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A fragility approach to sustainability - researching effects of education

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Platje, J. (Johannes), Will, M., Van Dam, Y.K., 2019. A fragility approach to sustainability - researching effects of education. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SUSTAINABILITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION.
Thematic Area
Environmental studies
Purpose - Management education trainers are increasingly called upon to train students to devise interventions for sustainable development in business settings. Due to the dominant reductionist paradigm, these interventions may lead to unwanted side effects. Teaching students about unacknowledged feedback loops in complex systems should prevent them from choosing “the most obvious” intervention without considering unwanted side effects.The current study aims to report the effects of teaching a systems perspective, applied to transport systems, on students' opinions and expressed paradigms. The following questions are addressed: Do students adhere to the techno-centric paradigm, believing technology, innovation and growth can solve all types of threats for sustainable development, while neglecting low probability, high impact events? Are paradigms held by students coherent? Can teaching lead to a change in opinions and paradigms held by students? Design/methodology/approach - Measures for several systems concepts (i.e. functional stupidity, paradigms and fragility) are taken across a wide sample of university students. Posttests of some key items are taken for a subsample that followed a sustainability and systems perspective in a course on transport economics. Findings - A large share of students think that technology can solve different types of problems in sustainable development (a kind of weak sustainability), but their paradigms tend to be a mix of conflicting opinions. Though student opinions on topics that were explicitly treated in the course have changed, neither a wider paradigm shift nor significantly more coherent paradigms can be confirmed. Originality/value - The results show that even though students can be taught about the unwanted side effects and limitations on specific techno-fix interventions, this does not automatically translate into a critical mind-set toward techno-fixing in general.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
This article could be compared to articles discussing system weaknesses.  Taking fragility of systems as a point of departure the article picks theoretical approaches from three areas:

Paradigms - worldviews of which we are often not even conscious, but that are elementary for the opportunities for change (i.e. leverage points) toward a more sustainable society . Hard wired paradigms prevent eople from thinking outside the box. The strength with which a paradigm is embraced is negatively related to the willingness to look at problems from a different perspective and to change one’s mind.
Functional stupidity is the lack of capacity in an organization to actively use, and in turn to create and develop knowledge and to take advantage of learning-by-doing and learning from mistakes. This can be a result of adhering to a paradigm.  It may be a (willful) lack of recognition of the incompleteness and uncertainty of our knowledge and the frequently debatable nature of dominant goals and dominant logics. As such, it works as a doubtcontrol and uncertainty-coping mechanism”. The narrow and circumspect use of reason, high levels of means-ends oriented intelligence, and the partly positive outcomes, differentiate functional stupidity from “pure” The elimination of three characteristics of cognitive capacity, i.e. reflexivity, justification and substantive reasoning, determines functional stupidity.
lack of reflexivity means lacking the ability and willingness to discuss and question existing knowledge, beliefs, rules and/or norms of behavior.
Lack of justification implies that no reasons and explanations for decisions are provided, related to a lack of transparency and the unwillingness to provide feedback on any types of problems and mistakes.
Substantive reasoning lacks when focus is on narrow or short-term aims, and broad perspectives are not considered.
Techno-centric paradigms- technology and growth will solve all types of problems. They are supposing technology, innovation and growth can solve all types of threats for sustainable development, while neglecting low probability, high impact events? A techno-centric paradigm is expressed by the idea that ecosystems are resilient, that technology and innovation will solve all types of problems appearing , that traffic jams can be solved by simple solutions such as building more roads, and the thought that money and growth can solve all types o). Due to this paradigm, climate change is supposed not to be very dangerous

At center is the awareness of fragility, defined as “small changes that can lead to huge effects”.  2012).  Fragility focuses on a weakest link, a bottle neck or something else that, when breaking down, can lead to a collapse of the whole system: a threat of unpredictable, non-linear and irreversible damage, that may appear due to strong interconnectiveness within a system.  The article looks at  students´ difficulties to quantify risks and small probability, high impact events.  When problems appear as a consequence of an innovation, they are assumed to be solvable. The question about stocks and buffers measures another aspect of fragility, as they are elementary in creating stability of systems.

 For the indicators of fragility, the so-called Pareto Principle is used. A business is fragile when it is dependent on a few suppliers, a few skilled employees, etc. Of course, the probability of such an event happening may be very small, but when it happens, the organization can break down. This logic can be used for any type of fragility, threatening the existence of an organization or system. And as such, the elimination of, or preparation for, fragilities is elementary for the sustainability discourse. In particular, in a world where everything is more interconnected, it can be expected that unknown, unexpected events may appear. According to the authors of this paper, the following question should then be answered: can this unexpected event threaten the survival of an organization or system? If the answer is yes, then a discussion can start how to deal with such threats (e.g. by creating buffers, spare capacity, independent supply systems for energy, backups).
Point of Strength
The article describes action research on students attitudes to sustainability. While arguing for a systems approach, it does only implicitly use it by putting system fragility in focus for the study. It is rather the lack of systemic approaches in the teaching that is in focus, as this leads to students not fully embracing the requisites for sustainability.