Complexity seems to be a hot topic right now. The inherent complexity of modern science, complex interventions in healthcare, complex conditions, the complexities of interdisciplinary research.
So, how to engage with complexity? And is engagement complex in itself?
A bit of head scratching, a decent understanding and a lot of creativity helps when engaging with complex science. Narrative, metaphor, visualisation, participation, jelly babies, immersive theatre and making, are just some of the approaches I’ve used and believe to be effective when dealing with complex science. Developing and using such approaches, often in partnership with others, nevertheless requires an understanding of their theoretical and practical complexities (OK, perhaps not for the jelly babies).
And it’s not just the science that’s complex. Engaging with complex science often means dealing with other, equally complex disciplines and perspectives. Take genomics: effective engagement with genomics often marries complex science, with complex social scientific and ethics research.
“Know your audience” is often the first mantra of public engagement. Well, there’s “nowt as strange as folk”. And nowt as complex either. Think inclusively and be ready for people to do things completely differently.
Working across disciplines, practices, audiences and organisations invokes all kinds of expectations, power relationships, agendas, hopes, fears and frustrations. Hopefully, we mediate and adapt, and juggle all these emotional and political balls to create some great engagement. Relationships change, evolve and sometimes can go wrong. Sometimes then, the juggler can be re-cast as the jester.
As public engagement practitioners, we use our inquisitive, analytical and creative minds and skills to understand and navigate all these areas of complexity.
So yes, engagement is also complex. But it’s so worth it!