A year since my world flipped

Tomorrow is the 1st of May. The significance of this date is two-fold. Firstly, it is the day that I completed my PhD-Thesis 12 months ago. One year ago I hit ‘SAVE’ the last time on my thesis document. A 5 to 6 year long (depending on whether  you ask me or my wife) project came to an end, leaving me with evenings, weekends and holidays to spend (almost) any way I want. On many occasions I thought that I would not be able to finish that mammoth project.

Secondly, my best friend, mentor and business partner, Jorg Meyer-Stamer, passed away. Not only did his sudden departure leave me without a special friendship, Jorg also left me with a huge list of ideas, schemes, concepts, powerpoint slides and unfinished papers. It took me months just to figure out which ideas I could possibly pursue without his energy, insight and inquisitiveness (and pushing). Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful for his legacy, but I have on more than one occasion caught myself thinking that he left me with too much raw material. I once or twice caught myself for blaming Jorg for not being here. Perhaps I simply miss arguing with Jorg about things that we both knew we could not change or influence, like the time when we were debating how local government has hijacked and almost completely stifled local economic development in South Africa. But more about that argument in another post.

What are some of the open questions that I am working on thanks to my late friend Jorg?

  • How can we get business leaders to take the lead in local economic development activities in a market orientated, trust building and positive externality creating way?
  • How can we get more people to understand markets, market failures and other forms of transactions in a non-theoretical but significant way?
  • How can we create a development practice field around innovation systems similar to the movement that now exists around value chain promotion? The follow-up to this is “how do we get more private sector development experts involved in this topic that is now dominated by academics and policy makers?”
  • How can we get people to shift their attention from micro-projects in LED towards initiatives and incremental improvement of territories?

Jorg always asked me the following questions:

  • How can we make this topic easier to understand without making it less sophisticated?
  • What happens when we combine insights from another academic or research discipline with development practice?
  • How do we take these ideas, practices and tools to scale so that more people can use it? You may not be aware of this, but Jorg was one of the first people to take a tool such as Porters 5 forces (designed to develop the strategy of a single firm) and develop it further into a workshop format that could be applied to many homogeneous firms simultaneously.
  • How can we make this practical and fun?
  • How can we knock our participants, colleagues, peers and partners socks of in our next workshop or event?

In this last year I have also managed to leave some pet topics behind, and I find that I am almost exclusively now focusing on private sector development, innovation systems promotion and value chains. I am spending a lot of time developing tools around the diagnosis of innovation systems, and this automatically led me to work almost exclusively in advanced sectors (it just happened naturally).

And you know what? The problems here in the advanced sector are the same than those we face in rural development, or agriculture. The target group now simply wear ties and have more zeros in their calculations. The advanced sectors also have low trust, also suffer from poor information flows (even if there is more information flowing), they also lack public goods (many public goods become privatised) and are also confronted by bullies and plagued by market failures. The big difference is that these people are overlooked by development practitioners and policy makers, and they have never heard of development facilitators or our ideas and facilitation methods.

Now isn’t that a nice problem to solve? Let me know if you want to join me on this journey.

While you ponder that. What challenges did Jorg leave you with?

  • What questions are you working on?
  • On which path are you now searching for new answers (and hopefully some new questions as well)?
  • This one is aimed at Colin 😉    Which answers have you found that need some good questions in order to make sense?

I challenge you to share your thoughts in public. Jorg always shared his learning, and he always took all of us along on his journeys. Let us celebrate his legacy by sharing our ideas, or at least our progress down the path.

Jorg and Shawn recording a LEDCast episode
Landschaftspark in Duisburg

Published by

Shawn Cunningham

I am passionate about how organisations and institutions change in developing and transitioning countries. I essentially work between organisations, communities, industries and experts.

0 thoughts on “A year since my world flipped”

  1. Dear Shawn

    Thank you very much for sharing this touching experience! I can imagine that it was a difficult time for you.

    Since I started following you very recently, I am really a fan of your approach to effectively combine the theory with the practice. I am now involved in the practice but am very interested to get some more inputs on the theoretical side, especially on the whole topic on innovations and how to put it into use in development.

    Can you share any interesting articles that lay out the theoretic basis for your work in innovation? I would love to get some more insights!


  2. Dear Shawn,
    I appreciate that you share how much you still miss our great friend and mesopartner Jörg in your blog. Especially, I enjoyed when you recall some of the guiding questions Jörg frequently asked. This helps us to recall his intellectual sprit and maintain us flexible to innovate in private sector development.
    What questions I am working on?
    Currently, I working on several niche topics related to Local Economic Development (LED) and Value Chain promotion. First, I am working looking with the German Metrology Institute (PTB) how to create a productive interaction between different value chains and the world of standards and quality infrastructure. The outcome is methodology called CALIDENA which we presently apply in the Andean countries. Second, I am helping to introduce an economic perspective in humanitarian emergency relief using and adapting LED tools in support activities before, during and after natural disasters. Our client is the NGO World Vision and we developed for them a methodology called REDLens. Third, with colleagues from Colombia and Uruguay we are looking how to make that so called megaprojects have positive impacts for the local communities where they are located.
    In all cases I try to overcome the self-contemplation of LED practice and the fragmentation of development work in general. It’s also good fun to work together with folks with totally different backgrounds and mindsets.
    All this work is based on concepts and tools I heritage from Jörg and adapt now to new fields. What I most enjoy is that these activities require a lot of lateral thinking and change for all the people involved including ourselves.
    On which path I am now searching for new answers?
    Inspiring for me is the increasing debate about “good living”. I refer her to the new economic literature on happiness (beyond monetary maximization) and/ or what the Ecuadorians and Bolivians mention in their new constitutions as “sumac kawsay” an alternative goal of life based in the values of indigenous cultures. As I became recently father of a little girl, these questions also affecting my own lifestyle choosing or combing creatively family and professional life.
    For me it is a very healthy exercise to ask myself from time to time, if I contribute to something meaningful? Do I focus my energies in the right direction? Is there other way to contribute to more happiness and well being around my and in the whole world?

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