As the last to arrive in a family of eight siblings, Dr Rika Preiser has since childhood learnt much about the complexities, interactions, dynamics and undercurrents associated with larger networks or organizations. Today she is a senior researcher at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, under the auspices of Stellenbosch University’s School of Public Leadership.
Preiser was born and bred in Bellville in the Cape. Before she could find her feet as a researcher and lecturer, her life took many a twist and turn.
“My path to academia has definitely not been typical,” she admits. “I think there is a place for other contexts and other starting points. Especially within the South African context, we need to make more space for people’s different academic routes.”
After matriculating in 1990, this sports lover and runner choose to study physiotherapy. Mistake.
“I fainted when I had to visit patients in hospital,” she now laughs about the experience.
While reconsidering her future, she led a team of young people involved in spiritual outreach programmes in schools. Later, she self-funded part-time studies by working in music and bookstores, and by spreading her wings to the marketing and communications sector. Between 2001 and 2006, Preiser was the manager of the SU International Office on the Tygerberg campus.
In between, she earned a BA through UNISA in 2000, an MPhil in Media Ethics (2004) through the SU Department of Journalism, and then an MPhil on Organizations and Public Culture (2008).
Her future as a thinker about matters related to complexity studies began in 2000 at a braai in Germany, complete with red wine and a leg of lamb. Among the guests were Stellenbosch philosopher and complexity guru, the late Prof Paul Cilliers.
The evening’s stimulating conversations stayed with her, and in 2007 she made an appointment to visit Cilliers in Stellenbosch. “Do you perhaps need someone who can make coffee and photocopies? I want to do my PhD, but not on my own steam again as was the case with my other degrees.”
The luck was on her side. At the time, Cilliers was looking for an assistant. Two years later, she also became the research assistant to Cilliers’ comrade in complexity studies, biochemist Prof Jannie Hofmeyr, with whom he established the Centre for Studies in Complexity.
Why give up a steady administrative job at the University for one that only paid R1000 at the time?
“It was all too practical for me. I somewhat wanted to flee from it. I preferred thinking,” explains Preiser, who finds great fulfilment in discussing and conceptualising new ideas with people from different spheres.
After Cilliers’ unexpected death in 2011, Hofmeyr and Preiser continued the Centre’s work. It did, however, mean that Preiser, despite her initial hopes, had to complete her PhD in philosophy without Cilliers’ input as her supervisor, and as such very much on her own steam. She received her degree in 2012 with a discussing on the role of critique in conversations about complexity.
Preiser acknowledges that her research has become less philosophical and more humanistic since the Centre for Studies in Complexity and other partners merged into the SU Centre for Complex Systems in Transition. This initiative that together complexity thinking, sustainability science and transdisciplinary research methodology.
In the process, she has learnt a lot from experts such as Prof Mark Swilling and Prof Oonsie Biggs about a humanistic approach to nature, environmental and sustainability issues, and the world as an interconnected ecosystem or organism. And of course, humankind’s impact on it over the last two centuries in particular.
“We get people and stakeholders together in dialogue so they can talk about real-world challenges,” she explains her work at the Centre.
Preiser finds it too one-dimensional to describe complexity in terms of network systems: “It’s more about processes and is something living and organic like a root system.”
Why the interest in complexity studies these days?
“People are seeing that spaces and places are falling apart, and no longer working as before. The world is an organism and not a machine. It’s alive. It needs nourishment and nurturing, like an ecosystem. Once you recognise this, you start thinking differently about for example what the organisation you work for thinks about leadership or skills development.”
And, does she still have hope for the earth?
Preiser hesitated for a moment, before explaining about the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes project involving SU colleagues, their Swedish counterparts at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and American and Canadian experts.
“We collect stories about positive projects, however small they might be. These initiatives have been started to counteract the negative days ahead. We bring the people involved together so that they can talk to each other, and so that their stories can strengthen others and give them hope.”
For Preiser, this “hope” is not of the starry-eyed, naive kind: “I’m talking about critical hope, in which you are even willing to leave things behind or to give them up so that you can achieve something new.”
She believes humanity is experiencing a challenging period of radical uncertainty amidst the undercurrents caused by the Trump era, China’s boom and Brexit’s complexities: “We can no longer predict or start guessing what’s to happen next. Calamities are hitting us from all sides because the world is simply so interconnected. ”
Preiser continues: “The unexpected can of course also be positive, and out of the blue offer solutions. We can’t predict where it’s going to come from. The little things can also be the surprises.”
Then she adds: “It’s when you can see the unexpected connections and start thinking about things differently, that you can help people to anticipate new possibilities for the future.”