Insights on Solving the SDGs from 2018 Australian Fulbright Fellow

Imagine someone gave you four months to think deeply about a topic...

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Thought piece
David Ireland and Annette Zou
January 29, 2019
Stanford ChangeLabs

Imagine someone gave you four months to think deeply about a topic. Four months to talk to world renowned experts. Four months to read thought provoking books. Four months to design and build new methodologies or approaches for addressing a challenge that you’ve been thinking about but have never had the time to do. Four months free of day to day busyness.  

Dr David Ireland, Adjunct Professor at UQ and a close ChangeLabs collaborator, got that chance as the 2018 Australian Fulbright Fellow for Not-For-Profit Leadership. I sat down with him at the end of his Fulbright experience to get his reflections on his time with us.  

Annette: David, let’s start at the beginning. When you became a Fulbright Scholar, what was the big challenge space you were looking at?

David: Firstly, thanks to you and Banny for having me here.  It’s been a wonderful experience. When I started, I was, and still am, interested in the Sustainable Development Goals.  In their aggregate, these 17 goals represent the biggest challenge humanity has faced. We’re talking about solving poverty, hunger, various inequalities, and a range of environmental challenges. What makes them particularly difficult, is that they are also highly complex, and I mean that in both the colloquial and academic senses of the word. To address SDGs by 2030 requires new approaches and new mindsets.  

So, when I started I was interested in helping to develop new approaches for addressing the SDGs. Part of this goal was about improving how we understand how complex systems work, but another part was also about better understanding why we behave like we do, and developing new methods for encouraging people to change their behaviour.  

Four months of intellectual freedom was a tremendous gift, but it wasn’t enough time to invent everything from scratch, so my approach to doing this borrowed from my training as a chemist, and in particular a combinatorial chemist; I explored topics from thermodynamics to ecology, behavioural sciences, innovation, and complexity theory to name a few, and I borrowed shamelessly from what these disciplines had developed. By the end of my four months, I brought theories and approaches together, looked across them and found that there is so much knowledge and practice out there, yet very little of it is transdisciplinary. I set out to address that.  

Annette: And so how to what did you set out to achieve through bringing the theories and methodologies together?

David: Before I left Australia, whenever people asked me ‘what will you be doing’, almost inevitably everyone would say ‘so you’re going to be solving poverty?!’.  My goal was never to solve any of these challenges directly, but to build methods and approaches that others might be able to use to address the challenges themselves.  I’m a practitioner and I’ll certainly be using my new insights in the work I do, but I’m one person out of 7.7 billion or so.  I decided that the way for me to have the biggest impact was to use my knowledge, experiences, and the access that the Fulbright program gave me to incredibly generous and smart people, to build new methods that other practitioners can use. I hope that some of my new methods, like better understanding human behaviour and how you can encourage people to change theirs, might be help us edge closer to achieving the 17 SDGs by 2030.

Annette: So what were some of the things you did during your four months?

David: I read a lot. I think I read about 30 books, I have no idea how many papers I read, and I met and discussed these topics with probably 50 people from academia, the private sector, the not-for-profit sector, and from government. I spent time with students, gave seminars, and absorbed as much from as many people as possible. And what was really amazing about the experience, is that I arrived at Stanford with pretty much none of it arranged. It was all ‘one thing led to the other’ type approach. I also benefited from people being incredibly generous with their time and in referring me to people they thought I would also benefit from meeting.  

Annette: That’s really interesting! Was there any structure at all to it, or did you just go with the flow and see what would emerge?

David: I suppose there was a bit of both.  My approach was to start broad and general, and when I found something interesting to dive deep into that topic or area of interest. I’d explore that until I found what I thought I needed or could, then I’d zoom back out to general exploration again. I did it over and over again. It’s basically the approach we take to exploring systems, so it seemed to make sense. An example was I was reading a book about human behaviour, and got interested in how our thoughts influence our perception of reality, which when I dived into that topic I started to explore and learn about the role of language and metaphors, and how they shape and are shaped by our behaviour. I learned about our language, both as a pattern and a process, is in part learned and in part instinctual, and because of this mix we are influenced from a very early age by the metaphorical constructs that are layered down in our brains. When you take these insights and zoom out, you start to see opportunities for helping to re-shape people’s perceptions of what the future could look like, and how they might be able to behave to achieve that future. It’s really fascinating stuff.  

Annette: What are some of your key insights from your explorations?

David: That’s a hard question to answer in the time we have available today!  A few of the big ones would be:

  1. Complex systems are characterised by reciprocal causality, where the component parts affect the whole and the whole affects the parts.  Because of this, when working in complex systems you need to embrace the complexity rather than try to simplify it into individual components. To do this, you need to shift your focus to the relationships between the parts of the system more than the parts themselves. This is counter intuitive for many, as we naturally want to focus on the individual bits, we want to break stuff down into simple things we can understand. The moment you do that to a complex challenge you lose.  
  2. Our thoughts and behaviour give shape to our reality and our reality gives direction to our thoughts and behaviour. When designing interventions for any type of change, recognising this tight feedback loop is important and will help explain why new behaviours and thoughts can take time to become normative. We all suffer from fixed reality inertia and often take significant convincing and perseverance to permanently shift our behaviour to something new.
  3. Where we ‘feel’ the pressure to change is a combination of situational, personal, and social sources, and is moderated by some broad biological parameters set down by our DNA. These pressures change depending on who might be exerting the pressures (e.g. your partner might have greater influence in the clothes you buy than the random person you sit next to on the bus… or not!), on the type of behaviour in question, (e.g. social norms may play a stronger role in driving our desires for likes on Facebook than any government policy might, but why I don’t steal apples from my local grocer is more governed by laws than by social norms), and on the type of environment you find yourself in (e.g. broken window theory). Understanding this mix of behavioural pressures can give you keen insights into why people behave the way they do and what you might need to change to convince them to behave differently.
  4. While the big problems seem big and intractable, we’ve caused them so we can fix them. Having an optimistic mind set is step one to solving whatever your challenge is. Having said that, once systems reach certain tipping points, the energy and work required to get them back into previous states may not be achievable. Thinking about system states and being realistic about what states a system can realistically transition to is important for managing the expectations of not only clients but also the people in the system you are trying to effect change in.

Annette: You’ve mentioned wanting to get your insights and tools out to practitioners already. How do you plan to get them out there?

David: I’m still working that through. I think the best way for my to do this is to turn my insights into a toolkit that practitioners can use. The toolkit will need to show people what the frameworks are, why they are useful, when to use them, and how to use them. I’ve got a bit of work to go on this. I’ve also been teaching some of it thought various seminars I’ve given. I’m working with some collaborators at various universities already too, in the hope of improving the methods further.  

I also work at an amazing firm called ThinkPlace that is full of incredible practitioners doing this type of work around the world. I’ll certainly be looking to add to their toolkits to help them do the work they are doing.  

Annette: Overall, what has the Fulbright experience given you?  

David: Well, in addition to an incredible amount of new knowledge and insights into why we have the world we have, I’ve built a wonderful network of connections here.  I’ve also got to explore my own position in the world and think about what I want to do with my time on Earth. It’s also been a wonderful experience for my family. We’ve built some great friendships while we’ve been here, and it’s been a real eye opener for my young kids.  

The Fulbright experience was amazing; to have the time to think deeply about the nature of the challenges underpinning some of the world’s most pressing and urgent challenges was incredibly useful. The people I met, the books and papers I read, and the work that I’ve done has given me fresh perspectives on what we can do to make positive and sustainable changes to our world, and work towards intergenerational wellbeing.  It’s been really great to spend time with you and Banny, and everyone else in H-STAR that I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the last four months!

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