October was a month full of three things. First, a series of fascinating conversations and interesting explorations, all around the terrain of richer, more innovative and more locally-led approaches to addressing complex challenges and nurturing effective systems. Second, engaging around the US-led Summit for Democracy and USAID’s new Anti-Corruption Task Force. And third, trying to make connections between these two things. We are excited to see that Ambassador, and USAID Administrator, Samantha Power’s vision for USAID suggests that similar thinking is going on at USAID.
Here’s a selection of the things I read over the last month that were particularly inspiring.
November Top Reads
- Cynthia Rayner and François Bonnici (October 2021) The systems change of social work, Oxford University Press – First, a wonderful new book on “The systems change of social work”, by Cynthia Rayner and François Bonnici. Whenever I think about this book, it strikes me that it might have been called “The social work of systems change”, to emphasize that systems change is fundamentally about social relationships. Whatever the title, I love the way it brings together, in a collaborative effort, and with a great diversity of voices, inspiring tales of how people and organizations have contributed to systems change. Here is a shorter version, published in the Maverick, in South Africa, which includes a compelling summary of how systems-focused social work can make a difference; connecting, empowering, disrupting. Cynthia and I connected in October, and had what for me was an inspiring discussion about the role that storytelling plays in crafting meaning, nurturing community and shaping systems, and about systems that are more about love and compassion than power and control. Watch this space for more on this!
- Arbie Baguios, Maia King, Alex Martins (October 2021) Are we there yet? Localisation as the journey towards locally-led practice, ODI – This paper was produced as part of the 17 Rooms initiative, which is intended to spur action in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals. I was happy to be asked to provide feedback on an earlier draft, and look forward to further engagement. The paper provides a really helpful perspective on what can be a dizzying landscape of initiatives and organizations that are trying to support progress towards more locally-led development. It even provides a map to help budding explorers get a sense of this landscape, something which this piece by Jenny Hodgson from the Global Fund for Community Foundations and Yolaina Vargas Pritchard of BOND (British Overseas NGOs for Development) also provides. On a related note, I was very happy to catch up with Ann Hendrix-Jenkins, to hear about her work with the Movement for Community Led Development, and with Courtenay Cabot Venton, to catch up on the work of the Local Coalition Accelerator, an initiative whose Advisory Council I’m now going to participate in.
- Søren Vester Haldrup (May 2021), We are experimenting with different approaches to systems transformation — here are five insights, UNDP Innovation Centre –Third, I had a super-stimulating conversation with Søren Vester Haldrup at UNDP’s Innovation Centre, comparing notes about our respective efforts – mine currently more fledgling than his, but plans are afoot, with collaboration a possibility – to support experimentation and learning about different approaches being taken to address complex challenges. Here is Søren’s piece from May 2021 about UNDP’s experiments with different approaches to systems transformation, to be paired with the “deep demonstrations” of portfolio approaches to systems change in this piece co-authored with Mille Begovic. Søren and I discussed the challenge of using a common frame that enables comparative learning across contexts and case studies, but that does not stifle the diversity of approaches that have emerged in different contexts and which provides the basis for fruitful learning. In a similar vein, I hugely appreciated the conversations I had in October with Luca Gatti and Emma Presutti at the Chôra Foundation. A close collaborator with UNDP, the Chôra Foundation is developing, in an appropriately evolutionary way, what seems to me to be a very promising and pretty revolutionary approach to supporting the emergence of systemic solutions to complex problems. Read more in their piece on “the future of development”. I look forward to further engagement with UNDP, the Chôra Foundation and others about adaptive and locally-led efforts to address complex challenges.
- Fourth, an excellent articulation of a systems change methodology, (SystemCraft) that I’d not come across before, by an organization that I’d not come across before (Wasafiri Consulting). In addition to having a Nairobi office, Wasafiri has offices in Brighton, where I live, and in Asheville, which is perhaps the favorite place I visited when I was living in the USA and should perhaps be twinned with Brighton by virtue of its vibe, sense of community, and opportunities for outdoors fun! I was struck by the clarity of Wasafiri Consulting’s SystemCraft framework, and by the fact that they make it freely available; a fine example of positive deviance. Wasafiri Consulting also has a cluster of geographers on their team, which always catches my attention. Hopefully, I’ll find a way of making connections, maybe in Brighton.
Oh, two bonuses this month.
First, I’ve been exploring personal knowledge management systems over the last couple of months; ways of keeping track of, identifying connections between, and making more effective use of, the ideas and experiences that I come across in my various explorations around complexity, systems, learning and love. In particular, I’ve been geeking out on Zettelkasten, and using Roam Research and its bi-directional tagging and linking as a tool for networked thought. Here’s an intro to Personal Knowledge Management Systems, and here is one of many many introductions to using Roam Research.
Using Roam Research to capture and code my thoughts is enabling me to develop an emergent map of the ideas I’m exploring, identifying connections and areas for further exploration. And, most importantly, it’s enabling me to do this in ways that don’t require me to set up a hierarchical coding system in advance, which might then hinder rather than support my explorations. Using Roam Research (other software is available, including, for instance, Obsidian) has also freed up a bunch of mental capacity which was clogged up with remembering, and which I can now use more creatively for connecting. Special thanks to Tim Davies and Javier Ruiz for collaborative explorations of personal knowledge management systems and the approaches that they’ve been taking!
Second, we’re collating David Jacobstein’s seasonal reads from his vantage point at USAID. David’s selections and commentary are consistently stimulating and are always worth a look. So we thought we’d make it easier for folks to peruse. Here is where we’ve gotten to on that so far.
I’m struck that most of the things I’ve mentioned are really about conversations and engagement with interesting and inspiring people, rather than just things I’ve read. It may be time to change my framing from open and adaptive reads to something else. Tempted as I am by Alan’s Adventures in Wonderland, for now let’s go with: Alan’s explorations: An evolving map of inspiring connections.
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, with the rolling list of my favorite reads in chronological order available 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