It was great to get so many comments and reactions – both online and off – to our recent post on re-framing “scaling up” in development.
We also happily adopted the affectionate (or so we hope!) nickname of “finch fund” for our initiative, as coined by Duncan Green (with thanks!). Our aim is to ultimately come up with a set of criteria that can spur the growth of development innovation activities without falling into the “replication of best practice” or the ‘bigger, faster, cheaper’ trap.
In the spirit of working out loud, and as we gear up for our get-together later this month in New York City, we’d like to present a quick update on where we stand in our thinking.
We have to acknowledge that there is still a major language barrier between the various disciplines and that translating multi-disciplinary insights into tangible criteria applicable to the “finch fund” will require a significant amount of honing.
At the same time, we like to think that this is just the beginning of a process of finding a common vocabulary and set of metaphors that can help us move forward.
1. Insight from science: Boundaries are permeable and self-created
Philosophy professor Alicia Juarrero points out that boundaries in complex adaptive systems are permeable: more like membranes than walls.
They are stable enough to do their job as organizing constraints, but flexible enough to allow for modification, adaptability, evolution. Boundaries are self-created, not imposed from the outside and are the results of the dynamics between different components.
Consider the beaver.
Throughout time, beavers in the wild have had to learn the hard way that the dams they construct get wiped out several times a year. So, at some point, they started accounting for that – they started building dams faster and faster.
A zoo, on the other hand, provides a secure, wall-like boundary for beavers with neither the feedback of dams being wiped out seasonally nor the ability for them to modify and evolve.
Imagine how shocked a domesticated beaver from the zoo would be if he met his cousin from the wild!
Implication for development:
When we talk about scaling up, are we trying to design “utopian”, “zoo-like” systems that are impermeable to outside influences and therefore do not allow for modification and adaptability?
How do we structure a fund in such a way that it picks up on signals of locally generated dynamics and boundaries and allows for autonomous modification – rather than trying to impose artificial boundaries?
How do we institutionalize second chances for local actors (as opposed to donors/funding institutions?)
- Can we build a criteria for “self-help” projects where those leading activities that we would like to scale can get access to the resources and organizational support they need?
2. Insight from science: Diversity as a source of feedback and adaptation
A larger variety (as opposed to number) of components – or a micro-diversity of niches – allows for a better chance at successfully probing the system.
More diverse participation naturally means more diverse feedback – it’s this that will give our projects and initiatives the resilience necessary to grow and evolve.
Tim Allen, an ecologist and Professor of Botany and Environmental Studies, has shared a number of examples with us (including the beaver from the previous point) and we thought his one about Pacific salmon is a perfect demonstration of this insight:
Fishermen in the Western United States recently started witnessing a reduced catch with many dead salmon surfacing during the spawning season. As a remedy, ecologists re-stocked the river with fertilized eggs from farmed salmon but this didn’t solve the problem.
It wasn’t the eggs that were dying, but the salmon themselves – and only after swimming upstream and spawning.
So what was the problem?
Whereas rivers in the eastern United States, flow through wooded areas, rich in necessary food for fish, those on the west coast are located in deserts – habitats that offer little mineral nutrients for the salmon.
So in order to ensure their survival, grown salmon were effectively sacrificing themselves, turning their deceased bodies into nutrients that stimulate algal growth and feed their soon-to-be-hatched baby salmon.
If ecologists considered feedback data from multiple sources (e.g. the fishermen, the river and salmon ecosystems) they would’ve figured out that the solution was putting mineral nutrients in the water at the time of laying eggs.
They were honed in on the wrong problem.
Implication for development:
How do we move away from log frames and top-down indicators towards a variety of inputs/probes that ensure diversity from across the system we want to change?
Is there a way to consciously target micro-niches in project design (e.g. by focusing on the “edgeryders“)
Should we consider stimulating the emergence of micro-niches in contexts where there is a high level of homogeneity; alternately, should we go as as far as forgetting about scaling up in a context which lacks sufficient diversity?
As you can see, at this stage we have more open questions than answers.
We are really looking forward to our meeting at the end of the month to see whether we can crystallize these insights into a set of criteria that can better inform our practice.
Watch this space!