Development as an emergent property


A wave — an emergent property of the forces of water and the ocean floor and who knows what else

You don’t get a better explanation on the complexity of development than this video. Make a cup of tea and put your feet up as it is 45 minutes long. But worth every minute.

Two things that I love about this video:

  • It sees development not as a series of successes towards a finite end, but as the emergent property of all the interactions between a large set of agents,  which are themselves adapting and co-evolving at the same time.
  • Our social and institutional world is made up of constantly buzzing interactions that hold it together in patterns that seem stable. But they are not actually stable. What this means is that development is not about taking a stable situation, intervening and then creating a new stable situation, but it is about nudging or nurturing changes in dynamic, interacting forces

Owen Barder, whose video this is, sets out seven tips for developing policies in this kind of complex situation:

  1. Resist engineering: This is because evolution outperforms design. Non-linear dynamics makes prediction impossible. But you can harness an evolutionary approach — trial and error and adaptation
  2. Resist fatalism: Because you can’t engineer and plan in a blueprint way, it is tempting just to give up and shrug and say ‘We can’t do anything to change things.” But that isn’t true either — we can accelerate and shape change.
  3. Innovation is key:  Trial and error needs innovation. We have to do things differently and see how it goes (in a responsible way obviously, with a critical mindset that aims to innovate for the benefit of the worst off).
  4. Embrace creative destruction: Doesn’t actually sound like something you would want to embrace but we know that change means losing the old, and we know that institutions generally go in cycles of growth and then decline while some other institution starts to grow.
  5. Shape development: Although we can’t engineer our future we can choose a direction and perform actions that are compatible with that direction. Ray Ison has called this our “co-evolutionary future” — in other words it is not pre-determined but evolving through our day-to-day choices.
  6. Embrace experimentation: Human solutions are not replicable, well not directly like fixing a dripping tap. Instead of best practices, Barder suggests we should look for best fit, instead of planners, we need searchers. And that means making sure you have better feedback loops so you don’t just keep on plugging away at something that doesn’t work. (NOTE: work for whom? You do have to make sure that your feedback loops are picking up information on the right things!)
  7. Act global: If we really believe that people are important, then we need to act global in the direction we choose.

These are things we know. But how difficult it is to remember them in our every day actions. Glad to have a reminder– and such a clear and entertaining one to boot.

One comment

  1. […] is an emergent property?” a friend asked me after my post the other day. She said, “I bet that really means something to you and your little peer […]

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