Categories
Complexity and Evolutionary Thinking From the field Process and Change Facilitation Sustainable Economic Development

The benefits of being aware of how a system works

For those that have participated in any of the training events that I have contributed to in the last years would hopefully recall my favorite energizer called the Systems Game. In this game we simulate a complex system, with all the participants moving around trying to position themselves between two targets in the group, without the targets being aware who is chasing them. Things usually start of neat and tidy, but soon chaos breaks out.  After the game we reflect on the system and how to better understand its behavior, and also how to figure out how to stimulate change of behavior in the system.

The pictures below were taken in the last Mesopartner International Summer Academy on Economic Development.

The participants secretly determine who they will follow
The participants tries to become system aware – who is following me?

One of the first insights is that our job as practitioners is not to try and fix the system, nor to solve a problem on behalf of the system. Our first job is to try and get the system to become more aware of its own behaviors, issues and dilemmas. Very often this will allow us to use some of the existing relationships, routines and networks of the system to improve the performance or to address some issues in the system.

I received the following little e-mail story recently that actually shows how actors that are aware of the system can easier manipulate the system to achieve certain outcomes. From a few google searches I could not determine the source of the story, except to see that its been featured in many fora. Therefere if you know the original source then please let me know so that I can give proper credit.

Here is the story as I received in my e-mail:

An old man wanted to plant a tomato garden, but it was difficult work, as the ground was hard.

His only son, Vincent, who used to help him, was in prison, and so the old man wrote a letter to his son:
Dear Vincent,
I am feeling sad because I won’t be able to plant my tomato garden this year. I’m too old already.
I know if you were here,  you would happily dig the plot for me, like in the old days.
Love,
Papa

A few days later, he received a letter from his son.
Dear Papa,
Don’t dig up that garden. That’s where the bodies are buried.
Love, Vinnie

At 4 am the next morning, FBI agents and police arrived and dug up the entire area without finding any bodies.
They apologised to the old man and left.

That day, he received another letter from his son:

Dear Papa,
Go ahead and plant the tomatoes now. That’s the best I could do under the circumstances.
Love, Vinnie

Now the moral of this story is that only people that are aware of how a system might behave can fully exploit the system to their advantage. I wonder how we can use this insight to promote better inclusiveness in development? From my everyday work experience I know that in value chains and production systems the poor, weak, small and marginalized are often the least aware of how the bigger system(s) around them work. The powerful, better informed and more successful entrepreneurs often have better information at their disposal. While some of this information could be formal, quite a bit of it is qualitative based on a deeper understanding of how things (might) work.

Categories
Complexity and Evolutionary Thinking

Linking to Complexity

If you are interested in the topic of complexity then surf over to Marcus Jenal’s page where he provides some insights on the topic. Marcus is a very good thinker and practitioner I always enjoy the questions he asks.

Also take a look at Aid at the Edge of Chaos and Owen Abroad blogsites for more insights on complex adaptive systems and development.

Categories
Innovation Technology and innovation management

The difference between academic and industrial science

One of my favourite authors on the topic of science is the late John Ziman. Ziman played an important role in popularising science and its role in the technological evolution of societies. We have some of his books on our Mesopartner bookstore (You can also click on the images on the right of the screen) .

In his last book, Real Science, he made an important distinction between science in academia, and science in industry. This is relevant to me because I am assisting universities to conduct more relevant scientific research that will benefit industry. At the same time I am assisting industries to intensify their scientific research.

According to Ziman, academic science works towards the Mertonian norms introduced by Robert K Merton in 1942, also known as CUDOS. Merton advanced our understanding of the ethos of the scientific process. I like Ziman’s (2000) discussion of the Mertonian principles. CUDOS is as an acronym that denotes good academic research and stands for:

  • Communalism – fruits of academic science should be public knowledge (belongs to the whole scientific community), and the communication and dissemination of results are as almost as important as the research itself,
  • Universalism – researchers and scientists relate to each other regardless of the rank and experience of the researcher. The norm of universalism requires that scientific findings are evaluated objectively regardless of the status, race, gender, nationalism or any other irrelevant criteria,
  • Disinterestedness – academic scientists have to be humble and disinterested. Work is done in a neutral, impersonal and is often recorded in the passive voice. It disassociates with the personal or social problems, and focus on advancing knowledge or solving a very specific problem in an almost clinical way.
  • Originality – every scientist is expected to contribute something new to the archive, while building on the knowledge of predecessors. Unfortunately this also sometimes constrains how creative academic research can become. “new” could mean new data, questions, methods and insights.
  • Scepticism – This norm triggers important brakes on scientists, as it involves critical scrutiny, debate, peer review and contradiction before being accepted. It is important as it deepens understanding and knowledge from different research perspectives, and should not seen as being completely negative, rather it should be seen as being necessary.

 

Industrial science works towards what Ziman (2000:78-79) calls PLACE:

  • Proprietary – the knowledge is not made public (or at least as little as necessary is made public),
  • Local – it is focused on local technical problems rather than on increasing general understanding,
  • Authoritarian – Industrial researchers act within a hierarchy and must work to please senior management, in other words, it is not serendipitous,
  • Commissioned – it is undertaken to achieve practical goals rather than to just improve knowledge, and
  • Expert – industrial researchers are employed as expert problem solvers, rather than for their personal creativity and writing or teaching skills.

 

Ziman argues that when universities undertake contract research for industry, they somehow cross the boundaries between these two approaches to research. For instance, industry is more interested in solving a specific technological challenge and would prefer that senior researchers work on a problem. In the last 50 years it has increasingly become necessary for universities to raise 3rd stream income, so it a universally accepted practice that universities undertake research for and in cooperation with industry.  However, a university must prioritise the development of interns and junior researchers (and achieve other social goals). Furthermore, industry may not be interested in registering a patent (immediately), otherwise their secrets gets shared with the whole world. Academic researchers on the other hand, are expected to deliver publications when they cannot deliver patents or licenses, thus there is another conflict of their objectives. Perhaps a last comment is that universities are under pressure to solve social problems that are deemed “relevant” by prevailing political pressures, while industry prefer to solve problems that are immediate, relevant and that may even be in contrast with the desires of the prevailing political and social debates. Practically this means that at the moment industry may need to automate to remain competitive, thus incurring job losses, while government and the society may be demanding job creation for people with little or no technical education.

 

Universities must understand this tension, and must operate within and between different modes of conducting research. Current legislation perhaps assumes one standard approach to university research, that always results in something that can be published and or patented (licensed), and it further assumes that the value (and cost) or research is known at the time of start of the research or after completion. Practical experience indicates that this is not always the case. Sometimes the value of research only becomes apparent when it faces market forces.

 

Sources:

ZIMAN, J.M. 2000.  Real Science: what it is, and what it means. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 ZIMAN, J.M. 2003.  Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process. Cambridge Cambridge University Press.

Categories
Bottom Up Development Complexity and Evolutionary Thinking Local Economic Development

More on bottom up development

I was reminded by a reader that Robert Chambers of the IDS is known to be a strong proponent of bottom up development, because it overcomes some of the issues of the complexity of development.

At the same time I found a recent blog post by Ben Ramalingam at the Aid on the edge of chaos blog about a meeting held earlier in May about Complexity and International Development. I am very jealous because Eric Beinhoecker, Robert Chambers and Ben Ramalingam (lead author of a fantastic paper  of a 2008 Overseas Development Institute working paper ‘Exploring the Science of Complexity: Ideas and Implications for International Development and Humanitarian Efforts’) were all in the same room talking about complexity and development. Can we have some of this in South Africa too? I have in previous posts mentioned some of the work these gurus are doing on complexity.

For some insights into the discussions at that meeting head over to the blogsite of Duncan Green (Oxfam) where he wrote a post titled “so the world is complex – what do we do differently“.

Perhaps what I neglected to say this explicitly on my previous post is that bottom-up development is about much more the Local Economic Development. You would have noticed that in my recent posts I have associated bottom up diagnosis with innovation systems, industrial development, advanced manufacturing, the service sector and many other topics. We have to strive to understand the system, and not get caught up with specific target groups. This will take us further from understanding and carefully intervening into the complex local system.

Also to clarify. You do not diagnose the complexity of the system by analysing data. You do this by engaging with people, and allowing them to reach a deeper understanding of the system that they are part of.

Let me know if I again forgot to say something!!

Categories
Addressing persistent market failure Complexity and Evolutionary Thinking Industrial Policy Knowledge Intensive Business Services Private Sector Development Thinking out loud

Why the advanced sectors are so often overlooked

It is amazing how little support the advanced sectors of our economy receives from public sources. It seems like this disinterest is caused by multiple factors. One, it is not in line with the priorities of the labour movement. The labour unions prefer a focus on job creation for low skilled workers. However, research has also shown that every professional worker in the knowledge sector creates a multiplier of jobs for lower skilled workers. But like an official told me last week: “the problem is that we don’t want the rich people with skills to get richer. We want the poor people without skills to benefit”. Before you laugh, many development agencies and donors are nurturing the same ideas.  Can someone please explain to me why we choose to cap the income of the ‘rich’ and ‘skilled’? The fact that there is such a high premium on skilled workers are symptoms of a much bigger problem. Can someone also again explain how we are going to get people out of poverty by focusing exclusively on the people in the trap?

Let me get back to my main argument…

The second reason why the advanced sectors are overlooked is because they are so difficult to understand. Knowledge is often not a product in itself, but an input into other production sectors. Therefore it is difficult to describe, capture, measure and report on. But the truth is that more and more of our economic sectors are becoming knowledge intensive. Even something is ‘simple’ as farming (which was done mainly be people with low academic qualifications less than 50 years ago) is now increasingly knowledge intensive. This knowledge intensity is partly due to technology, but also because of the natural specialisation that occurs within industries. A challenge is that we do not do enough in developing countries to embrace and measure the knowledge economy (which is not about clever academics).

The third reason the advanced sectors receive so little public support is because the business sector itself struggles to justify or articulate their needs. The problem with specialisation is that everyone is indeed on their own little island. Thus fragmentation is part of the character of the system.

Perhaps final reason is because development practitioners and public officials think that the clever dudes in the advanced sector can help themselves. Well, have you ever noticed what happens with collective intelligence without a facilitator – it goes down. Putting a bunch of experts in the room will not necessarily result in clever expert ideas coming out. Furthermore, the business owners in the advanced sectors are fierce rivals, all fighting or lobbying for their ideas to become standard. Perhaps I should add that even highly educated and specifically highly experienced people are also blinded sometimes, or are sucked down a dependency path. A final point is that the advanced sectors in other countries are getting really advanced support from the public sector, so leaving our advanced sectors to help themselves is not a wise idea in the longer term. If you want to see what income inequality looks like, then leave the game for just a few to play, with high risks and even higher rewards to the few people that can overcome the technical, market and government obstacles placed in their way (if it sounds familiar it is because it is already happening. Come to South Africa if you want to see this).

Might I add that many donors also prefer to work with the poor and the helpless for political reasons, despite the fact that so many research reports have shown that you cannot solve the problem by working on the symptoms.

So perhaps we need to take a step back and look at the levers created by the advanced sectors in developing countries. We need a more systemic perspective of what is driving change and prosperity in these countries.  I am convinced that we should shift our attention from trying to get one more farmer into a system with no margins, and shift our attention to the industries in the countries we work in. We should use our diagnostic tools to overcome market failures, low economies of scale, and help articulate demand that can create new industries (or new pressures to improve performance).

Categories
Thinking out loud

Link to evolution for everyone

Thank you Michael Meadon for sending me the link to the Evolution for Everyone blogsite by David Sloan Wilson. In a series of blog articles David describes evolution in economics from different perspectives. Reading these articles made me realise why local stakeholder groups are so ineffective in promoting or driving local economic growth. Very often the social dynamics and social power plays are ignored. We have to find better ways of recognising local initiatives, but we also have to be aware of the social selection process that allows for this emergence.