Experience as the mother of wisdom, or …

.. necessity as the mother of invention. What is best?

Partos is the Dutch association for NGOs working in International Development. Its members work in the field of poverty reduction, humanitarian aid, human rights and sustainable development. Partos offers them a number of useful services and provides a platform for discussion about topics such as the future of international development. The development sector – at least in the Netherlands – is undergoing seismic change. The focus is shifting to the mitigation of mostly man-made disasters instead of human and economic development. All sorts of wicked problems start staring us in the face. Perhaps the ancient poets were right about the human race following a downward trail from a mythical golden age to the current iron age, during which humans live an existence of toil and misery and where “there will be no help against evil.” Well, it would seem Partos – its name suggests Hellenic ancestry, or was that Paris – still lives in the age of heroes and invites us all to share our best ideas on how we can collaborate better for innovation and beneficial change. You can find my contribution – in Dutch – by clicking here. The English translation is below.

What options to enhance innovation?       Innovation in international development or elsewhere is the possible result of a process of learning. This requires that we recognize the need for learning. This follows logically from the acknowledgment of past failures. Innovation is also a process of change or transformation. This demands a capacity for change. Transformative change in development co-operation requires the application of systems tools and methods. Not so much to replace earlier approaches, such as technology transfer and capacity building, but by way of foundational complement. Innovation is not easy: it must be learned. We must admit we do not know how it should be done, simply because we never learned it. Yet the knowledge has been around for half a century. We must start to learn how to apply methods and approaches that have been developed in the past. For starters, allow me to suggest a few recent and not so recent references from the worlds of complexity, systems thinking, and evaluation, respectively:
• Aid on the edge of chaos (Ramalingam, 2013)
• The systems approach (Churchman, 1968, 1971, 1979). From the same school: Reflexive monitoring in action (Van Mierlo, 2010), Wicked Solutions (Williams, 2014)
• Developmental evaluation (Patton, 2011), which is mostly about the application of the above in the field of evaluation.

What options for collaboration?        What we need are mostly application-oriented research- and learning programmes, both in the Netherlands and in the South. Let complexity thinking and systems thinking work their magic (although magic it isn’t, it’s much more like common sense). There is hardly a need for more theorizing. The amount of existing theory far exceeds anything a single human being – or even a sizeable group of people – can ever hope to absorb. Moreover, the existing theory seems to be adequate. The main problem is one of selection, diffusion, and learning how to apply. We should not get obsessed with ICT and big data. That’s simply ignoring the fact that any design (of a project, programme, policy, business) is an ultimate particular (ref. Harold Nelson, The Design Way). We are talking here about direct enhancement of effectiveness.

What are the key themes?       Systems thinking has developed generic approaches to address complexity wherever it occurs, irrespective of any domain or theme. The soft systems field evolved to address complexity in situations where humans play a key role. The systems approach was designed to address so-called wicked problems, i.e. problems that refuse to go away, no matter how hard we try. If we ignore these tools and methods, we do so at our peril. Systems thinking can and must be applied to all themes and subjects at all levels. This may sound like hocus-pocus or putting all one’s eggs in one basket, but we should not forget that systems thinking comes quite naturally to most humans (except “linear” managers, bureaucrats, and techno-believers). Churchman formulated it thus (a long time ago): ‘The public always knows more than any expert. The problem of the systems approach is to learn what “everybody” knows.’ As to themes: my personal preferences are: agricultural and rural development in combination with (social) entrepreneurship.

What should Partos do?        Partos ought to inform her members – and the public at large – about the conditions for effective innovation policy and promotion as described above. Probably Partos will need a bit of convincing or prodding (see P.S. below) before it can imagine itself doing so. Secondly, it should develop and support a network for people who are active in both the theory and practice of improving the performance of innovation. Thirdly, it should lobby wherever it can to muster support for more structured forms of innovation promotion in development co-operation.

But most of all ….         we should learn from the past, and in two ways mainly: (1) we should learn from our past failures and successes; and (2) we should learn about “old” systems methods that have been around for half a century or so. I am speaking here especially about the soft systems field that came into being after it was realized (in the early sixties) that some problems had characteristics that made them totally unsuitable to technocratic, bureaucratic, top-down approaches. People like Rittel, Churchman, Ackoff, Checkland, and Ulrich came up with solutions that until now have been mostly ignored by the development community. This is a good time to set that right.

Titles of the other contributions:         (1) versatility and future-proof by innovation; (2) collaboration and reciprocity; (3) collaborating for a ‘common goal’; (4) global connection; (5) together; (6) campaigns and knowledge sharing; (7) collaboration; (8) collaboration in equality for fighting common, global problems; (9) open & lean; (10) seeking each other out; (11) connecting innovator; and (12) digital.

P.S.     Last July I wrote a piece on “The innovative power of values in systemic evaluation” for that purpose. It explains in considerable detail how innovation by means of the systems approach or similar methods works. According to some it is a bit theoretical, but some other people that I consider to be highly knowledgeable like it a great deal.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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