KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

A flowering of approaches to complexity and development?

with 4 comments


We are an important juncture in development at the moment with the Sustainable Development Goals due to be finalized later this year, and with discussion now turning full swing into what needs to happen to make them a reality, including a lot of discussion  around how to make the UN (and the aid and development sector more broadly) “Fit for Purpose”.

A lot of the discussion on the SDGs is taking a typical form looking at intergovernmental monitoring and follow-up mechanisms, institutional arrangements and structures within the UN, financing mechanisms and partnerships. But at the same time there are quite a few groups doing some soul-searching about whether our system of goals and targets, development plans and project timelines and monitoring are really working.

A whole range of initiatives and approaches are emerging that could be loosely grouped under the umbrella of “complexity” i.e. the idea that development is a complex adaptive process and thus top down long-term planning doesn’t really work – instead we need to be more nimble and iterative in how we respond to circumstances and push the system in the right direction rather than developing a detailed master plan for a perfectly designed future.

To understand more about what complexity is and how it applies to development I’d highly recommend this recent blog by Owen Barder which poses a number of important challenges as well as some suggested ways forward for development work based on the idea that we are in fact intervening in a highly complex system.

But how are people putting this into practice?

In fact there are quite a few initiatives that respond to the challenge of complexity in development one way or another, whether or not they explicitly use the “C” word. Here are a few examples:

Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), and approach developed by Matt Andrews at the Center for International Development at Harvard. Building on the PDIA principles a group individuals from a range of organizations including the World Bank, ODI launched the “Doing Development Differently” manifesto.

A number of other organizations have adopted a “human-centred design” approach to innovation in development based on the principles developed by IDEO and outlined in their human centred design toolkit.  This approach, also referred to as design thinking comes in different variations such as Stanford’s dSchool.

Another approach is the Cynefin approach developed by Dave Snowden for knowledge management and decision support. It is not specific to development but is being used (or at least experimented with) in a number of government and development sector projects.

This past week there was a discussion on KM4DEV about applying the principles of agile software development, and the agile manifesto  to international development. There were quite a few replies from people who were already using different variants of this approach in their project management, mainly but not exclusively from ICT for development projects.

The UN and indeed many other development organizations are launching innovation teams, units, lab, networks etc. UNICEF was one of the early movers in this and has already gone to a degree of scale including setting up a global innovation centre and last week launching a global innovation fund. UNICEF and a number of other development partners adopted the UNICEF innovation principles.

Perhaps one of the older interventions in this discussion from the aid sector was Bill Easterly’s critique of the  top down approach to aid, as well as the MDGs outlined in The White Man’s Burden and the follow-up The Tyranny of Experts. The idea here being that we need searchers (i.e. those who set out to find and build on locally applicable solutions) rather than planners (those who bring a toolbox of known “scientific” solutions that are imposed from above).

And there are probably many more I haven’t listed here.

One question you might reasonably ask is how are all these things related?  Which one of these approaches am I supposed to apply in my work, or at least what are the relative strengths and weaknesses of each?

When looking at the increasing number of different approaches we can see they have similar elements – namely a focus on the importance of local context, of designing projects with users/beneficiaries/partners, and of running small experiments and quickly iterating them based on experience on the ground. But they also have differences in emphasis, methodology and even ideology. Some are more strongly grounded in theory, while others are very practical, and none currently has the upper hand in gaining acceptance. While they are often connected to one another and are exchanging ideas, they are also separate initiatives taking their own paths often with strong groups of followers. Sometimes they even struggle to find a common language to talk to one another (as nicely explained in this blog by Duncan Green about a cross-disciplinary meeting on the UNDP’s “Finch Fund”)

But how do we take on complexity in development if there is no unified theory and agreed approach, and no strong body of evidence on the merits of the different approaches?

I’d argue – from the principles underlying complexity, that this diversity of philosophies and approaches is actually a good thing. Since we don’t know the one best way to tackle complexity, and indeed the aid community is only starting to wake up to the need for and potential of complexity based approaches, then it only seems right that we should be using multiple parallel approaches (or experiments) that live in their own contexts.

The fact that there are multiple overlapping and competing threads means that people are starting to take the issue of dealing with complexity seriously and are searching for ways to address it.

What I hope to see in the coming years is an increasing attention to complexity, and with it a further blooming of different approaches and variations, and opinions as each technical discipline, think tank, activist group and organization seeks to put their own spin on it.

So what if these ideas are not entirely consistent and congruent? The principles of complexity thinking call for multiple experiments together with variation and adaptation, and so we should welcome multiple approaches to dealing with complexity that are emerging and evolving. And we can hope that these will continue to evolve and improve and that the stronger more promising ones will succeed while some of the less useful ones will disappear. But while I expect that the number of approaches and initiatives will reduce as this area of thinking matures, I think we shouldn’t expect to get a single unified approach that is widely agreed and universally applied – after all it’s a complex world out there!

Footnote: here is an older blog post I wrote on complexity back in 2011 when I was trying to explain to myself exactly what it is and what it means for development – Who’s afraid of complexity in aid?

Written by Ian Thorpe

May 15, 2015 at 11:49 am

Posted in smartaid

4 Responses

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  1. Ola Ian,

    Indeed a hoist of methods / approaches / tools / principles is being discussed in the main channels on ‘knowledge for development’ and by some development mouth pieces.

    Let me quote Feyerabend: ‘The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes’. Source:

    And perhaps it is also what my mother told me to do when I asked here how to vacuum dust.
    Her answer ‘voor de voet uit’ which is Dutch for literally ‘In front of your feet’ meaning doing all that is necessary to do a good job. To me this does not start with agile or whatever but by checking your own doings / work as individual as well as group.

    Cheers, Jaap

    Jaap Pels

    May 15, 2015 at 3:25 pm

  2. Jaap – I think it’s a human tendency to try to rationalize and organize and theorize what we do. I think the different complexity approaches are on to something in that the top down scientific planning of aid and development doesn’t work as well as it should “in theory” and a more adaptive responsive approach is needed and so people are coming up with (and sometimes upselling) their theories and approaches.
    I’m personally less interested in the different theories about it and more interested to see the variety of approaches people are creating and using to deal with it in practice and what we can learn from them and how we can develop some practical tools to help us each do “what is in front of our feet”

    Ian Thorpe

    May 15, 2015 at 3:49 pm

  3. […] and development and wonder what it means? Here are a couple of blog posts that may help. a) A flowering of approaches to complexity and development? | Ian Thorpe – KM on a dollar a day “A whole range of initiatives and […]

  4. […] We are an important juncture in development at the moment with the Sustainable Development Goals due to be finalized later this year, and with discussion now turning full swing into what needs to h…  […]

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