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Complex Systems

Why systems thinking changes everything for activists and reformers

Duncan Green's picture

This week, the Guardian ran a very nicely edited ‘long read’ extract from How Change Happens covering some of the book’s central arguments, under the title Radical Thinking Reveals the Secrets of Making Change Happen. Here it is:

Political and economic earthquakes are often sudden and unforeseeable, despite the false pundits who pop up later to claim they predicted them all along – take the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 2008 global financial crisis, or the Arab Spring (and ensuing winter). Even at a personal level, change is largely unpredictable: how many of us can say our lives have gone according to the plans we had as 16-year-olds?

The essential mystery of the future poses a huge challenge to activists. If change is only explicable in the rear-view mirror, how can we accurately envision the future changes we seek, let alone achieve them? How can we be sure our proposals will make things better, and not fall victim to unintended consequences? People employ many concepts to grapple with such questions. I find “systems” and “complexity” two of the most helpful.

A “system” is an interconnected set of elements coherently organised in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors, and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.

A defining property of human systems is complexity: because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets.

In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse and apparently unrelated factors. Those of us engaged in seeking change need to identify which elements are important and understand how they interact.

My interest in systems thinking began when collecting stories for my book From Poverty to Power. The light-bulb moment came on a visit to India’s Bundelkhand region, where the poor fishing communities of Tikamgarh had won rights to more than 150 large ponds. In that struggle numerous factors interacted to create change. First, a technological shift triggered changes in behaviour: the introduction of new varieties of fish, which made the ponds more profitable, induced landlords to seize ponds that had been communal. Conflict then built pressure for government action: a group of 12 brave young fishers in one village fought back, prompting a series of violent clashes that radicalized and inspired other communities; women’s groups were organized for the first time, taking control of nine ponds. Enlightened politicians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) helped pass new laws and the police amazed everyone by enforcing them.

The fishing communities were the real heroes of the story. They tenaciously faced down a violent campaign of intimidation, moved from direct action to advocacy, and ended up winning not only access to the ponds but a series of legal and policy changes that benefited all fishing families.

The neat narrative sequence of cause and effect I’ve just written, of course, is only possible in hindsight. In the thick of the action, no-one could have said why the various actors acted as they did, or what transformed the relative power of each. Tikamgarh’s experience highlights how unpredictable is the interaction between structures (such as state institutions), agency (by communities and individuals), and the broader context (characterized by shifts in technology, environment, demography, or norms).

Unfortunately, the way we commonly think about change projects onto the future the neat narratives we draw from the past. Many of the mental models we use are linear plans – “if A, then B” – with profound consequences in terms of failure, frustration, and missed opportunities. As Mike Tyson memorably said, “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth”.

Using Case Studies to Explore and Explain Complex Interventions

Michael Woolcock's picture
One of the most cited of Martin Ravallion’s many papers implores researchers to “look beyond averages” if they want to better understand development processes. One fruitful area in which this might happen is the assessment of complex interventions, a defining characteristic of which is that they generate wide variation in outcomes.

The C Word: How should the aid business think and act about Corruption?

Duncan Green's picture

Corruption is perceived by many to be an impediment to development. But, it can be difficult to tackle since it is often a systemic problem. Duncan Green recently attended a seminar on corruption and development and provides some impressions.

Went to a seminar on corruption and development on Monday – notable in itself as corruption is something of a taboo topic in aid circles. Aid supporters often cite framing – George Lakoff’s ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’ or Richard Nixon’s ‘I am not a crook’ (below)- as justification for avoiding the topic; even if you raise it to dismiss it, the connection between aid and corruption will be established in the public mind.
 
VIDEO: Richard Nixon- "I'm not a crook"


Unfortunately ignoring it/leaving it to the Daily Mail hasn’t worked too well – David Hudson’s research (still unpublished, but previewed here) shows that the % of the UK public agreeing with the decidedly clunky (DFID-drafted) statement ‘corruption in poor country governments makes it pointless donating money to help reduce poverty’ has risen rapidly from 44% to 61% since 2008. He also found that talking to members of the public about how aid is trying to tackle corruption can undo the damage of raising the issue in the first place (and help immunise people against the barrage of press reports).

Can aid agencies help systems fix themselves? The implications of complexity for development cooperation

Duncan Green's picture

Owen BarderOwen Barder gave a brilliant lecture on complexity and development to my LSE students earlier this year. Afterwards, I asked him to dig deeper into the ‘so whats’ for aid agencies. The result is this elegant essay (a bit long for a blog, but who cares?). I will try and get some responses to his arguments from similarly large brains.

If economic development is a property of a complex adaptive system, as I’ve argued elsewhere, then what, if anything, can development agencies and NGOs do to accelerate it?

ants in thailandTo be clear what we mean when we say that development is a system property, here’s an example from the animal kingdom. You may have seen recently that ants have recently developed “super colonies” – including one that covers 6,000km along the Mediterranean that is said to be the largest co-operative unit in the animal kingdom. It is natural to talk about the “behaviour” of the colony, even though we understand that we are really talking about the individual actions of hundreds of millions of ants. Each ant responds to its external environment, including the behaviour of other ants. Because all the ants are adjusting to each other, this creates the sense that the colony as a whole is changing its behaviour, and we soon begin to ascribe intent and agency to the colony rather than the individual ants of which it consists.

Like any complex adaptive system, an ant colony will tend to go through long periods of stability and then sudden periods of rapid change that come about when ants all adjust their behaviour in response to changes in the behaviour of the ants around them. The emergence of a super-colony did not depend on the ants individually becoming fitter and stronger, learning new skills or becoming more entrepreneurial. They didn’t suddenly have access to better nutrients that made them healthier– nor have the ants benefited from universal education, access to microcredit, or new vaccines.  In fact, the ants haven’t changed at all: the colony’s behaviour can change even if the individual ants have not, because it is a self-organising complex system whose behaviour in aggregate is not simply the sum of its parts: it is determined to a large extent by the way those parts interact with each other.
 

What Kinds of 'Expert Advice' Work in a Complex World? Some Likes and Dislikes

Duncan Green's picture

I’ve been talking to a lot of ‘advisers’ in Oxfam, Save the Children and elsewhere recently about what all this complexity stuff means in practice. Advisers are unsung NGO heroes, repositories of wisdom and experience, working closely with partners and staff on the ground. And those staff typically want to know what they should be doing differently. That’s what experts are for, right?
 
But if you’re an adviser who has been mugging up on the implications of complexity (see recent posts), this is tricky. How to stop your advice about a systems approach, with its critique of cookie-cutter approaches based on box ticking, best practice, blueprints etc becoming just the latest cookie? ‘Have you done your system/context analysis? Good, now tick the box and move on to stage 2.’

By a very appropriate process of trial and error, here’s where I have got to:

Campaigning and Complexity: How Do We Campaign on a Problem When We Don't Know the Solution?

Duncan Green's picture

Had a thought-provoking discussion on ‘influencing’ with Exfamer (ex Oxfam Australia turned consultant) James Ensor a few days ago. The starting point was an apparent tension between the reading I’ve been doing on complex systems, and Oxfam’s traditional model of campaigning.

In my first days at Oxfam, I was told that the recipe for a successful campaign was ‘problem, villain, solution’ (heroes are apparently optional). And sure enough, if you look at good/bad campaigns, the presence or absence of all three ingredients seems pretty key.

But one of the characteristics of complex systems is that solutions are seldom obvious and often only emerge from trial and error. Elsewhere I’ve translated the offputting language of complexity theory into ‘how do you plan when you don’t know what’s going to happen?’ But in the case of advocacy and campaigns aimed at influencing government or international organizations’ policies, a better formulation would be ‘how do you campaign when you don’t have a solution?’

The first option is of course to pretend that you do anyway. Echoes of Yes Minister’s ‘we must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it!’. Not that Oxfam would ever stoop to such a thing, obviously.

Alternatively, stick to problems that are less complex, at least at first sight. Campaign to give people money, or bednets, or vaccines, or food (although any of these efforts in practice are unlikely to stay neat and linear for long).

But there are a number of other options:

Aid and Complex Systems cont’d: Timelines, Incubation Periods and Results

Duncan Green's picture

I’m at one of those moments where all conversations seem to link to each other, I see complex systems everywhere, and I’m wondering whether I’m starting to lose my marbles. Happily, lots of other people seem to be suffering from the same condition, and a bunch of us met up earlier this week with Matt Andrews, who was in the UK to promote his fab new book Limits to Institutional Reform in Development (I  rave reviewed it here). The conversation was held under Chatham House rules, so no names, no institutions etc.

Whether you work on complex systems or governance reform or fragile states, the emerging common ground seems to be around what not to do and to a lesser extent, the ‘so whats’. What can outsiders do to contribute to change in complex, unpredictable situations where, whether due to domestic opposition or sheer irrelevance to actual context, imported blueprints and ‘best practice guidelines’ are unlikely to get anywhere?

In his book Matt boils down his considerable experience at the World Bank and Harvard into a proposal for ‘PDIA’ – Problem Driven iterative adaptation, which I described pretty fully in my review. The conversation this week fleshed out that approach and added some interesting new angles.

How to Plan When You Don’t Know What is Going to Happen? Redesigning Aid for Complex Systems

Duncan Green's picture

They’re funny things, speaker tours. On the face of it, you go from venue to venue, churning out the same presentation – more wonk-n-roll than rock-n-roll. But you are also testing your arguments, adding slides where there are holes, deleting ones that don’t work. Before long the talk has morphed into something very different.

So where did I end up after my most recent attempt to promote FP2P in the US and Canada? The basic talk is still ‘What’s Hot and What’s Not in Development’ – the title I’ve used in UK, India, South Africa etc. But the content has evolved. In particular, the question of complex systems provoked by far the most discussion.