complex systems

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

Duncan Green - May 13, 2015

Owen 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 …

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How do you keep 100 students awake on a Friday afternoon? Fast feedback and iterative adaptation seem to work

Duncan Green - February 4, 2015

I wrote this post for the LSE’s International Development Department blog There’s a character in a Moliere play who is surprised and delighted to learn that he has been speaking prose all his life without knowing it. I thought of him a couple of weeks into my new role as a part-time Professor in Practice in LSE’s International Development Department, when I realized I had been using …

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How can complexity/systems thinking help small island states?

Duncan Green - May 1, 2014

‘It’s a big year for small islands’ announced the speaker before me, who revelled in the title ‘The Honourable Lord Tu’ivakano, Prime Minister, Kingdom of Tonga’ (right). When my turn came, how should I refer to him? (I’m hopeless at this kind of thing, must come from going to a state school.) His Lordship? Your Honourableness? ‘Yo Tu’ivakano’ (a la George Bush)? In the end, …

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Do fragile states evolve like forests? Insights from complexity thinking

admin - January 7, 2014

Oxfam’s engagement with physics-trained complexity enthusiast Jean Boulton is starting to generate some really interesting ideas. Jean has been helping us think through our work in fragile states – the big challenge for a lot of aid organizations over the next few years. Just before Christmas, she came in to tell us where her thinking has got to on the different kinds of fragility. Drawing …

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How do you measure the difficult stuff (empowerment, resilience) and whether any change is attributable to your role?

admin - December 3, 2013

In one of his grumpier moments, Owen Barder recently branded me as ‘anti-data’, which (if you think about it for a minute) would be a bit weird foranyone working in the development sector. The real issue is of course, what kind of data tell you useful things about different kinds of programme, and how you collect them. If people equate ‘data’ solely with ‘numbers’, then …

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What kinds of ‘expert advice’ work in a complex world? Some likes and dislikes

admin - November 21, 2013

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 …

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What does your project plan most resemble – baking a cake, landing a rocket on the moon, or raising a child?

admin - October 3, 2013

One of the main obstacles to having a decent conversation about the implications of complex systems for how we ‘do’ development (donorship, programming, advocacy, campaigns etc) is the language itself. Complexity geeks may get a kick out of saying ‘it’s all complex/context specific etc etc’, but more normal/practical people tend to find such language offputting and disempowering. Often, they don’t want to revel in the …

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Where are the examples of good donorship in complex systems?

admin - September 25, 2013

Everyone loves a good scapegoat. When faced with trying something exciting, risky or new, the temptation is to say ‘they’ won’t let us. In the World Trade Organization I’ve heard developing country delegates argue that there is nothing they can do to stop the tide of imports, even when the WTO rules have lots of wiggle room to allow poor countries to protect their vulnerable …

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How to think in Systems? Great (and accessible, and short) book.

admin - August 23, 2013

Thanks to whoever suggested I read ‘Thinking in Systems’, by Donella Meadows. It’s great – one of those short, easy reads that may induce a gestalt shift in the way you see the world. The topic is ‘systems theory’ – that phrase that wise-looking wonks bandy about in meetings, to intimidating effect. If you can’t beat them, then I suggestion you join them by reading …

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Can impact diaries help us analyse our impact when working in complex environments?

admin - July 8, 2013

One of the problems about working in a complex system is that not only do you never know what is going to happen, but you aren’t sure what developments, information, feedback etc will turn out (with hindsight) to be important. In these results-obsessed times, what does that mean for monitoring and evaluation? One answer is to keep what I call an ‘impact diary’, where you …

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