So the world is complex – what do we do differently?

May 13, 2011 8 By admin

Spent yesterday discussing the implications of complexity theory for development (previous discussion on this blog here) at a seminar organized by the UKCDS, a body that promotes interdisciplinary research on development. It was totally gripping, not least complexity signbecause two of my gurus were there – Eric Beinhocker, whose brilliant book on evolution and economics, The Origin of Wealth, you absolutely must read (it took me three posts to review, here, here and here), and Robert Chambers of IDS.

The purpose of the day was not to bury old thinking (linear change, the economy as a system of static equilibrium), although Ben Ramalingam did that in passing: ‘the linear Newtonian model is staggering around the global stage like a mortally wounded Shakespearean actor’ – nice. Rather it was to delve into the ‘so what’, or as Eric Beinhocker put it, the journey of complexity theory from a ‘Sunday morning’ idea that shapes the way you see the world, to something that makes you do things differently when you get to work on Monday morning.

Here are some of the suggestions that surfaced in the discussion (other participants, please add the ones I missed):

First, the purpose of development interventions, whether by states, companies, civil society organizations or aid donors, must move from deluded attempts at ‘creation’ of development from blueprints, first principles etc to acceleration of the evolutionary process that drives development in the real world. One way to think about that shift is to look separately at the three processes that constitute evolution – variation, selection and amplification (see Beinhocker posts for more on that).

Variation: facilitate, encourage and if necessary, fund emergence of new ideas, institutions and approaches e.g. from private sector, CSOs. The legal system and other institutions can help or hinder.

Selection: Academics, media or NGOs can identify new variations, study them and spread the knowledge, acting as a lubricant in the selection process. Deliberately looking for outliers, both of success and failure – known as positive deviance – is one way to promote this within development institutions.

Amplification: Too big for most development actors, but they can do advocacy to larger bodies (states, companies) to replicate success.

Second, we need to ‘wallow in failure’ – Beinhocker’s description of the US military’s determination to learn from past defeats. Failure is the essential engine of evolution, as much as success. We need to admit it, study it, learn from it (but then stop funding it….). Lots of kudos for Engineers Without Borders for introducing a website where NGOs can discuss their failures.

Third, we really need to improve the sales pitch, starting with the word ‘complexity’. Geeks revel in using the word, but it’s toxic for politicians and normal people (not the same thing), who usually want simple messages and ‘what do I do’ checklists. Beinhocker talks to them about real world economics, evolution (at least everywhere except Kentucky), adaptiveness, resilience – anything but call it complexity.

We also need to boil down some simple rules of engagement in working in a world of complexity, equivalent to the US marines combat instructions of ‘take the high ground, stay in contact, keep moving and improvise the rest’. The Santa Fe Institute, which gave birth to a lot of this thinking, has a rather more sedentary set of rules – study whatever you want, but you must attend lunch at 12 and tea at 4, where you will interact with other members. Robert Chambers reckons that participatory, bottom up approaches are a perfect response to a complex world (he promised to write something on this for the blog – v exciting.) He also suggested the System of Rice Intensification as a model – a few basic rules, but the rest depends on responding to local conditions.

Finally, we need case studies – of success and failure, both of responses to complexity and what happens when you ignore it. Hopefully Ben Ramalingam’s forthcoming book, with the same title as his blog, Aid on the Edge of Chaos, will include a lot of these.

Back in 1997, Robert Chambers asked if the new physics provided ‘a deep paradigmatic insight, an interesting parallel, or an insignificant coincidence’ for development practitioners. He now believes the answer is that this is a new paradigm. Got a feeling I’ll be posting more on this in the coming months.

And just in case this is all too abstract, and because it’s a really cool video, here’s some bouncing jelly (jell-o if you’re the other side of the Atlantic). There is no way to describe this or predict the movements with linear, Newtonian or any other maths – we need to change our thinking.