How can complexity/systems thinking help small island states?

May 1, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

‘It’s a big year for small islands’ announced the speaker before me, who revelled in the title ‘The Honourable Lord Tu’ivakano, Prime Minister, Kingdom Lord-Tuivakano_dress-202x220of Tonga’ (right). When my turn came, how should I refer to him? (I’m hopeless at this kind of thing, must come from going to a state school.) His Lordship? Your Honourableness? ‘Yo Tu’ivakano’ (a la George Bush)? In the end, I just played safe with ‘Prime Minister’.

It’s a big year because the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), have their once-a-decade conference coming up in Samoa in September, and in the run up, the UNDP’s ‘Global Centre for Public Service Excellence’, based in Singapore, invited me to speak at an event on the relevance of complexity and systems thinking (I think it was because Ben Ramalingam was busy…..). The idea was to use a complex systems approach to go beyond the discussion on climate change and vulnerability, and cover a bunch of other issues ably summarized in this paper by Max Everest-Phillips of UNDP, who hosted the event.

My powerpoint is here (Duncan Green Complexity and SIDS 2014 – please plunder). I’ll spare you the standard intro to complexity/systems thinking, and get onto the SIDS bit. As a group, SIDS share some common characteristics:

  • They are more vulnerable to shocks (commodity prices; climate; lower levels of economic diversification, highly dependent on imports, especially food)
  • Small populations (100,000 in the case of Tonga) means they are short on skilled specialists
  • There is a premium on political leadership, rather than institutions
  • But everyone knows everyone else, meaning denser networks of internal social capital


Thinking through their situation in responding to complexity, I suggested an ‘adaptive approach’ to change, in which governments need to plan for capacity (allocating money and staff) but realize that those staff will often have to improvise in responding to events, rather than follow a pre set plan. To help them do this, states need to think about three areas

  • Enabling Environment
  • Sensing
  • Responding

Enabling Environment

States can equip their people to experiment and respond to events, by guaranteeing their rights and access to information, and investing in education, healthcare and other public services.

Political Leadership, especially in SIDS, is crucial. Leaders need to create a compelling narrative that binds society together, reinforces social norms and provides ‘moral messaging’, especially during crises.

States need to build resilience by tackling ‘risk dumping’ and inequality, and (as far as it is possible in SIDS) ‘sowing diversity’.


In complex systems where you can’t predict events, states need to invest in getting fast feedback from their people, by building good systems of consultation, and employing officials who are embedded in the world around them, pick up signals of change, and bring them into the office.

Positive Deviance: Rather than follow the latest management consultant fad, states can look around them and see what good stuff is already happening on the island. Which communities seem more resilient to shocks? Then go and observe to try and find out why. This is also the perfect opportunity to bring the voice of poor and vulnerable people into the conversation.

climatechange_cartoonFailing forwards: all states fail sometimes. The question is whether you admit it, learn from it, and move on, or cover it up and squander the potential for learning new lessons.

Results for grown-ups (counting what counts; put more L in your MEL). I think I may have mentioned this before…….


This largely covers familiar ground, at least to readers of this blog:  Shocks as opportunities (red button system); Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation; Hybrids and best fit, not cookie cutters; Venture Capitalist multiple start-ups (e.g. via trust funds) and no regrets solutions (which means when trying something out, explore whether anyone will be hurt if it either fails, or turns out not to actually solve the problem) – see cartoon.

In the discussion that followed, the most promising angle, intriguingly, emerged out of Singapore’s record on public housing, which appears to have been an exercise in PDIA. According to Vanessa Chan, a wonderfully posh senior official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ‘solutions are organic – our public housing policy is the big example. We had a lot of people living in slums, so the problem was easy to identify. Then we went round the world, looked at what others had done, identified their mistakes, tried to avoid them. Build a few blocks, see what works/doesn’t, adapt the plans and build a few more.’

So I am now off to talk to UNDP about how they, the Singaporeans, maybe even Oxfam, could work together to apply that approach to building climate change resilience. Watch this space – would be great if we could get this on the agenda in Samoa.

Update: here’s me in a suit and tie, giving the talk

[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”][/youtube]

And a nice surprise; the organizers asked Vanessa Leong, a student at Singapore Management University with a talent for caricature, to dash off this impression of me banging on about complexity and SIDS – reckon I should emulate Chris Blattman, and swap the cartoon me for the Dr Evil pic at the top of this blog/twitter?

Singapore complexity cartoon