Commemorating ​​Jorg Meyer-Stamer


Ten years ago on the 1st of May 2009, I called Jorg to tell him that I had just e-mailed my PhD thesis to the printers. The man who answered the call told me that Jorg had passed away. I can still remember my shock and confusion.

For many people, Jorg was a very clever but also strange person (we received hundreds of messages of condolence that expressed this). He became a close friend of mine. We trusted and admired each other. He probably thought that I was the weird one. He stretched my thinking. He challenged me to think things through, to use curiosity to explore ideas from many different angles. He sometimes used irony to challenge my thinking. Out of exasperation he occasionally embarrassed me, sometimes even in front of an audience. However, most of the time he was patiently coaching me, guiding me, asking questions, drawing pictures, dragging me along with him. We spent days together whenever we could and when apart we would Skype almost daily. I am still grateful that he bounced so many ideas off me. He encouraged me to trust my instinct and to use my interest in many different knowledge domains to enrich discussions and introduce different perspectives. He was a great role model.

I can remember how he would use my confused thinking to quickly write a working paper. More than once I thought my clumsiness was his gain, but then I also benefitted from his creations.

Once, we had a meeting with a high-ranking government official. This official asked lots of questions and explained to Jorg the many conundrums the government faced. After the meeting, I took Jorg to the airport, less than an hour away. On the way he asked some questions and asked me to explain some of the doubts expressed during the meeting. I dropped him off and returned to the office. About two hours later I received an email from Jorg with a whole article that he had written for the government official. In that article, he patiently unpacked many of the issues that he sensed we were struggling with.

This was not the only time that he would develop issues that we were discussing and creating amazing text from it. Jorg was a pioneer in many ways. I recall the day he told me that we were going to record a podcast. He invested in a proper recorder and nagged me for months that we record the first episode. I objected to being recorded, being mindful of my repetitive grammar mistakes and the difficulty I had with pronouncing “r’s”. But Jorg would have nothing of my futile attempts at avoiding this. In the end, we not only recorded one show but a whole series of more than 65 podcast episodes, called the LEDCast. Today, recording a podcast is easy. Editing is very easy. There are many publishers of audio shows. Listening to podcasts are also easy, with most smartphones offering clever apps to manage subscriptions. Back in 2007-2009, we had to use several different applications to level the sound, compress, add meta tags, edit, and convert the wave files to MP3. Then we had to get the files distributed. Nowadays, this is all done in one application.

Even between interviews with stakeholders, Jorg felt it was important to immediately record a podcast because something we heard had triggered an idea

The LEDCast was very popular, despite our doubts. Due to the high compression required to download a podcast over a dial-up or DSL line, the audio sounded very hollow and metallic. Yet some practitioners told us to our horror that they played the podcasts during training events or during town hall meetings! Once a stranger at a conference told me that I sounded much better in real life! Looking back I am grateful that Jorg did not give up on me.

Back in 2011, we had already had several hundred thousand downloads of our total 72 episodes. Every time I heard the jingle of the LEDCast I was filled with sadness and I stopped creating any further shows. To me, the LEDCast was a legacy of Jorg and I wanted to keep it together and whole. I must add that we still have between 100 to 2500 downloads every month of the LEDCast. Many of the episodes are still relevant. I also co-produced with Marcus Jenal a new series called Systemic Insight, available on Apple Store and Google Play.

Another memory that I have of Jorg was his curiosity about blogging. Although he registered a blog site, he never wrote a blog post on his own site. He foresaw that blogging would change the way knowledge is assimilated, processes and shared within communities. I remember that he thought I was crazy when I started blogging. I also recall how much he admired the early blogs by Dani Rodrick and some other early pioneers. Jorg was a prolific writer, I can only imagine what great content he would have created if only he had started.

The last ten years have been amazing for me. Jorg left me with many unfinished ideas, texts and a legacy of knowledge. By the time of his passing, I was already firmly part of the Mesopartner company. Most of the many ideas, plans, and concepts that we had started with or put on hold for after my PhD submission are still alive, or have been turned into content. Jorg and I had a folder structure called “seeds” wherein we had sub-folders for ideas for papers, tools, concepts and training formats. I still use this structure today. Many of the seeds have grown into successful products, concepts or publications. Many new seeds are under development, often in collaboration with others.

Before his illness, Jorg was seriously pondering how we (as Mesopartner) could move closer to academia and the research community. Our work in the field used many concepts and frameworks developed by scholars in a pragmatic way, and we wanted to create a feedback loop. After Jorg’s passing we established the Jorg Meyer-Stamer scholarship to actively promote collaboration between students and a network of academics that Jorg had close ties to. I became a member of the faculty at several universities, and so did Ulrich and Frank. We also took on more assignments that were of a more research nature, and several journal articles followed. The tone and style of our Annual Reflection has also changed to being more conceptual and rigorous. We have several concurrent research themes in Mesopartner where we are actively working with researchers, scholars and clients to develop new ideas, frameworks and instruments. Since Marcus Jenal joined Mesopartner we have also been working in a collaborative way on applying complexity and evolutionary thinking to economic development in a theme that we call Systemic Insight.

Some other habits and values of Jorg rubbed off on me. For instance, Jorg always stressed the importance of spending no more than 60% of my working time on paid work, with about 30% dedicated to research, development and concept refinement, leaving the remaining 10% for admin, networking and other interests. Jorg always emphasized that our value is not created only in how we execute the commissions we receive from clients (that 60% block), but that our highest value add comes from the 30% where we connect ideas, think of better ways of explaining concepts, where we give our creativity and curiosity some freedom. He also argued that the time spent on administration should be planned and taken seriously, as our clients not only learn from our content, papers and innovative training formats, but they also learn from how we organise our affairs and manage our business.

I have in the meantime been very fortunate to have clients pay me to do research and development, which means that in some weeks or months I get to spend almost 80% of my time on developing new concepts, text and little knowledge modules that can be used in many different ways. That is my lame excuse for not blogging more often….

There are many of these kinds of photos around. Here we are at the back of a training room working on the next session while the participants are doing groupwork

I cannot help it, but I often think of Jorg. I miss him. But mostly I am inspired by him. I wish more of my friends and close collaborators could have known him. Perhaps they do know him indirectly because I still use so many of his ideas. Or I talk about him. I know that his legacy lives on as we innovate, solve problems, formulate new concepts. I believe that his legacy also demands from us to be critical of ourselves, our work, the development industry – and that we sometimes have to take on sacred cows and ideology that often creeps into development work.

Jorg loved all kinds of energizers during training events. I tried my best to avoid these by taking photos, or pretending to prepare the next session.

Perhaps most importantly, Jorg was never afraid to put his ideas out there and to have them taken apart or rejected. He was not afraid of trying new ideas, of formulating a new concept, or challenging an established idea.

Jorg talking to a group of South Africans on a tour to Germany during 2008. Here we are at the Landschaftspark, one of Jorg’s favorite industrial heritage sites.

And that brings me to my final thought. How do I fare in sharing what I am learning with those close to me? How transparent am I with the ideas I am developing, the seeds I am nurturing? Not that I am comparing myself to the genius of Jorg, this man was like a living library and creator. Jorg was driven to develop his ideas and to find better ways to share them. I often get so busy with whatever is under my cursor that I forget to share.

I know I should write blog posts more often. I know that the true power of blogging is not in writing completed thoughts, but in sharing half-baked ideas and developing them further with friends, collaborators and the curious (this is the refrain of another person I admire, Harold Jarche). I cannot help buy feel overwhelmed with the amazing stuff that is generated by people that I admire. Do I add to the all the content that we are all drowning in already?

I can think of many areas where I can still make improvements. Perhaps it is time to record some new LEDCast episodes. Perhaps I can call it the 2019 series. Any ideas for a podcast, or any volunteers to be interviewed would be welcomed.

Maybe I should arrange more training events. Or try something new. Try something crazy, like the LEDCast idea was back in 2007. Like finish the handful of online training courses I have been working on.

Today, I feel inspired to try harder and more often to share and develop my ideas out in the open. When I look back, it is often the small naive ideas from more than ten years ago that laid strong foundations later. So I remind myself that excellence is not about getting the big things right, it is about the many small things we try to improve who we are, what we do, and how we serve those around us.

Please share some of your memories, insights or even photos of your encounters with Jorg. What of your learning inspired by Jorg have you applied in your work? Can you remember any great insights that you gained during a LED tour to Germany, a training event or during fieldwork?

Don’t be shy to make mistakes in a public forum! Send your half-baked ideas to me! If not via the comment section, then email it to me.

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.

One thought on “Commemorating ​​Jorg Meyer-Stamer”

  1. I also remember Jorg as a “strange” person, not in a scary way but rather more in his “uniqueness”! He stood out in the crowd, both physically and then also with his contributions to discussions which was always way ahead of my own thinking. And his sense of humor which, coming from him, made it all the more funny (short video clips which almost killed me, including —-“What are you sinking about?”
    Was shocked when I hear he had passed on:-(
    p.s. retiring end 2019 and then will look for new pastures:-)

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