Image credit to UNDP’s Innovation Lab
The highlight of May for me was attending the Systems Innovation Conference in London (agenda here) in person. As befits an event organized by the Systems Innovation Network, I connected with lots of great people doing innovative work on systems change! Another time I may be brave enough to ask questions about causality, impact and power, rather than sit quietly wondering why these issues tended to get short shrift. For now, I’m excited to be part of a community of people exploring how systems can be nurtured to address complex social challenges. There were lots of great presentations and discussions, many of which are available here, but the kick-off from Anna Birney, from the School of Systems Change, on “New developments in the field of systems change”, was particularly inspiring. Pair this with Anna’s helpful reflections on power dynamics in systems change.
With a focus on the relationships that make systems what they are, another great event was the Collective Change Lab’s virtual office hour on How Can We Move Beyond Transactional Towards Relational Collaboration? Featuring John Kania and Juanita Zerda, with Jennifer Splansky Juster facilitating, the session was a wonderful exploration of awareness, learning, love, anger and hope and how these things play out and emerge in collective systems change initiatives. This session was the first of three, with subsequent sessions due to focus on “What does it mean to lead in emergent and transformational ways?”, and “How Can We Tell Stories of Systems Change that are More Reflective of the Way Change Happens?”. I’m particularly excited about the third session as I’m interested in exploring how stories, storytelling and sense-making can – by honoring the complex causality and emergent nature of systemic outcomes – strengthen collective efforts to nurture healthy, compassionate and sustainable systems. (See my February 2022 highlights for more from the Collective Change Lab).
A third highlight for me was a piece from the Centre for Public Impact; Human Learning Systems: A practical guide for the curious. I’ve flagged the Human Learning Systems initiative before, but this piece merits an additional mention. The initiative’s focus on “learning as management strategy” is a super-helpful way of putting learning – collective and collaborative learning – at the centre of efforts to support the emergence of systems that can more effectively deliver public services and meet people’s complex needs. I have questions about how this and other learning-centered approaches can support efforts to address power asymmetries, particularly in circumstances (corruption and entrenched inequality!) when the way the system currently works serves the interests of the powerful rather well. However, I do think there are ways in which learning-centered approaches can contribute to shifting. I look forward to seeing what insights are generated through the initiative’s collaborative, exploratory and iterative approach to developing the Human Learning Systems approach and supporting its application in different contexts (See my April 2022 and March 2022 highlights for more from the Centre for Public Impact – I’m not on commission!).
Exploring similar terrain, I appreciated very much Søren Haldrup’s piece on rethinking monitoring and evaluation in complex systems – when learning is a result in itself. Søren’s piece builds on the groundbreaking work that UNDP Innovation has been doing in recent years, supporting systems innovation practices through UNDP country offices and generating evidence and insights about how best to do that. As a next step in that endeavor, UNDP Innovation is establishing an M&E Sandbox, a much-needed space for experimentation and collaborative learning about how monitoring, evaluation and learning can support the adaptive approaches that are key to effective engagement in complex systems. Watch this space for more on that. Pair this with Tom Aston’s recent call to (Re)make the case for adaptive management. As an aside, I’m delighted to be able to share the news that Søren, who has been a wonderful thought partner over the last year, has just this week joined the Global Integrity board, along with Nadim Matta who founded the Rapid Results Institute, now “Re!nstitute” (See my November 2021 highlights for more about the work of UNDP Innovation).
Last but not least, it was great to see a strong collection of reflections from the Brookings Institution on the Obstacles and recommendations for moving US development policies onto a locally led path. The document brings together a lot of rich material, careful analysis and constructive suggestions. Much of the commentary comes from folks who are close – functionally and geographically – to USAID. That provides a clear understanding of the scope and possible pathways for institutional reform at USAID, but I’d love to see that complemented by commentary from a greater diversity of people and organizations based in the places where USAID’s investments are focused, and whose scope and capacity for local leadership donors’ localization efforts are intended to nurture. Word was that there would be a global convening on localization in August of this year, brought together by USAID. I’ve not heard whether that has been confirmed, but look forward to an inclusive and diverse conversation about how localization can really support progress towards locally-led development. (See my April 2022, and November 2021 highlights for more on localization and locally-led development).
If you have any feedback on my missives, and how I might make them more useful and interesting, just drop me a line. My other monthly missives can be found here. If you’d like access to my full Evernote Notebook, drop me a line! I’ve grouped all articles within broader themes and categories such as:
- Open Data
- Fiscal Governance