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Dancing with complex systems

21st October 2019

By Dr Simon Batchelor

In a previous blog I noted that Ockwell et al had developed the paper TRANSFORMING ACCESS TO CLEAN TECHNOLOGY: LEARNING FROM LIGHTING AFRICA,, and that this was pointing the MECS programme to systems thinking, and to ensure that we didn’t just take a economic and technical view, but that we included the dimensions of political economy, socio-cultural focus, and innovation systems.  Indeed I felt that that was exactly how MECS had been designed which is why we have work streams on the socio-cultural dimensions as well innovation systems (which was the workstream that produced the paper. 

I think David and colleagues were right to draw attention to the political economy.  Having just concluded a project inclusive of a Political Economic Analysis of Agro-industries and Energy, led by Prof Yacob Mulugetta, and including Andrew Barnet and the Policy Practice, I am fully invested in the use of the PEA approach.  I think originally we didn’t have a workstream on PEA, although a draft working paper has been created and should be available soon, and we have now added a PEA workstream.

However, in this post I wanted to take us even further into the complexities of systems approaches, particularly those complex systems that include socio-cultural factors, political economy, innovations systems, economics and rapid technological change.  We need to move away from the idea that we can apply a fix to the problem, or even a fix to the complex system.  A friend introduced me to the phrase “Dancing with complex systems” and it immediately caught my interest.  It seems to have been first coined by Dr. Donella H. Meadows, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and Environment and a MacArthur Fellow, who is said to be one of the most influential environmental thinkers of the twentieth century.

In the blog post Dancing with systems, she notes that “self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable…… We can’t impose our will upon a system. “   She then goes on to list how we can influence systems, starting with “Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves.”  She goes on to list quite a few ways of approaching systems, many of which I hope we can capture within the MECS programme.  We aspire to change the landscape of cooking and energy access, and we will need to bend and change with new opportunities and new insights.  Her call to dance with complex systems resonates with me, because its not about control per se, but about influence and contribution.

I am an avid fan of the Outcome Mapping work of IDRC, and I think a core contribution of theirs is that we in development ‘contribute’ to outcomes.  , not claim attribution.  This is a particular challenge for MECS where it wants to change the narrative.  We are contributing to the narrative change, but we will need to be careful about how much change we attribute to our work.  What we will be able to say its that we contributed to the change.  We cant impose our will on the complex system – but we can join in the dance, and maybe even change the tempo or suggest a change in music.