to be autopoietic.

Such an understanding of the occurrence of self-reproducing orgasms on any level is crucial in developing an eye for the hidden power flows that keep our institutions alive. The life force is in our systems as much as it is in our cells. White supremacy and other systems that resulted from colonialism are contemporary examples of power dynamics that make the fight for systemic justice so hard. The Western capitalist system, majorly based on power-structures from colonialism, is a reproducing organism that will resist when systematic change occurs.

Holistic thinking needs to come back - everything is one big system: Our biophysical world and sociopolitical as well as all other disciplines are interconnected

Therefore, forms of governance that encompass and honor every part of our world are crucial to fighting climate change and systemic injustice.

Complex systems and their characteristics

What are methods of working with dynamically complex systems and how do these differ from ‘simple systems’ (i.e., what is the organized way of learning, or the “science” of dynamic complexity?)

How can we learn and teach dynamically complex systems?

How do we foster personal and collective resilience and create a fertile breeding ground for social innovation?

Sustainability in future living - immersion into a regenerative lifestyle and intentional communities create an environment that leads to an integrated understanding of science through the fusion of knowledge, lived experience, mentorship, and connection with nature

Farm experience, a social enterprise, serves as evidence for a needed integrated understanding of science (bio, chemistry, social sciences, physics) and natural pull for technical knowledge

  • contextualized understanding of nature - we live next to a small creek? What does this energy and water mean for the ecosystem? How much energy can we extract with turbines?
  • we don't need complicated engineering projects to learn about group work - let's start simple. We can learn a lot about group dynamics, our own tendencies, and the complexity of planning when we work on long-term simple projects such as building a wall that only requires rectangular cuts - when we work on complicated projects, the trickiness that arises from the group becomes abstract and hard to grasp
  • why don't we ever design for ourselves? we are surprisingly bad at identifying our own needs and designing for our our wellbeing

Pedagogy of the oppressed - why is it so hard to push for change within an institution?

Olin asked for progessive ideas for the fall semester 2020, none of the experimental proposals were accepted

  • common reason: we didn't have the capacity - however, we did it anyway without any help

The power of rules and guidelines

  • internet guidlines as an example for an institution's classist reflex to learning-hindering circumstances
  • no politics allowed, no posters in hallways allowed - how cleanliness kills motivaiton to contribute in small pieces - only if it's academic it worth being presented

Once we settle down and build on our past success, we close the space for future innovation. How about Nomadic Education?

  • students could travel from micro-campus to micro-campus
  • easier to establish a relationship to more than one space
  • multi-dimensional campus character, what kind of community do I want?
  • more space for students to bless spaces with their own creativity

Empowering students and community partners using inter-personal networks to leverage our collective ability to create change and social innovation - house building, off-grid technical systems, permaculture, open spaces for the youth to act upon opportunities and innovative ideas

Opening a pathway for school collaboration and cross-disciplinary exercise that creates social and institutional entrepreneurs that are able to work in highly complex conditions - increase opportunities for social innovation on institutional level

Models for financial independence that make use of opportunities for independence of the current time (off-grid living vs urban lifestyles, intentional communities, etsy, airbnb, thrift stores)


  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. Nicholas D. Kristof, “Equality, a True Soul Food,” Opinion, New York Times, January 1, 2011, (accessed December 14, 2012)

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

  5. Meadows, D. (1999). Leverage points. Places to Intervene in a System, 19.

  6. Capra, F., & Luisi, P. L. (2014). The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Cambridge University Press.