About the lab
Think Garden is a transdisciplinary complexity and design lab that provides government and business with knowledge, tools, and approaches to work through uncertain, dynamic and complex issues, enabling them to understand and act in the world with insight and confidence.
The challenge of complexity
As humanity enters the third decade of the 21st Century, we rapidly awake to the challenges of complexity. None of these challenges—be they environmental, social, health, economic, political or organisational—exist in isolation. Complex interactions derived from systemic interdependence and interconnectivity means that our systems are now radically contingent.
Radical contingency means the solving of one challenge unintentionally creates many new challenges. Complex interactions and radical contingency quickly overwhelm traditional approaches to public and private governance, organisation and management. Most people become quickly overwhelmed, too. However, complexity is not a challenge of intelligence, but rather of perception.
What is complexity?
Complexity science examines the relationships between things, and the systems and dynamics that emerge through the aggregate of these relationships. The natural world is and always has been complex, yet traditional approaches to government and business tend to ignore relationships and dynamics, and see complexity as disorder, and seek to reduce this disorder through management and control.
However, complexity does not equate to chaos; in fact, quite the opposite. Order always emerges in complexity in the form of coherence, clustering and patterns—hence Think Garden’s evolving head motif and our reference to the four stages of Holling’s adaptive renewal cycle. The emergence of order has duration, meaning that what may at first-glance appear to be chaotic is actually quite ordered: it’s just that a longer temporal scale is required to see the order.
Why a complexity and design lab?
Traditional governance, organisation and management approaches are derived from the 20th Century perspective—based on central limit theorem—where random variables are independent and identically distributed, which leads to a normal bell curve distribution. A bell curve distribution is symmetric about the mean, which leads to minimal and predictable variation i.e. certainty and order. These traditional approaches become rapidly overwhelmed when increased levels of longer-duration complexity become the norm.
The Think Garden lab uses a transdisciplinary approach combining nascent (complexity, networks, evolution and ecology) and overlooked (anthropology, geography, knowledge management and sociotechnical systems) sciences with humanity-based theory and practice (architecture and transition design) to reconfigure relationships in systems.
This approach is derived from a contemporary 21st Century perspective—based on complexity and network theories—where non-random variables are interdependent and non-randomly distributed, which leads to power laws and a Pareto distribution. A Pareto distribution is asymmetric about the mean, which leads to significant and unpredictable variation i.e. uncertainty and complexity.
Economic theory of homo economicus—where humans are deemed to be perfectly rational and narrowly self-interested i.e. independent and isolated—has reinforced assumptions of predictably, certainty and order. However, these assumptions shy away from understanding and acknowledging system dynamics and are quasi-scientific, at best.
Our lab’s approach is different, being firmly rooted in the biological and system sciences and adhering to empiricism, scientific methodology and experimental design. Our approach uses exploration, data collection and sense-making to map a system’s initial conditions, detect weak-signals and recognise novel and emergent patterns.
Given the dynamic nature of complex systems, localised, ephemeral and flexible structures supersede the rigid one-size-fits-all structures of the traditional organisational approach. Transition design understands interdependence and interconnectivity and works from initial system conditions—not idealised end-states—to design context-sensitive and place-based interventions and reconfigurations.
The tools we use
We use a combination of hard and soft tools developed to identify the things that really matter i.e. the unseen and uncodified dynamics that are the harbingers of systemic challenges. These things include weak-signals, strange-attractors and patterns and dynamics that occur at deeper, lower orders of systems, and which traditional approaches fail to recognise and understand.
Our hard tools are designed to map a system's initial conditions, and include network mapping, micro-narrative capture, information-flow mapping and landscape and constraints mapping. Our soft tools are designed to allow for system reconfigurations and interventions, and include a suite of conceptual thinking, sense-making, and transition-design frameworks.
The issues we investigate
Our lab partners with you to better understand the uncertain, dynamic and complex issues arising from within your organisation and its broader market, government and social ecosystems. Common themes that have emerged from our research into systems over the past decade include:
- disconnection between intentions i.e. strategy and the realities of their context i.e. landscape
- focus on short-term over long-term i.e. unable to consider multiple temporal-scales in parallel
- narrative i.e. story-telling is used to justify intent rather than landscape i.e. data, initial conditions and emergent patterns and dynamics
- structures are one-size-fits-all i.e. ill-suited to differing landscapes and limit adaptive and absorptive capacity
Through the identification and visualisation of lower order weak-signals, strange-attractors and patterns and dynamics, we provide deep, contextual insight into issues that previously have been sensed but not seen nor fully understand. Thus, the Think Garden lab seeks not to reconfigure systems and organisations per se, but rather to reconfigure the dynamics of organising. It’s a subtle, but critical, difference.
How we create value
The central premise of the Think Garden lab is that traditional approaches to public and private governance, organisation and management fail when complexity and radical contingency become the norm.
A contemporary approach
We create value for you by bringing a contemporary scientific and design approach that enables new insight into the different ways in which interventions and reconfigurations can be applied to your system to increase absorptive, adaptive and resilient capacities.
Critically, these insights are empirically based and are from your context—not ours. We do not bring insights from other contexts that have no relevance to your own. We help you generate the insights, but critically, they are yours, and not anyone else’s.
Our approach becomes your approach
Because complexity is a challenge of perception—not intelligence (and noting that perception is in the eye of the beholder)—our lab serves to enable this perspective to be developed within your own system. Over the longer term, you become skilled in our lab’s approach to complexity until it becomes your own approach and adaptive, absorptive and resilient capacities become the norm in your organisation.
Flexible and safe
From shorter, discrete research-projects targeting bounded issues through to multi-year, large-scale inquiry across an ecosystem of interdependent organisations, we bring a discipline forged from decades of scientific practice combined with our pioneering approach to solve your biggest challenges and, over time, to make it your own discipline.
Engaging the lab
Engaging the Think Garden lab is a quick and easy process. We begin by discussing the nature of the challenges you’re experiencing, and by examining the reasons why previous solutions may have had limited efficacy and/or created unintended consequences. We look for indicators of initial conditions and for any mismatches between these and the organisation’s strategic intent. We then identify appropriate temporal and spatial scales for research initiatives, always with preference for shorter, localised safe-to-fail probes at the outset, to minimise the risk of adverse unintended-consequence.
We conduct short-term research projects where the issue’s spatial and temporal boundaries are relatively well-known and well-defined. We baseline-map initial conditions using multiple data sources to illustrate the landscape and improve situational awareness. We identify existing attractor-basins and established-patterns, and look for evidence of weak-signals and emergent, early-stage relational dynamics. This baseline map can then be used to guide further investigations, if necessary.
Portfolio of projects
The portfolio approach is a scaled variant of the discrete project approach. When working in complex systems hierarchy, nesting, and fractality—self-similarity across multiple scales—are always at play. Thus, we increase the scale of the research and map attractor-basins and established-patterns across multiple spatial and temporal scales, and look for weak-signals and emergent dynamics resulting from the relationships between these different scales.
System and ecosystem transformation
Building upon the portfolio of projects approach, the spatial boundaries of system transformation include both the organisation and the wider-ecosystem in which the organisation exists. Although the term ‘transformation’ is commonly used, we prefer the term ‘transition’, because complex systems are by definition always in states of transition i.e. complex systems are always evolving. Thus, we work to map system and ecosystem relationships and dynamics and design context-specific reconfigurations across multiple spatial and temporal scales using our proprietary transition-design framework.
We design learning environments for people to study the foundations of complexity, networks, evolution, ecology, anthropology, geography, knowledge management, sociotechnical systems, and transition-design to enable new perceptions and to build capacity over the longer term so that our lab’s approach to complexity becomes your own approach and adaptive, absorptive and resilient capacities become the norm in your organisation.
Patrick holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Anthropology and Geography from the University of Western Australia. He has worked as a scientist across the globe for over two decades, in the last decade focusing specifically on organisational responses and adaptations to rapid change, uncertainty and complexity. He is an internationally published author and his written work has featured widely. In addition to running the lab, Patrick is an active contributor to the nascent field of anthrocomplexity, a topic in which he has lectured across five continents.
Natalie holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Biology from the Curtin University in Western Australia and Ph.D in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Wollongong. In addition to this academic experience she brings nearly two decades of expertise in experimental and baseline-survey design to the lab’s organisational research. Natalie has designed some of the largest environmental baseline survey programs conducted in Australia, and her written work has been published in leading academic journals.
Ryan holds a Bachelor of Communication Design from Billy Blue College of Design in Sydney. He is a digital designer and works on the mapping, visualisation and communication of data, information and knowledge used by and generated in the lab. Ryan is also responsible for the design and architecture of our digital learning ecosystem, in addition to internal and external communications and product development.
Amelia also holds a Bachelor of Communication Design from Billy Blue College of Design in Sydney. Before joining the lab she has deployed her expertise in design thinking in a variety of design agencies across Australia’s east coast. At the lab she is responsible for the design and scaffolding of internal processes, ensuing sustainable business growth.