In a complex world, our graduates need to be systems beings

It might come as no surprise that the world is becoming increasingly complex. Some obvious examples include everything from the climate crisis, global food production and infectious diseases to racial inequality, military conflicts or global energy supply.

By acknowledging these ever-present complexities, we have an opportunity to adapt to the interconnections between these challenges through building educational models rooted in systems perspectives.

When designing a solution to a complex challenge, we are required to understand the context, see multiple perspectives and allow that solution to emerge. These are messy, process-oriented approaches requiring non-linear dynamic learning. We are encouraged to not only recognise we are beings who are part of this complex system, but also that our relationships to and experiences with others are part of this complexity.

Ultimately, systems perspectives are becoming increasingly important to respond to a world of disruption, volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Creating a new generation of student citizens working with and within complex systems, while also contending with global challenges, involves equipping them with forms of transformative learning, such as transdisciplinary competencies and expertise. Whether this occurs in higher education, professional schools, research centres, policy think tanks, or even in public forms of literacy, education has an opportunity to be a leader.

As one possible intervention, we are proposing cultivating ‘systems beings’ as a holistic model for systems literacy and education policy. We consider how becoming systems beings is critical in shaping the mindsets to frame our current and future challenges.

Process vs outcomes

Education policy needs to evolve and adapt to take a bigger role when addressing some of the world’s complex issues. Once a lauded place of learning, higher education has struggled to evolve sufficiently with technological innovation and social evolution.

The result is that students increasingly undervalue a university education for learning and growth. Students have come to value the outcomes of education (for example, a degree, credential, certificate, etc) as opposed to the process (for instance, understanding new ways of seeing the world).

Disciplinary degree programmes provide focused skills towards outcomes that may never be used after graduation. Over the last decade, for example, only 27% of graduates held jobs in their disciplinary specialisation.

The deeper issue is that higher education isn’t preparing students for the complexities and paradoxes of the world. Rather, it tends to focus on transferable skills. To address increasing global complexity, employers are seeking employees who can synthesise many different forms of information, using an array of knowledge and implementation across different mediums (ie, digital, social, print, rhetorical, technical, etc).

Societal injustices around race, climate, gender and sexual orientation also require a greater ability to understand and hold space for complexity. Incoming Dean of Education at the University of Victoria in Canada, Vanessa Andreotti, has called this systems approach depth education – that is, learning through unlearning historical patterns of education and adopting an integrated view of education as a lifelong process.

Becoming systems beings

The ability of a society to understand and respond to complexity in the 21st century requires knowledge and an awareness of systems and our interconnected relationship to them.

Drawing on systems thinking and theory developed over the past century largely in the sciences, variations on the concept of systems beings have been considered previously through approaches such as systems education design, philosophy and leadership.

We would like to further expand this within the framework of systems literacy – an educational intervention and social practice that might further develop systems perspectives in education. As learning and adaptive beings, we are part of these systems and we shape them as much as they shape us.

Systems beings invoke deeper epistemic and ontological questions around the nature of the world, including our knowledge of and interactive relationship to the world. Responding to emergent literacy practices, we – as systems beings – enact multiple ways of knowing and learning (epistemologies) coupled with how we experience and construct the nature of reality as beings (ontologies).

Beings also imply a way of becoming – or a process that continues to adapt to changing circumstances – and unbecoming that invites practices of unlearning entrenched habits and patterns. It captures the flow of process rather than stasis, and a way of recognising patterns and movement between transformation and balance.

Beings mirror the actions of organisms in a dynamic system, adapting to constant change through actions that support systems for generative growth. As the leadership coach Kathia Castro Laszlo writes: “Systems being and systems living brings it all together: linking head, heart and hands.” And, put another way, systems pioneer Donella Meadows invokes the notion of dancing with systems, or a way of embodying a systems wisdom.

Such an ongoing process of becoming systems beings relies upon an integration of cognitive, affective, (emotionally aware) and relational dynamics that are, for instance, part of deeper projects of decolonial approaches to education and transformative justice, therapeutic research and self-knowledge development, among other areas of leadership and policy development.

Take, for example, a recent UNESCO report on transforming higher education for a sustainable world that outlined a 2030 agenda to overcome systemic barriers.

Three key areas of the report involved (a) producing and circulating interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary knowledge, (b) becoming “open institutions” that integrate diverse ways of knowing and epistemic dialogue, and (c) cultivating a larger presence in society, engaging relationships and societal actors.

Education can lead

When considering the UNESCO report, coupled with the complex issues facing the world, it’s imperative that higher education adapts over the next decade. Education can be a leader in the realm of producing transdisciplinary and collaborative models for systems beings.

Rather than outcome-based degree programmes, for instance, education could focus more on process-based education, grappling with non-linear perspectives. This may involve collaboration between higher education and diverse non-academic stakeholders (ie, societal actors) to enable evolving and dynamic learning. It could also consider moving away from disciplinary funding models that encourage siloed knowledge production.

One example is a Transdisciplinary PhD Collaborative Pilot focusing on the climate crisis that we co-lead at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

In an attempt to consider ways of developing systems beings, this cohort of nine PhD students from diverse disciplines produce transdisciplinary knowledge, integrate epistemic diversity and partner with stakeholders to work on complex issues, such as regional electrification and EV (electric vehicle) charging infrastructures.

Designing and implementing ways to foster systems literacies at scale, such as the example at UBC, requires substantial investment, experimentation and learning. We believe developing systems beings through transdisciplinary education promises exponential long-term benefits to society’s ability to grapple with complexity. It also shapes society by producing future decision- and policy-makers in complex times.

Derek Gladwin and Naoko Ellis are a collaborative team and founding members of the Systems Beings Lab at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Within the nexus of sustainability education, they blend sociocultural and arts education with STEM and technical approaches to provide holistic and transdisciplinary perspectives on complex issues. They have published articles and books on topics such as energy transition, transdisciplinary education, carbon capture and conversion technology, and complexity and storytelling. They also give talks and workshops and consult with global partners on educational design (