Things I have learnt about researching real life complex systems

IMG_4436This process has not just been about us making a new game. This is the beginning of a new phase of making science into theatre for us. While we have always talked about putting the systems thinking knowledge we have, and the skills we learnt in the making of Best Festival Ever to work on a real life system, this is our first attempt. We are so lucky to have got that chance with Miljöverkstan and the Flaten area. For us this is a learning curve, and while we have a solid base of knowledge in what works and what doesn’t (or hasn’t for us in the past), we are still working on our process of approach to a real life system. A real life system with a huge range of ecosystems, social systems, economic systems and governance systems.

Miljöverkstan have set us an excellent challenge, we’re not only getting to grips with a new system for us, but one that operates within a whole different cultural, social and political history. We need to not only research the Flaten area but learn (at very least) the basics of Swedish history, culture, mythology (or how they mythologise the forest), and governmental procedures and policies. There is another level to the challenge – the final game or product of our work will be presented in Swedish. So much of what we read around us or overhear here we don’t understand or misinterpret in our trying. We’re attempting to learn some Swedish, but it’s slow going and so far I can understand only parents speaking slowly to very small children. These are all exciting challenges; we didn’t set ourselves a simple first attempt at making this kind of work.

So, some things that I will do when approaching a process like this in future. Keep in mind that we’re only 4 weeks in and these are items directly related to the ‘Research’ phase of the process. There will be a whole different set for ‘Development’.  In some way, at this point in the process, I am also offering myself an answer to my first blog post question of our Flaten development;

How can we gain the most comprehensive picture of a system we have no experience of, within a culture with have a limited understanding of? 

This is how:

  1. Get a good map early: One with topography and buildings and housing developments and train stations. Turns out Flaten’s best one so far is from the Orienteering society.
  2. Spend a lot of the first week walking and talking. Get everyone you can interview to take you out walking through their system and explaining it to you. Take photos. Take a note pad. Take recording equipment. Be aware you probably won’t have time to edit much later. Keep in mind that unofficial chats with people will often bring some of the best information – so keep chatting once the formal part of the interview/walk/tour is over. Make sure to keep note of the things that are common to everyone, or come up a lot. Make note of things that seem strange and cross reference or check facts if possible. Also go for walks on your own. Take your own time to discover an area and let it become something to you. Record this experience of getting to know it, and finding what you find special about it. This will help you help another audience find a way to love it also. (It will also help you to find the larger supermarket that is just down the block earlier than 3 days before you fly back to Australia that would have afforded you more variety and cheaper options)
  3. Find out what people in the system value. Not only what they say they value, but also what their actions, and the formation of the system tells you they value. This goes from the minute, to the very large scale. Values placed on food, eating together, customs of offering tea, coffee or cake, customs of respect and politeness, value places in being outdoors,  as well as the way the transport network runs, the headlines in the news and how they are represented in popular culture also feeds into a bigger picture. All of these things tell you what  values users of the system have, and that you need to consider even briefly in your picture of the system.
  4. You need maybe 3 weeks of just getting to know an area. Research – read general histories, but also specific ones. Timelines, pictures from all eras, and how the land in that region was formed. After 3 weeks your questions will become better, clearer and more focused and you’ll be better able to know where you might want to seek more information. If you’re leaving the area around this time you will discover all these pieces of seemingly disparate information begin to gather and become marginally clearer – just as you get ready to leave.
  5. Finding people who can draw links between different systems is important – social and ecological, economic and governmental – these people will help you find the points of cross purpose or miscommunication which are incredibly useful from a theatre makers perspective. How these situations form and the way they are managed are some of the hinges that a show can swing off.
  6. Once you have discovered your area of focus, try to work out where it fits into the wider system. What suburbs are nearby? Who lives there? How do they relate to your system? What kind of environment is it? Has it always been considered as separate to your system or was it once connected? What is the governance of it? What developments there could effect your system, or vice versa?
  7. Record everything – but in ways you’re actually going to be able to engage with. It’s great to have 2 hours of interview recording but if you don’t have the time to type it up, or re listen to it then it’s not something you should waste resources on.
  8. Don’t just experience your system in isolation. Seems a bit like point 6 but this is in relation to wider history and culture of a country. These large shifts or behaviours/ways of thinking will effect your system and will be part of your audiences comprehension also. You don’t need to put these in a show (and probably shouldn’t probably do that – they’re discoveries for you, not for your audience – but they will colour the way others approach and view the system.
  9. Keep up to date. As much as possible use contacts to gather recent developments in systems science and resilience. While these may not be directly relevant to your environmental system they are relevant to the development and particularly they keep your work up to date and fresh. They also provide some nice jumping off points and help to clarify, or refocus your perception of the way the system works or could work in the future. These developments already colour your process, better to be aware and know what they are in advance.
  10. Record first impressions. At the very beginning write down what your first impression of the system is. What kind of environment it is, what the issues it faces will be, what people want from it/contribute to it and what kind of game you think might reflect it’s systems. I wish we had done this with Flaten. In some ways the final product might reflect these initial ideas quite closely, but I think they would also reflect just how much we assume a system operates like one we know and recognise, without fully comprehending it’s individual situation. I think these reflections will tell us more about our own assumptions.

There are probably more of these I will think of in the coming weeks as we get the advantage of time away from the project and the hindsight that comes with that. IMG_4399

Right now I am happy to be home and back in the system I am most familiar with for a while. I’ll just leave this photo of the others posing in Abisko here. Bye for now.




Transformation Theory & Flaten


Writing this from back home in Australia, at the end of an exciting and hectic month. First dive into the project, it’s been a steep learning curve and a lot of incredible sights and sounds.

One of the things I’m taking away with me is an idea which lurked somewhat in the background of Best Festival Ever, and which is coming into sharper focus with these new collaborations with Forum for the Future and Miljoverkstan; the idea of Transformation Theory, and what that means in a systems sense.

Sometimes, we want a system to be resilient. Other times, we desperately want to change something, and the resilience of the system counters any effort we make to push it into a different state.

Forum’s work is centered around the idea of pursuing targeted transformation – the idea that we can introduce certain kinds of pressures and disturbances into systems that can shift them into new regimes that we would prefer. Miljoverkstan have a more exploratory focus on the Flaten system, but if the system’s trajectory points towards environmental destruction and the loss of what makes the area unique, they would certainly seek to intervene.

People managing complex systems have three choices when they are impacted by a disturbance: cope, adapt or transform. Coping means soaking up the damage and continuing on as before. Adapting means reorganising the system in order to absorb the effect of the disturbance, while retaining the core function of the system. Transforming means fundamentally altering the composition and behaviour of the system.

I get the impression, from the contexts in which we’ve heard it, that ‘transformation’ is a buzzword in the way that ‘resilience’ has become in the last few years. (This is always interesting to me, because as a theatre-artist, I have no concept of recent buzzwords in the science / business / management worlds.) But in the way that resilience is not necessarily a positive quality for a system to have, transformation is not necessarily a positive solution in many instances.

One of the biggest qualifiers that Anna mentioned when talking about transformation practices was cost: cost in resources and cost in time. You might want to fundamentally transform a system in order to respond to disturbances (or the threat of disturbances), rather than merely coping or adapting. But if you don’t have the money or time to really carry that transformation through, you might simply be leaving the system in a more fragile and damaged state than it was already.

I’m not yet sure what the link between transformation theory and this new work is, but I have the strong sense that the number of times it’s been raised and discussed is indicative of something.

So my question is: What would it mean to transform Flaten? What might we transform it into, and how?

– David


Resilience Pivots

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had a great few days this week, running shows of Best Festival Ever for friends, funders and stakeholders of Miljöverkstan and Democratic Nature. Doing the show at this point in the process was really useful for me, reminding me of some of our goals, how the decisions we make at this point are reflected in a final product, and the joy that comes with sharing these sorts of games and ideas with an audience.

After the Friday show we got to have a long conversation with some people who are not only familiar with the Flaten area, but who work with systems science and environmental data. This is a very useful relationship for us, and one that will only increase in value as we get further into the process.

In the conversation we touched upon a concept that was new to me, that of resilience pivots. When a system is undergoing transformation, there are some parts of the system that don’t transform. The resilience of these parts is what in effect allows the transformation. In considering the transformation of a system, it is valuable to consider which parts stayed resilient as much as it is to consider which parts transformed.

I believe this is an idea better suited to studying past transformations than predicting future ones – though it might help to understand the impact of a suggested transformation. Identifying where in the system resilience will help transformation and where it will hinder could help create opportunities to effect change.

If someone wanted to turn the Flaten area into a big commercial tourist zone, one resilience pivot point might be the clean water and beauty of the lake – these qualities would have to not change for the transformation to work.

I look forward to understanding this better and figuring out nicer examples.


It’s clearly a concept that I’m still getting my head around, but I’m very excited that a few years into this process we’re able to talk to experts and learn more nuanced ideas about systems. It shows how far we’ve come since 2012, and even thought it might not be an idea we end up explicitly communicating in a show about Flaten, it’s a new way to look at the system and a new concept to add to our language of our process.

Here’s a paper that I’ve skimmed through and seems useful, Resilience Pivots: Stability and Identity in a Social-Ecological-Cultural System.

Can the concept of resilience pivots help us to understand past transformations of Flaten, and better articulate potential future ones?

– Nathan

Oak No You Didn’t

bart sad

Some of my favourite episodes of the Simpsons are where Bart (it’s usually Bart) recognises that something he’s done has had a profound (usually hurtful) effect on someone. I think realising that your actions can affect others is an important part of growing up as a child, and the Simpsons has a knack for showing these moments in a very earnest way. Bart seeing Mrs Krabappel sitting alone in a restaurant after faking love letters and a dinner invitation comes to mind. Also Bart watching Lisa walk off home from the carnival and realising that he’d gone too far. It’s that moment as a child when you learn to zoom out, perhaps only slightly, and see yourself in a bigger picture.

We’ve spent a lot of time the last week or so discussing an overarching principle for this show about Flaten – some sort of framing that clarifies what the show is trying to do. Something that helps an audience know what they’re going to experience, and to say quite simply, we believe x is important. We’ve been lucky enough this week to share in the knowledge and expertise of some very clever and wonderful people, and these experiences have helped me in grounding some of our ideas.

On Wednesday we had a walk around (and across!!!) the lake with Sarah, who works at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and has run guided tours of Flaten for the last twelve years. She wrote her phd on it!


Sarah told us about how as the land mass of Sweden was formed, plants and animals quickly spread to it – and with them, people. So one can argue that Stockholm (and by extension, Flaten), has pretty much always had people on it. This land has more or less always been managed. Since the beginning it has existed as a socio-ecological system.

This feels kind of weird, at least coming from an Australian perspective – the Australian land mass existed for a long time without people, even though people have been in Australia for tens of thousands of years.

It also connects to the idea that oak forests, which have been around for hundreds of years, come from active land management, and need some level of active land management to survive. Again this feels kind of counterintuitive to me. I think there’s an idea you pick up as a child that if left alone nature will heal and revitalise, but in reality it’s a bit more complicated than that.

So with these and many more ideas bouncing around my head I’ve been trying to clarify at least one aspect of the why for this show.

We have a relationship to the environment we’re in. We influence it and it influences us, in ways both subtle and overt, simple and complex. The area of Flaten has always had a relationship with people, and over time that relationship has changed the system again and again. We have a responsibility, and an opportunity, to make that relationship the best it can be. We can do that by learning about the Flaten system, understanding its complexity, its uniqueness and recognising our own place within it. The more we can do that, the better choices we can make for the system and the better contributions we can make to a future that we want.

Flaten is a pretty unique area, and has a unique relationship with the people that are part of it. How do we ground the show in the uniqueness of the system while speaking to something larger?

– Nathan

Back to the Future: A post about Jumanji

Something we have discussed a bit this week is including in the game for Flaten an opportunity for audiences to test a future. To allow audiences to make a decision, see it’s potential impact on the system and the outcomes it might create, and then allow them to go back and decide if they would make that choice again, or another.

This is a nice idea to play with. Because of the linear course of time we so rarely (if ever) get the opportunity to test out the probable consequences of our decisions and then get the chance to chose differently. We love the fantasy of the freedom of foresight though. We put it in a lot of our fiction – like in the movie Jumanji (or Back to the Future. Or Freaky Friday. Or so many more of my favourites. Some were even made/remade outside of the 90’s!).

Jumanji shoes

Can one decision alone change the future?

Movies like Jumanji seemingly show us the dire consequences of one small decisions over a long period of time. However if you look more closely at the film, there are many decisions that lead to even the existence of the game Jumanji. If it hadn’t been made (by some unknown magic force with a sick sense of humour) then it wouldn’t be possible to be sucked into it, and one kid breaking a machine at his Dad’s factory would not have had such dire consequences for him.

Similarly, it is quite a complex task to try and create an opportunity for showing even a fictional outcome of one decision about a complex system like Flaten. One decision or action does not change a system like this alone, it takes several, in relation to one another. Some of these decisions can be seemingly irrelevant – such as the development of modern efficient ways of fire control that mean a woodpecker begins to die out because it’s ideal habitat is a forest that burned through around 40 years ago – while some you can predict at least the more obvious outcomes of – a housing development might destroy natural ecosystems and create traffic in the course of building a new habitat for people who need it.


jumanji floor

Who could possibly have predicted this?

We know that systems are linked in complicated and sometimes surprising ways, and while in Jumanjii one simple action in time creates a happy ending change, this is just not realistic when looking at a non-fictional complex system. While I am interested in the possibilities of something along the lines of offering audiences the opportunity to see archetypal changes and change their decisions as a result of it, I wonder if this creates the impression of simplicity that decisions around complex systems just do not have.

On the other hand, when groups have been asked to predict the future of areas they are connected to, they often find it hard to imagine beyond their everyday experience. Responses rarely predict wild change, and are more likely to consider the future as being much like the present, just with more or less of something. They predict it might be a bit busier, or an extra service might be put in. We find it hard to picture large change in our lives. As children we find it difficult to comprehend a huge change like moving out of home and kids predictions for the future will often include that they still live with Mum and Dad while they’re enjoying a career as an astronaut or veterinarian. So while it is important not to simplify the complexity of cause and effect within a complex system, It is also important to push the boundaries of our audiences imaginations around what could happen in Flaten’s future.

How do we create a representation of a complex system that is simple enough to comprehend quickly, but complex enough to impart a realistic understanding of how complicated decisions around complex systems can be?

How can we push our audience to imagine outside of their ‘comfort zone’ and recognise our tendency to imagine a subtly changed present as the future when it is likely to be vastly different?

– Nikki

The day the music died.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 5.24.07 PM

My poor hard drive, RIP.

Best Festival Ever is a touring show. We pack all the set and prop items into 4 suitcases and 2 art cases, and lug it around in our cars and on planes. It’s fairly heavy and clunky, but we make it work.

There isn’t really a lighting design for the show, as we’re often performing it in board rooms or office floors with no theatre lighting. When we DO get to perform in a theatre, we have the luxury of theatre lighting (thanks Gillian Schwab at Street Theatre!). It lifts the show a lot, and feels a bit special.

As for sound, we enlisted the expertise of Nick McCorriston before our first Australian run to help us move the show’s sound from my old iPod to something a bit easier to use. The solution was to run a BFE Ableton session through my laptop (offstage) into either a PA system or our on-stage mini speakers. The Ableton session is controlled through the Touchable app on my ipad, which we keep in our little ‘presenting’ area on stage with us. It’s MUCH better than the iPod.

The problem is that I am a fool, and forgot to back up my computer before coming overseas.

The problem is that my laptop crashed 20 minutes in to the Kärrtorps Gymnasium show.

The problem is that try as I might, I couldn’t get the computer to restart and get the show back on track – my hard drive was completely dead.

I tried to solve our most pressing issue (no sound for the show we were in the middle of performing) by plugging my iPhone into our on-stage mini speakers and playing ANYTHING to provide backing music to our games. Not a great solution.

Compounding our troubles was the fact that Nathan was performing while sick (what a trooper), and our audience was a tricky one (see previous post).

With the crisp vision of hindsight, I know what we should have done. I should have backed up my computer and brought an external hard drive with me. I should have put the Ableton session onto Nikki AND Nathan’s laptops. We should have each had at least a playlist of the show music on our iPhones for times when something crashes mid-show. These are things we will do in the future.

For now, I’ve just picked my laptop up from the repair show with a brand new, blank hard drive. Tonight, I can set up my laptop from scratch – and can reconsider what I actually WANT from my laptop and set it up in a way that makes things easier for me to study, to work, and to play.

So I’m asking myself some questions that we ask in our systems mapping process – what do I want from my laptop? What do I use it for? Perhaps there are systems I haven’t considered before that would suit my purposes very well, but I have never tried them because sorting through my cluttered documents seemed like an overwhelming task. I’ve been forced to step out of the system that I used to use for several hours a day, see it from a larger perspective and ask new questions of it.

(I’m trying to be positive about the fact that I’ve lost all my data. Fresh start!)


What are the systems we use everyday (like laptops) that would benefit from a do-over? A clean slate to build up from scratch?

To answer my own question a bit:

  • Kitchen pantry and fridge. I know that I am not going to eat trashy food if it isn’t in my house. It is much easier to turn over a new leaf of health and food if I can turn my pantry into a blank slate (ironically this might mean i end up eating a lot of trash in order to start a new ‘healthy’ phase)


Adapting to our audience.


Each audience is different. Different ages, backgrounds, levels of science knowledge, investment in our process and our product. Some have contributed resources and/or expertise to Best Festival Ever. Some have no idea what they’re in for. Generally we have an understanding of each audience prior to performing each show. One of the first things we do when unpacking our props is decide who our eight headliner choices will be – this task usually falls to David Finnigan, who will take into consideration our perceived audience demographic as he chooses a spread of artists. We hope to have each audience member be familiar with at least one of the artists in our line-up.

The time of day generally has an impact on our audience – early morning is fairly formal, evening is casual, etc.

At the end of our first week in Stockholm, we performed Best Festival Ever for a group of students from Kärrtorps Gymnasium. These teenagers had been coming to work with Miljöverkstan in Flaten for several months, popping by once a week for a few hours to research the area in small groups.

There are a couple of things we needed to consider in order to perform BFE for this particular audience.

  1. English is their second language – and for some, it is their third or fourth. This means we need to enunciate and slow down a little in our delivery.
  2. They’re not here of their own accord. When performing in a theatre or science centre, we’re usually working with an audience who have chosen to come along of their own volition – they’re interested in the science or the games, or curious about seeing something new. They’re taken a step towards us, and we work to meet them in the middle. With ‘forced’ audiences, we have to take 2 steps to meet them. Not that they’re hostile! They just aren’t on the bandwagon yet.
  3. The jokes won’t land. We wrote the show for an English-speaking audience based in Australia or the UK – there are some jokes and humorous descriptions that some people might get, but most won’t. We have to ride that wave as performers the best we can, and try to keep our energy up without audible laughter.
  4. The trade-offs game may have less discussion of ethics.
    If our audience doesn’t have brand familiarity with our sponsors, they’re just picking based on weight.
  5. We may have to repeat some instructions
  6. They already have a social structure. Often we’re performing for groups that don’t know each other, and we have built an awareness of the moments where a sense of ensemble is established in the audience. It’s a little different with groups that already have a structure or hierarchy – still interesting for us to observe, though.
  7. They will NOT think we are cool, and might think we’re talking down to them. Teenagers ALWAYS feel as though we’re talking down to them a bit, maybe babying them, by asking them to play systems science games. Adults are much more on board, and often assume that teenagers would LOVE the show.
  8. We need to give audience members their scripts a bit earlier than usual. We have a few bits of dialogue that we ask audience members to read aloud for us. For an English-speaking audience, this is my process:

Rachel: *whispering* Hey, would you be able to read some lines out for me?

Audience: *nods*

Rachel: You’ll be playing ‘Ted’. *points to the highlighted lines* I’ll let you know when to start.

And then I stand a little behind them and give them a little tap on the shoulder when the line just before theirs is wrapping up. For a Swedish audience, I try to give them the text a line or two earlier to give them a bit of reading time.

When performing for an adult audience in Sweden, we still have to take some of these things into consideration – speaking a bit slower, enunciating, etc. Our three shows this week for various stakeholders and systems scientists went really well, and I hope that there wasn’t too much lost in translation.

The biggest problem for our Kärrtorps Gymnasium was my laptop dying mid-show (more on this to come…)

A question to end with:

How can we, as outsiders who don’t speak Swedish, creating a show to be performed in Swedish for a Swedish-speaking audience whose first language MAY NOT even be Swedish, make sure that our work AND the work of Miljöverkstan doesn’t get lost in translation?