SMU Office of Research & Tech Transfer– While adaptability and resilience are well-established concepts that have been empirically studied by psychologists in the past three decades, it is only recently that they have become mainstream buzzwords in science, practice, and policymaking. This is not surprising, according to SMU Professor of Psychology David Chan, who observed that “the various different responses to the accelerated and multi-faceted disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the urgent need to better understand people’s abilities, motivations, and attitudes to adapt to changes and novel demands, as well as how to effectively enhance adaptability and resilience from people, businesses, agencies, and leaders in the face of difficulties.” It also means that “getting the science and practice right is critically important, given the wide-ranging implications that any major decisions in policymaking and practice have in attempts to enhance adaptability and resilience at the individual, organisational, or societal levels.”
How can we better understand the science and practice of adaptability and resilience, especially in the face of COVID-19 realities? To study issues relating to how people adapt and thrive in rapidly evolving changes amid challenges and uncertainty, Professor Chan, who is also Director of the Behavioural Sciences Initiative (BSI) at SMU and Adjunct Principal Scientist and Scientific Advisor to the A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research), is leading the project Modelling People-Centric Adaptability and Resilience, jointly funded by SMU and A*STAR. The project, which Professor Chan is currently working on with Dr. Quek Boon Kiat from A*STAR, will run for three years from April 2022. It is one of the first studies under the Joint Lab research collaboration newly set up by SMU and A*STAR.
Details of the project
Professor Chan’s research team will involve social-behavioural scientists, computer scientists, and research engineers from both SMU and A*STAR. By tapping on the top expertise from SMU and A*STAR in the social-behavioural sciences and social computing technology, the project will, Professor Chan explains, “develop an integrative framework and modeling tool to study how people can be adaptive and resilient, including common issues across domains and unique aspects specific to certain settings. The findings will shed light on the drivers that predict or influence adaptability and resilience, and also the factors that may strengthen or weaken these effects. This understanding will provide evidence-based actionable recommendations.”
The project’s focus on studying adaptability and resilience in the COVID-19 context has clear applied value for individuals, organisations, and society. Professor Chan elaborates: “Using different studies employing different types of methods and data, our team of researchers with diverse expertise will work together to study how individuals deal with differences and potential goal conflicts in changes to ways of life (e.g., working from home, limits on dining-in and public gathering) associated with dynamic changes to decisions on tightening and relaxing COVID-19 restrictions on individuals and activities.
The studies are particularly relevant as the pandemic becomes endemic such that the Government and organisations in Singapore have to constantly make decisions (or change prior decisions) on tightening or relaxing COVID-19 restrictions that have significant and spiraling effects on people’s way of life and quality of life. These changes in decisions, and hence ways of life, bring with them novel adaptation demands on individuals because of differences in views and potential goal conflicts (e.g., lives versus livelihoods, safety versus convenience/productivity) as people make personal choices, cope, and function amid the changes.”
This project will go beyond disciplinary approaches to tap on the various advances in computing technology, big data analytics, and the social-behavioural sciences. Why is this multi-disciplinary approach important? Professor Chan explains: “An adequate understanding of adaptability and resilience in different domains requires clear conceptualisation and valid measurement of the focal constructs and the inter-relationships linking them, but what we have in today’s digital society and technology-enabled living are massive amounts of dynamic and disparate types of data and information about people, interactions, events, and experiences, which generate a vast array of potentially-relevant variables. To make sense of the empirical data and derive adequate models of our realities and lived experiences that are theory-driven, evidence-based, and practically useful, we will need to integrate technology-enabled approaches, cutting-edge measurement and data analytic approaches, and insights from the social and behavioural sciences.”
“The technologies, analytics, and research findings could give a better understanding of people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviour patterns and how they change over time, including their antecedents and consequences, so that practical steps can be taken to enhance people-centric engagement and mental well-being, enable effective training and team functioning, encourage sustained and sustainable adaptive behaviours in responses to multi-faceted changes, and help improve individual functioning, work processes, business models, social interaction experiences, and crisis management.”
This multi-disciplinary project, supported under the collaborative structure provided by the newly established A*STAR-SMU Joint Lab, expands and builds on the cutting-edge integrative work that Professor Chan has already been doing and is known for internationally. Professor Chan, who has published in the area of technology-enabled measurement, as well as how to integrate different research and analytical methods in the emerging field of computational social sciences, has been conferred numerous prestigious international awards for his three decades of social-behavioural research on advances in conceptualising and assessing social attitudes and other dynamic constructs and processes that change over time and across levels from individuals to groups to organisations to societies. A well-known contribution is Professor Chan's research on adaptability, and more recently his leadership in applying these research findings to combatting the COVID-19 crisis and navigating post-pandemic realities, for which he has also received national and international recognition. So, it is a natural extension for SMU and Professor Chan to have him lead one of the very first projects in the A*STAR-SMU Joint Lab’s pillar on computational social sciences.
The collaborative efforts in this project is an exemplar of researchers from multiple disciplines and institutions coming together to contribute to Singapore’s collective effort to combat the coronavirus crisis. Professor Chan noted: “There is a clear and urgent need for resilience and adaptability from people, businesses, agencies and leaders when responding to changes from COVID-19 disruptions and navigating post-pandemic realities. Effective actions are rooted in strong evidence from robust research that can produce practical recommendations and solutions. For the multi-disciplinary research efforts in this direction to make meaningful impact in a timely manner, we will need to go beyond the resources provided by A*STAR and SMU to collaborate with organisations across the public, private, and people sectors”.
In embarking on this project to study people-centric adaptability and resilience, Professor Chan, who is well-known internationally for his scientist-practitioner contributions, has a longer-term vision and mission beyond its three-year funding period. He concluded our interview with this parting shot: “COVID-19 has created complex and dynamic problems in various contexts that people at all levels need to deal with. How can we effectively adapt to these novel demands and rapid changes, not only to cope with the coronavirus crisis but also to enhance resilience and recovery to navigate post-pandemic realities and potential endemic situations to emerge better and stronger? To do that, we need an evidence-based understanding of adaptability and resilience processes including knowing the factors and conditions that make people able and willing to adapt and thrive. Amid COVID-19 challenges, our mission as researchers is to create, disseminate, and apply this knowledge from rigorous and relevant studies. We should help translate these scientific insights into practical solutions and enablers for developing positive attitudes and taking appropriate actions, so that people can function effectively in a sustained and sustainable way as they continue to live, learn, work, and play.”