Systemic Insight as a guided process of discovery

The first week of July is traditionally the week of the Mesopartner Summer Academy. This year, the 11th Summer Academy took place in Berlin – the 4th in the German capital. Systemic Insight was again a central pillar of this year’s Academy. We introduced it in a whole day session as a process of discovery in situations where solutions are not obvious.

systemic insight overview

A process guided by Systemic Insight enables organisations and networks of stakeholders to search for solutions to improve the performance of complex systems or emergent networks. This instrument draws on cognitive science and complexity thinking as well as experiences in the design of participatory social and economic change initiatives such as social labs or cluster platforms. At the same time, Systemic Insight was designed to allow stakeholders to work within complex issues without having to know the theories and understand abstract complexity thinking.

Systemic Insight is an iterative process where stakeholders explore the boundaries and constraints of a system in which the possibilities or solutions are unknown or uncertain. The format of collaboration, be it a multi-stakeholder platform or forum or purely bilateral interaction with the involved actors, is thereby not fixed but depends on the circumstance and can change over time. A high level of self-selection of participants into the process is encouraged. Self-selection means that local actors take ownership of the process by actively opting in, contributing to, investing in, and incorporating change in their own operations based on their interest to solve a problem or their identification with an issue.

In Systemic Insight meso level organisations are seen as central actors of change. Systemic Insight helps them to become more effective in managing change and resilient while assisting firms and networks to adapt to change in the environment. It shifts the focus of actors from responding to change towards actively testing ways to anticipate and actively create change.

The process enables stakeholders to challenge their own assumptions, discover and better understand the system and make sense of the constraints and possible opportunities. It guides them to intervene through portfolios of quick win activities or safe-to-fail experiments. Continuous learning and adjustment ensures an iterative and adaptive approach that is appropriate to tackle complex issues. In order to put learning and adjustment in the centre of the change initiative, monitoring and management functions need to be integrated to allow for decision making that is based on facts and current realities and needs.

As part of the Mesopartner research theme on complexity in development, we will continue to apply and further develop this approach. We seek to work with projects that are stuck and need a fresh approach to infuse the situation with discovery and innovative ideas.

Economic development is about introducing options, not bringing solutions

In our work in economic development, we find ourselves often in situations where we don’t know what interventions will work and how exactly a good outcome of these interventions could look like. Even the probabilities of certain things happening is unknown, and people may have divergent views on what must be done and why. Under conditions of such uncertainty, a more exploratory approach is called for to start with, where development programmes and practitioners see their role as introducing options and variety into a given context. Such an approach encourages development actors to help stakeholders explore options beyond what seems to be optimal or silver bullets from the donor’s perspective.

To give direction to such a process and enable development actors to make a judgment on whether the change that is observed is positive, we suggest agreeing on a strategic intent rather than a fixed goal or target. After an exploratory phase, we can scale up interventions and solutions that were found to work in a consistent way, spending more resources on them to see wider spread change. A move-out phase could subsequently focus on capitalization and communication with the intent to capture learning and communicate achievements.

We have recently published a journal article where we reflect on our recent thinking and experience of applying complexity thinking to the economic development field. The article was published in the IDS Bulletin (Vol 46.3) and is titled “Explore, Scale Up, Move Out: Three Phases to Managing Change under Conditions of Uncertainty”. A pre-peer reviewed version of the article can be found here.

Here is the official abstract:
Private sector development is dominated by the use of ‘good practice’ solutions, driven by a desire of the development donors to control the outcome of development initiatives – with limited success. Bottom-up participatory approaches are more appropriate to find solutions for the complex challenge of market and private sector development. Theory-based approaches are used to design and deliver solutions to economic development challenges. We argue that these approaches have limited potential to manage interventions that target systemic change in complex contexts. On the other hand, alternative approaches based on emergence have some essential shortcomings from the perspective of the international development system. Based on our own working experience, we propose a pragmatic way forward that aims to build on the strengths of emergence-based approaches in complex contexts but is designed to work in the current development environment.

This article is based on our experience in working in economic development and our study of complex systems sciences and complexity thinking. Until now, our work has predominantly focused on helping existing projects based in developing countries when they are stuck, or when they realize that their original planned approach is not yielding the desired results. In a sense, this is easier than trying to set up a completely new project that is following all principles and heuristics of emergent approaches. Thus, we need to take an experimental approach to this as well. We need to find a donor that is ready to test these ideas and can also absorb some failure before we have come to a fine-tuned approach that works. Management and steering arrangements have to be developed and tested. The relationship between donor and implementer has to shift significantly from one based on top-down control to one that is marked with the motivation to achieve change together.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts, concerns and experience of introducing options in order to increase variety in economic development.

Shawn and Marcus