How to bridge the Valley of Death that separates complexity/systems thinkers from decision makers?

February 14, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Sometimes new ideas arrive like a bolt from the blue. More often they emerge through a series of conversations, reading and thinking.UKCDS logo An element of repetition may be necessary, provided you talk to different kinds of people about the same issue (rather than having the same meeting with the same people over and over again – we call that strategic planning).

So earlier this week I ended up in a room full of scientists and research council funders, organized by UKCDS, discussing a topic dear to my heart and blog – complexity and systems thinking. The topic was how research funding can channel complexity science to improve understanding and practice in the aid/development sector. The conversation reinforced a few points, but added a few new angles.

First was the sheer difficulty of bridging the gap between complexity thinkers in academia and busy aid activists, whether in government or NGOs. One contributor talked of a ‘valley of death’ that separates pure science from ‘operationalisation’ – using the new ideas to actually do stuff.

That gulf is further deepened by an academic system that works in disciplinary siloes that seem remarkably resistant to attempts to get them to cross fertilize – even waving research funding chequebooks often fails to get economists, ecologists, sociologists etc to really work together.

complexity you are hereI came away convinced that we need to understand these institutional barriers better, even if that does entail some navel gazing. Is it about language (economists and sociologists can’t understand each other), incentives (this won’t get me published in a peer-reviewed journal) or broader frameworks for understanding the world? It reminded me of a recent conversation at the Thinking and Working Politically seminar – unless we can understand why institutions find this so hard, and what can be done about it, we’ll probably be wasting our time.

Some suggestions for where to start: find out what research has been done on bridging similar gulfs, e.g. between pure science and industry. Study the role of individual ‘boundary crossers’, like our own Jean Boulton – is spotting and supporting the mavericks a quicker route to cross-disciplinarity than urging inertia-bound institutions and faculties to collaborate?

Second was a new (for me) way of selling complexity thinking to our political masters. This is all about making decisions in situations that are uncertain and volatile. What is ‘enough evidence to make a decision’, complete with feedback loops to detect success or failure, and adapt accordingly?

Otherwise, I banged on (as usual) about the tensions between systems thinking and the results/value for money agenda and linear planning tools; the importance of understanding the circumstances in which research influences policy; the power of case studies in showing that complexity thinking can lead to results and the barriers posed for activists by jargon and the geeks’ love of, errm, complexity. For me, the best way to discuss these issues in Oxfam is to avoid the C word altogether and ask a variant of ‘How do you plan when you don’t know what is going to happen?’ or ‘how do you campaign on a problem when you don’t know the solution?’

There was particular interest in the case study question, and how to improve our ability to capture the messy reality of change process, rather than construct an airbrushed, linear, quasi-mythical story. That means investing in real time accompaniment, and improving our ability to research and narrate how change happens.

The good news is that the research funders seem to understand the importance of it, and in many cases are already invested in supporting systems thinking. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) seems to have done most in the area (see here for details), but has not so far tried to link it to international development. Time for some cross-fertilization, I reckon.


February 14, 2014
Duncan Green