Recent Mesopartner Working paper on complexity theory and development

This article was originally posted by Marcus Jenal on the systemic-insight.com website in December 2013. I co-authored this paper with Marcus. It is an output of the theme of applying complexity theories to economic development.

For the last 3 years we at Mesopartner have been purposefully experimenting with complexity and systems theories in our practice. Not only did we change our company logo and strapline based on our new learning, we started to dismantle and question almost every aspect of our instruments, tools and theories.

This was a steep learning curve for us and for our key customers who agreed that we could embark on these serendipitous journeys together. While we still believe in bottom up development, we are wondering about how to achieve developmental change within the typical timelines and resource constraints that development projects often face.

One of the results of this process is this website (http://systemic-insight.com), where we want to share our thoughts and invite our followers to contribute to the discussions we have.

A new Mesopartner working paper now provides a theoretical grounding for the work we have done in the last three years and will continue to do. We consider some definitions, ponder the implications and try to formulate some responses to some of the key challenges that systems and complexity theories confront us with in our field of bottom up economic development.

We see this paper as an input into a broader discussion with our close collaborators, our close clients, and the broader network that we form part of. We ask  you to send us your thoughts and add your comments to this and future posts.

We thank the colleagues that have already commented on the paper. Many of the suggestions are already incorporated into this version. Your contributions are greatly appreciated. Shawn and Marcus

Some recent links I enjoyed

Take a look at the article by Andrea Cornwall in The Guardian on how donor policies fail to bring real and sustained change for women.

Also take a look at the blogpage of Marcus Jenal and one of my other favorite bloggers David Green (Oxfam). I assume that most of my readers are by now also subscribed to Aid on the Edge of Chaos by Ben Ramalingham (ODI). If you feel like a good laugh take a look at Ben’s post on the Genesis of Aid (a parody).

The thematic pages on Mesopartner.com that were recently updated. Also note that we still have a few limited openings at our Annual Mesopartner Summer Academy on Systemic Economic Change that will take place this year in Berlin from the 2nd to the 6th of July 2012.

Site update – complete list of publications now available

After the two earlier posts this morning I was asked if I could make my complete list of publications available. Thank you for the reminders!

I have added a new sub page on the left (main menu) with a list of the different kinds of publications I’ve been involved in. This includes books, reports and other publications.

For those that are interested in Mesopartner note that I have also updated the RALIS page on the Mesopartner site

Book announcement: Understanding Market Failures in an Economic Development Context

This is the long awaited book on Market Failures. The cover page illustration of the hard copy is by Lina Stamer and is an image that I use when I present the popular training session on how to address market failure in a practical way.

The book is available for free as a E-book, or a paperback edition can be ordered here. More books are available on the Mesopartner online bookstore.

The official description of this publication is:

Many development practitioners are familiar with the phrase “market failure”. However, not many people relate to the topic in a practical sense. Many remember boring lectures in universities where market failures were presented as abstract theoretical concepts in economics 101. In this book, Dr. Shawn Cunningham takes a perspective that the clues to begin to address market failures are in the world around us. He argues that the characteristics attributed to each market failure by clever scholars actually provide some clues to development practitioners about ways in which to address the imperfections that hinders market based transactions. Shawn also argues that market failures cannot be addressed by business management principles, and that typical market research instruments will provide little information on how to make a market system where there is demand, supply and supporting institutions work better

What do we mean with systemic?

There are hundreds of ways of describing the word systemic. Yet in development it is important that we at least narrow down the definitions as to not cause confusion.

Richard Hummelbrunner describes three emergent features of methods and approaches from systems thinking:

  • An understanding of interrelationships
  • A commitment to multiple perspectives
  • An awareness of boundaries

Richard then explains that each of these features focused in the development of the systems thinking field in the last fifty years. Up to the 60s, the focus was interrelationships. This was followed by an increasing awareness of the different perspectives as a critical issue. This affected the way people recognized interrelationships. In the 1980s the focus shifted towards the boundaries of the system, as practitioners realized that they system had to be bounded in some way to allow for diagnosis. This raised the ethical question of who decides what is part of the system and what is not, as the shifting of these boundaries has great influence on what is revealed and understood when the system is diagnosed.

Our firm, Mesopartner, is known for the “Systemic Competitiveness” framework that we use in our work. The framework originated within the German Development Institute in the mid 90s. One of the common misunderstandings about Systemic Competitiveness is that people confuse systemic with systematic. The latter in my mind would refer to a very detailed and exact way of understanding and doing things that may be very rigid. This may detract from the fact that to really understand a system we might have to embrace complexity, dilemmas and issues in a more dynamic way, something that a very recipe driven systematic approach may not allow.

Reference:

Williams, B and Hummelbrunner, R. 2010. Systems concepts in action: a practitioners toolkit. Stanford Business Books.

ESSER, K., HILLEBRAND, W., MESSNER, D. & MEYER-STAMER, J. 1995.  Systemic competitiveness. New patterns for industrial development. London: Frank Cas.

MEYER-STAMER, J. 2005.  Systemic competitiveness revisited. Conclusions for technical assistance in private sector development. Mesopartner

The benefits of being aware of how a system works

For those that have participated in any of the training events that I have contributed to in the last years would hopefully recall my favorite energizer called the Systems Game. In this game we simulate a complex system, with all the participants moving around trying to position themselves between two targets in the group, without the targets being aware who is chasing them. Things usually start of neat and tidy, but soon chaos breaks out.  After the game we reflect on the system and how to better understand its behavior, and also how to figure out how to stimulate change of behavior in the system.

The pictures below were taken in the last Mesopartner International Summer Academy on Economic Development.

The participants secretly determine who they will follow
The participants tries to become system aware – who is following me?

One of the first insights is that our job as practitioners is not to try and fix the system, nor to solve a problem on behalf of the system. Our first job is to try and get the system to become more aware of its own behaviors, issues and dilemmas. Very often this will allow us to use some of the existing relationships, routines and networks of the system to improve the performance or to address some issues in the system.

I received the following little e-mail story recently that actually shows how actors that are aware of the system can easier manipulate the system to achieve certain outcomes. From a few google searches I could not determine the source of the story, except to see that its been featured in many fora. Therefere if you know the original source then please let me know so that I can give proper credit.

Here is the story as I received in my e-mail:

An old man wanted to plant a tomato garden, but it was difficult work, as the ground was hard.

His only son, Vincent, who used to help him, was in prison, and so the old man wrote a letter to his son:
Dear Vincent,
I am feeling sad because I won’t be able to plant my tomato garden this year. I’m too old already.
I know if you were here,  you would happily dig the plot for me, like in the old days.
Love,
Papa

A few days later, he received a letter from his son.
Dear Papa,
Don’t dig up that garden. That’s where the bodies are buried.
Love, Vinnie

At 4 am the next morning, FBI agents and police arrived and dug up the entire area without finding any bodies.
They apologised to the old man and left.

That day, he received another letter from his son:

Dear Papa,
Go ahead and plant the tomatoes now. That’s the best I could do under the circumstances.
Love, Vinnie

Now the moral of this story is that only people that are aware of how a system might behave can fully exploit the system to their advantage. I wonder how we can use this insight to promote better inclusiveness in development? From my everyday work experience I know that in value chains and production systems the poor, weak, small and marginalized are often the least aware of how the bigger system(s) around them work. The powerful, better informed and more successful entrepreneurs often have better information at their disposal. While some of this information could be formal, quite a bit of it is qualitative based on a deeper understanding of how things (might) work.

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