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MECS and Jigsaws

9th May 2022

By Dr. Simon Batchelor (Gamos Ltd., Loughborough University) and Dr. Richard Sieff (Independent Research Consultant, MECS).

As a MECS team we are beginning to use the language of jigsaws, to shorthand the complexity of how a country transitions from polluting fuels to clean fuels at scale.  In this blog we try to describe why we are using the language and imagery of ‘jigsaws’.  

Since our start as a programme we have had a Theory of Change (ToC) for both the programme and for individual country transitions.  However, the language of ToC implies a sort of linear progression – do this, then this, then this will occur.  Indeed, our programme is based on a logical framework, which is a reduced ToC, and presents progress as very linear – use these inputs to create these outputs, and these outcomes should occur. 

However, in our experience life rarely works in a linear way.  You start focusing on one thing, and suddenly another requires attention.  In any complex system, one component, or indeed the absence of one component, can prevent the complex system reaching its ‘whole’, where the ‘whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ (Aristotle). We therefore need all components to be there and playing their part. 

This becomes challenging to describe particularly when we consider how a complex system transforms into a variant of itself, i.e. how does a society reliant on polluting cooking fuels transform into a society reliant on modern energy cooking?

To try to discuss this and describe the elements necessary for the ‘whole’ we picked up on the idea that the MECS country level ‘complex system’ can be seen as a jigsaw of pieces, where all the pieces need to be in place to enable scaled uptake.

In this PowerPoint, Richard attempted to explain this idea in Nepal to key stakeholders, and it seems it was well received.

So how did we land on this ‘jigsaw’ language and imagery?  

When we created our country level ToC we identified three ‘core areas’, which have since come to form the basis of the jigsaw framework.  For any transformation there will need to be a match between the enabling environment, the supply chain and the consumer needs.  Within each of these three areas it’s possible to identify a number of  constituent ‘elements’.  We considered these elements as research questions to be answered (see the PowerPoint for Nepal slides 4, 5 and 6) and a sort of check list we needed to keep in view to ensure that we were not focused on one element of the system and neglecting another.   For instance, a new method for carbon credits may be of limited use if there is no supply chain of suitable appliance in the country, or there is a very large import tax.

We reduced each question to an icon, so we could further shorthand our checklist, and at the team workshop in November we tried to engage more deeply with the lists to see if we were missing anything of importance, and to lay the foundation for a series of assessments of each of our priority countries against the lists.  In order to prompt participation and engagement with the icons, we turned the page into a literal jigsaw, broke it up and asked groups to assemble it.   

This worked well as a workshop exercise, getting people to engage with the jigsaws, but it also affected our language.  The beauty of a jigsaw is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be assembled in a linear way.  People have different techniques to assembling a jigsaw – some lay out all the pieces face up, some find the corner piece, other put the side edges in piles.  Indeed in the groups it was interesting to see how different people worked – one group had a riotous time laughing out loud discussing each piece, while others were head down, each person studiously trying to assemble a small cluster.  Clusters of pieces that did fit together were put to one side and later brought together, some groups laid the edges and built towards the centre.

Bringing the (physical workshop) jigsaw together reinforced for us how in each of our priority countries we are seeking to assemble the jigsaw.  We are engaging with government on the enabling environment, with donors on funding models, with the private sector on the supply chain, with utilities on dovetailing with their plans, and with consumers on awareness creation.  We realised we don’t start in the same place every country.  Uganda for instance has made some amazing enabling environment moves in the last 3 years with a ‘cooking tariff’, but has limited supply chain.  Tanzania has considerable supply chain but has yet to create the better enabling environment.  We also realised that perhaps we have some corner (i.e. more essential) pieces – we always ensure that modern energy cooking devices fit the local cuisine and are taste acceptable (see the work on cooking diaries and ecookbooks).  We nearly always ensure that the cost comparison of fuels for the household is reasonable.  We hold stakeholder meetings to ensure our work is ‘landed’ in the country. 

So we began to talk among ourselves about the ‘jigsaw’ for each country – how is the jigsaw, which pieces are missing, what clustered connections do we have, what should we be looking to connect.  (and we also realised that in a conceptual jigsaw we could have more than 4 corner pieces).  So we increasingly talk about the jigsaw, and even assign people to keep an eye on the jigsaw for that country to help develop roadmaps to scale up.   It’s a shorthand language, but it avoids the linearity of ToC.

What prompts this blog? – If we are going to start using this language with our external partners, then we hope this provides a hyperlink we can point them to when they look quizzical or voice confusion.


Featured image credit: S. Batchelor, Gamos Ltd., Loughborough University, 2022.