New insights on navigating complexity in development

by Marina Apgar and Eric Kasper, Institute of Development Studies

The challenges of development are complex. Insights about the nature of complexity – coming from various scientific disciplines – lead us to conclude that complex adaptive (social) systems cannot be managed in a formal top-down sense. The best we can do is to find ways to nurture self-organisation. This requires new ways of thinking, new ways of understanding, new ways of doing research, and new ways of crafting interventions.

To help advance our understanding of complexity and self-organisation in social systems, IDS is currently convening a seminar series entitled Complexity and Development to share insights from across disciplines and practice. (These seminars are open to all and also recorded).

Each of the speakers in this series so far has explored development as a process of nurturing change in complex adaptive social systems. They have reflected on the kind of learning that is necessary to understand self-organisation and emergence, and they have offered insights into practices that can help unlock desired development outcomes or hinder undesired ones. Together, they make the case (and restate the traditional action research argument) that successful development interventions must balance the co-evolution of learning and action.

1. To influence self-organisation, mind-sets must change to ‘see’ complexity

IDS’s Robert Chambers highlighted that human agency – the role that people play in being protagonists of their own processes of change – is linked to structures and dynamics of the social systems in which they are embedded. People are linked up – within communities and across them – in ways that typically create brokers who are central to creating emergent change.

For those attempting to bring about positive change – researchers and development practitioners – not only is it important to have appropriate tools and methods for crafting effective interventions, it is important to hold mind-sets that enable methodological pluralisms. To influence emergence, researchers and practitioners need to orient themselves toward seeing and responding to complexity – and work with the brokers within the system. And interventions themselves must nurture such an orientation amongst recipients of (ideally participants in) interventions so that one-off or incremental changes become sustainable by tackling the systemic nature of challenges.

2. Supporting change agents and intentional networking from within

Danny Burns zoomed in on a few key features of social change when understood through the lens of complexity – non-linear dynamics that lead to unpredictable outcomes, and attractor dynamics that hold certain behaviours in place, making it difficult for social change to happen. From this starting point and with an explicit interest of working with marginalised people who are stuck in poverty traps or excluded from development (such as slaves and bonded labourers or people living in the midst of war), he argues that supporting emergent change requires participation of change agents within the system. Further, when participation is linked to learning, appropriate action can be taken by change agents within.

Using empirical work with peacebuilding in Myanmar he articulated a movement-based approach to bottom-up change, that emphasizes facilitation and through it, seeding of emergence from within. Intentional networks can create new system dynamics that enable new attractor basins – new ways of organising or new ways of thinking about a particular problem – that can help spread the impact and reaching more people. [Note: attractor basins are a concept from the mathematics of dynamical systems, referring to a configuration that a system tends toward in spite of perturbations. Here, Danny Burns uses the concept metaphorically.]

3. Untangling co-evolutionary processes can help nurture development

Yuen Yuen Ang from the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan, pushed us to think about how to move beyond simply embracing the need for adaptive management, to finding ways to practically operationalise it. In her book How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, she analyses post reform era in China through the lens of complexity and develops the concept of ‘directed improvisation’.

Building on the framework by Axelrod and Cohen that understands adaptation as part of co-evolutionary processes of change, Ang posits that policy direction from the Central Government is seen as creating enabling conditions for local experimentation and selection – or in her words: diversification, selection, and niche creation. She argues that this way of doing things has nurtured and mediated emergence over time – allowing policy and economic development to co-evolve over time.

In this story of how to influence change in complex systems, Ang articulates a set of principles that are in some ways similar to those described by Burns as a movement-based approach, even though the scales of the system and the changes are far larger. In both cases, however, change is something that emerges through seeding rather than something that can be imposed.

4. Pastoral communities can provide insight on how adaptive institutions emerge in the face of uncertainty

Ian Scoones also spoke about the importance of understanding processes of co-evolution. In his case, the context is the new ESRC-funded PASTRES project, designed to learn from the experience of pastoralists in adapting institutions and processes in the face of rapid and unpredictable change. The argument he makes is that pastoralists have a set of common social institutions (structures and relational patterns) that have co-evolved historically to help them manage the various forms of uncertainty inherent in the ecosystems in which they live, and the social dynamics within and beyond they are responding to.

Learning from how these institutions emerged – as well as how they have adapted to recent changes while holding onto their essential functions – will be used to answer broader questions about the models and methods, governance structures and forms of adaptation that can be useful to other global challenges around critical infrastructure and financial systems, for example. The project will be an exciting interdisciplinary experiment in operationalising complexity.

Operationalising complexity-aware development

We’re a decade or more on from the first applications of complexity to human social systems and to the development sector. In the first wave, we learned that top-down managerial approaches to development are likely to fail because of non-linear dynamics in complex social systems leading to appreciation that change must be emergent rather than imposed. The solution then seemed to be to create more flexibility in management, to create space for experimentation, iterative learning and incorporation of multiple perspectives, to be more innovative. However, these things are easier said than done.

In the Complexity and Development seminar series, we are seeing how different starting points lead to different engagement with the question of what it actually means to attempt to influence emergence. As we hear from more speakers in upcoming seminars we are excited about the learning that will continue to emerge from our different starting points, our different disciplinary biases and the different contexts within which we engage with development as a process of self-organisation and emergence in complex adaptive social systems.

This post was first published on the Institute of Development Studies website.

Image: ‘complexity’ by J Brew on Flickr (creative commons)