Conversations for change in the midst of complexity
We gathered in a circle in the beautiful central space at the Co-lab, the setting. The first invitation is to arrive and ground into the silence. Taking a minute to notice how you are, where are you.
We moved from sharing the silence to engaging in a quick fun round revealing the untold stories of ourselves, moving away from standard presentation to discover through improvisation new qualities of us.
The room was incredibly diverse, from government officials, social entrepreneurs, NGO workers, artists, activists, students…
Looking towards this quote from M. Wheatley that we just put up on the wall “All change, even very large and powerful change, begins when a few people start talking with one another about something they care about”, the first call opened the space to share our deep questions, our diverse knowledge. We allowed the colourful diversity of experience guide us through today’s enquiry.
The question that brought us together, our common ground “How does change happen? How do we create projects and organizations that can deeply transform society?” We began building a collective narrative rooted in each other’s views and enquiries.
We shared the sense that something on the way we think is changing, a paradigm is shifting and a way of doing is coming to an end. We explored what is been beautifully said by many. The “entrenched ideas and values, among them the view of the universe as a mechanical system composed of elementary building blocks, the view of the human body as a machine, the view of life in society as a competitive struggle for existence, the belief in unlimited material progress to be achieved through economic and technological growth, and-last, but not least-the belief that a society in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male is one that follows a basic law of nature. All of these assumptions have been fatefully challenged by recent events. And, indeed, a radical revision of them is now occurring”. (F. Capra, The Web of life, 1996)
We shared how these mental models once born as the western scientific paradigm have shaped the way we create our systems today such as the economy, education, health, organizations, development… Linear thinking, the tendency to break apart reality to be able to understand it, the universal and quantifiable quality of knowledge and truth, this set of beliefs have visible applications amongst the mentioned disciplines.
We analysed how this beliefs manifest on our realities. For example the deepening tendency for specialization in our societies, the smokescreen for greater breaking apart the whole. Rampant specialization is an attempt to better understand the growing complexity using the old glasses and methods that are not fit for purpose today. Specialization on health for example, takes us away from understanding the complex interactions of the human body and mind, albeit understanding better the symptom but blindly overseeing the roots causes of the problem.
Reducing problems to symptoms, to its simplistic parts takes us away from understanding that education, nutrition, health, culture, politics, environment, are deeply interconnected issues that cannot be understood in isolation. Thus, we are not being able to truly respond and transform our realities.
This worldview has shaped the way we create our organizations, manage our projects and expect results through simplistic causal narratives. A metaphor that fits perfect is the concept of Silver Bullets.
Some of the Silver Bullets we’ve shoot in development work for example, had an impact on the spread of malaria today. On the 60´s the DDT Silver Bullet (insecticide) to end Malaria have influenced the mosquito mutations and resistance which has kept malaria as great cause of death in many countries. Simple strategies such as this one, based on eradication and control of the event, focus on the symptom that we obverse, has no account of the complex evolutionary dynamics of the system in which it manifests. They do not contemplate, hence account for the patterns, structures, beliefs and mental models that have create the symptom in the first place.
Once stated our common ground and understood collectively some of the root causes as to why “we are winning some battles but losing the war”, we smoothly emerged from problem solving mentality to enquiring about the theories, beliefs, methodologies which will help us addressing the complexity of our world.
We explored the space for learning offered by nature as a contrast to mechanistic theory. We looked at how complex living systems work.
This paradigm of thought talks about the importance of looking at the relations amongst issues. How they affect each other through the interaction and how that affects the nature of the whole system, creating emerging properties unique to the whole and so many times unpredictable. This frame focuses on understanding the co-evolving dynamics happening within the system. It makes us question, what is this influencing? What is this affected by? What is emerging new from this interaction? How can I better influence? It invites us to contextualise the knowledge and avoid the tendency to extrapolate magic pills from one place to another. It invites us to think about changing from silver bullets to multiple micro strategies.
Following from our previous example on Malaria, an integral systemic approach will zoom out to look at the social, cultural, economic, geographical, political dimensions that can be affecting the appearance of malaria. A case study in Kenya realised that several elements affected the prevalence of malaria; the predominance of rice paddies, a resistance from the farmers against a government law on irrigation which led to flooding, and how cattle can serve as tasty first bytes for mosquitos.
This systemic analysis led to designing a multi strategy intervention: controlling flooding through a better way of organising amongst farmers, alternating dry crops, introducing cattle, planting natural mosquito repellents, and larves in the fields of rice that eat the mosquito. Doing so they not only reduced the cases of malaria to an unprecedented minimum but increased their nutrition, hence their health which also affects mortality due to malaria.
We glimpsed in our short time together what we explored in more depth during the 8th &9th of April. The workshop Ways of Doing Development Differently (WDDD).
During our WDDD workshop we looked into other principles that together with complex and systems thinking help us on our quest towards innovative, impactful ways of working. Collaboration and locally led projects, how do we open spaces for authentic participation and co-creation. Create a culture for innovation and learning. To intervene in ever changing realities we need to create the culture and structures to do so and bring the methodologies for adaptive, creative project management.
And last but most importantly, embrace and foster the skills, qualities and values to become the systemic, adaptive, collaborative leaders that the world needs. Leaders that stood down from Hero´s to serve the common good as hosts.
Coming up in a following blog, we will unfold how we: university members, social entrepreneurs and NGO´s workers present in the workshop, explored Ways of Doing Development Differently.