Professor Graham Harris has been working with SMART as a mentor and scientific adviser while writing his latest book. With a strong background from botany and plant ecology to sociology and philosophy, find out more about Professor Harris and his work.
It’s only been a matter of months since Professor Graham Harris watched his wife die after a slide into insanity caused by dementia. It was a hard-won insight into how close we are to the irrational.
‘My wife’s dementia taught me that, unfortunately, we are not rational. It’s scary to see how little needs to change before we become completely irrational.’
He’s now at the end of a 40-year career that started in the UK and has spanned the world. It started in botany and plant ecology and is now ending with sociology and philosophy.
Harris specialises in trying to understand and manage the complex interactions between the environment and society, with a particular focus on water and natural resource management.
As with any spiritual journey worth its name, Harris is discovering not how much the decades have taught him, but how little we know when we thought we knew so much.
His latest book – the fourth of his career – will correct what he sees as the mistakes of his third book, published in 2007, and has the working title Dealing with Uncertainty.
‘I have come to the conclusion that there is something seriously wrong,’ he says.
‘When we tackle living systems, we do so with computer systems, and all sorts of assumptions are built into that approach.
‘A lot of these complex systems – whether they are human, environmental or in infrastructure – are much less predictable than we would like.
‘I want to explore why that is so.’
It’s a big statement from someone who started his academic career with a doctorate that created what was then one of the largest environmental computer simulation models ever built.
He cites the example of the European Union, that committed billions of euros to clean-up the ecosystems of its freshwater systems, and ended up with very little to show from the money spent.
The core of the issues can be summed up with a single idea – ‘the observer is in the loop’.
‘Once you put the observer in the loop, then a lot of these systems become very difficult to predict,’ Harris says.
‘It becomes important to work out how to deal with the uncertainty of managing systems.
‘My interest is in looking at how you set limits to what systems can tell you, and to what degree these things are predictable.’
What creates uncertainty once the observer is a part of – rather than distinct from – the system is that being studied, is that the observer will modify their behaviour as the system evolves, thus changing the dynamic of the system itself.
And this is where his work at the SMART Infrastructure Facility comes in.
Harris has been associated with SMART for more than five years now, thanks to his friendship with University of Wollongong Vice-Chancellor Paul Wellings, with whom he worked at the CSIRO and then at the University of Lancaster in the UK.
While writing his book, he works at SMART as a mentor and scientific adviser.
‘My interests are really quite philosophical because these questions get you into some very interesting areas to do with behaviour, emotions and cognitive science,’ he says.
‘One of the problems we have is the ‘billiard ball’ computer model which is so entrenched across a range of disciplines including psychology, urban planning, architecture … even legal studies.’
What these models fail to include are the social, cultural, irrational aspects of the actors within a system.
It is a way of thinking which – he argues – is peculiar to the Anglo West – Australia, the US, Canada, the UK – but not nearly so pervasive in the Romance countries of southern Europe.
‘I know people see me as a bit of an oddity, but at my stage of my career, I don’t have to apply for research grants,’ he says.
‘I can look at issues from different perspectives. I have time to read.’
You can learn more about Professor Graham Harris’ work through our SMART blogs.