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.




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