Better fastthinking in complex times

–The ability to think fast on one’s feet has always been at a premium. Indeed, fastthinking has been the order of the day for those policy types who operate under the ying and yang of crisis management and leaving important decisions to the last minute.

Clearly, fastthinking is not conventional trial and error learning, as the conditions for such learning––low environmental uncertainty, stability in goals and objectives, and persisting institutional memory––are missing from much of the relevant policy world. Nor is it the message-in-the-bottle (Flaschenpost) approach, where you do your research, throw it upon the still waters of hard drives, and hope that someone, somewhere, sometime, retrieves it and treat your message seriously.

fastthinking is just-in-time-thinking to match just-in-time schedules in just-interrupted task environments. That’s the upside. The downside is that timely feedback, prompt response and rapid adaptation are purchased by discouraging (more) deliberation and reflection. The common remedy recommended: Slow fastthinking down. Be deliberative. Think things through. But that’s the problem: We have less time to slow things down, and even less time to make the decisions.

–What to do then? Focus here on one principal effect of a fastthinking likely to stay around indefinitely: namely, the greater the pressure to take decisions now, the greater will be the pressure to rely on existing policy narratives. Where so, it seems obvious to me that the better policy narratives we rely upon have to become more complex.

In my view, a better policy narrative meets three criteria:

  • The narrative—its story with beginning, middle and end, or argument with premises and conclusions—is one that takes seriously that the policy or management issue is complex, uncertain, interrupted and/or conflicted.
  • The narrative is one that also moves beyond critique of limitations and defects of the reigning policy narrative (criticisms on their own increase uncertainties when they offer no better storyline to follow).
  • The narrative tells a better story than the reigning narrative(s). It gives an account that, while not dismissing or denying the issue’s difficulty, is more amenable or tractable to analysis, policymaking and management. Indeed, the issue’s complexity offers up opportunities to recast a problem differently and with it, potential management options.

–With that in mind, let me jump to the quick with two examples of what I mean by more complex policy narratives tailored to fastthinking, in this case in the environmental arena:

1. All major ecosystems are complex, and none more so than the planet as an entire ecosystem. Ecosystems are being managed so poorly, but there are ways to take action now in advance of results of long-term research, study and experimentation. Much more needs to be done to bring ecologists (including conservation biologists, climatologists, and hydrologists, among other natural scientists) into direct operations of large-scale systems. There, ecologists would not only be better positioned to undertake or promote long-term and large-scale studies and interventions, but more important provide real-time (a.k.a. fastthinking) advice for real-time problems affecting critical services, including but not limited to water and energy, based in ecosystem processes and services.

2. Think of advanced ecological management as utilizing authoritative websites, one of which might be, maintained by, say, the Ecological Society of America [or other organization/country of interest].

An authoritative website provides sought-after, up-to-date and linked knowledge so quickly and reliably that it is continuously browsed by increasing numbers of users who click on the website early and often in their search for on-point information, in this case about ecology-based management. These websites do not pretend to provide final or definitive information, but rather seek to assure and ensure the quality of the topical information continually up-dated.

The website serves as a clearinghouse that encourages cross-checking and tailoring of information on ecological management, while also acting as a springboard for future information search and exchange. It is popular because it shortens the number of steps it takes to move from place to place in search of salient information.

In this scenario, the analyst or manager starts her analysis on ecology-based management by searching She goes to the website on the well-established principle that information becomes increasingly policy or management relevant when the people gathering the information are the ones who actually end up using that information. That is, the authoritative website is constructed and maintained to make searching and browsing easier for the policymaker herself.

Do such websites already exist for ecological and environmental managers (let alone for other major policy and management issues)? When it comes right down to it, do we find many real-time ecologists in infrastructure control rooms across the world?

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