There seems to be a growing consensus among experts in different fields that in today’s highly interdependent world, effective collaboration has become crucial for achieving results.
As part of the World Bank's Internal Justice System Week a few days ago, we attended a presentation by Dr. Peter Coleman, Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University and heir of an illustrious research tradition in social-psychology going back almost a hundred years. Dr. Coleman is part of an inter-disciplinary team of global experts that also includes mathematicians, astrophysicists, anthropologists and computer modeling experts in a quest to answer the following question: what are the conditions that support or hinder collaboration in social relations?
Using computer simulations they observed the results of competitive and cooperative behaviors, and detected how dynamic patterns develop over time. They realized that the dynamic social relations created behaved in ways similar to those that have been observed in other complex systems, from cancerous cellular mutations to global climate shifts. Like such systems, social dynamics are not only complex but also “non-linear”, which means that the different elements constantly influence each other, acting as both cause and effect of each other’s behaviors. The tool available to study such systems is known as “dynamical system theory”, and Dr. Coleman’s team has been applying its methods to social systems.
We take two important practical lessons from Dr. Coleman’s work: first, we can use analytical tools developed for physical and biological sciences to understand how collaboration and competition arise in social systems. Second, we can increase the odds of collaboration in a social system if we promote some dynamics and disrupt others. However, we can do this only if we analyze and map such dynamics beforehand.
The topic of collaboration is so relevant that the Bank’s Vice President for Change, Knowledge and Learning, Mr. Sanjay Pradhan, recognized it, in a recent speech, as a central challenge of our development work. Indeed, the magnitude and complexity of today’s development problems requires extensive collaboration among multiple stakeholders. Pradhan went on to make the case for advancing the “collaborative leadership skills” of change agents from government, private sector and civil society.
Specific evidence pointing to the importance of collaboration was also provided by Giovanni Di Folco, engineer an expert in the use of Dispute Boards in Public Private Partnerships (PPP), who presented during Law and Development Week. Di Folco explained that in some areas of the world most PPPs fail, in large part due to problems related to distrust and lack of communication between stakeholders. The cost of these failures was very high and reduced the likelihood that PPPs would again be attempted in these countries. We wonder whether a dynamical analysis of the social systems in which the PPP’s were intended to work would have identified these dynamics earlier and prevented these failures.
If stimulating collaboration among social actors is crucial to finding and implementing innovative solutions to complex development problems, then social dynamical systems analysis is an important tool. This is particularly the case in fragile and conflict-affected situations where the Bank and other partners are devoting more focused attention and resources.
One of the areas where the Bank can help because of its convening power and honest-broker reputation is to help stakeholders understand the dynamic patterns that may be hindering collaboration and creating distrust. This may include the elaboration of complexity maps of events, relations, issues and the creation of attractor landscapes that visualize current patterns. Those visualizations may help us focus on what matters, on actions that are relevant and viable, and on the key dynamics that can be influenced to promote higher levels of collaboration.
At the end of day, for the Bank and partners working on the nexus conflict-fragility, it's all about understanding how the issues of social relations, violence and poverty connect.
And there is no doubt that addressing the ecology of problems with a focus on transforming the dynamics over time, towards more collaborative approaches, is crucial for achieving greater results.