Friday, 29 October 2010

What development policy can learn from evolution

Owen Barder wrote an excellent blog (with a great presentation) on what development policy can learn from evolution.

Owen argues that development problems are wicked problems. The complex systems with complex solutions are created through evolutionary principles. Crucial to this is the use of feedback loops that tell us if a solution works or not, so we can change it. The main conclusion is that as would-be change-makers, we should not try to design a better world: we should concentrate on building better feedback loops.

I would like to link it to the existing concepts on Complexity by Dave Snowden (see Not all development problems are ‘wicked’ problems (or Complex problems in Snowden’s Cynefin Mode), some are simple (with tested solutions) or complicated (with solutions that ‘only’ require smart planning or design). For complex problems linear planning indeed does not work, and an evolutionary, incremental, experimental approach can apply. But let’s not fool ourselves. Development is not a business of developing a new nozzle, in which circumstances are hardly changing, with short feedback loops. I agree a lot on getting the feedback loops better – social accountability is crucial in better development designs. However, it is not only the feedback loops that may be blocking. Development deals with sticky institutions, the ‘rules of the game’. More and informative feedback loops can help to bring out the obstructive institutions, but will not be the only thing needed.

Often wicked problems need multi-stakeholder, multi-level, multi-scale approaches in which social learning between people and organisations involved need to collaborate. Issues such as power also come into play.

It would be interesting to see how we can use the ideas from Owen in our work at THP: creating better feedback loops about our work, and helping communities to give more feedback to government about the services they need or use.

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