Navigating Complexity: An Evening on Change and the Quest to Sustain It

Published on 11 March 2016

Image of Megan Driscoll
Megan Driscoll

IDS Alumnus

Students, fellows, and conveners alike gathered last Thursday evening to hear Danny Burns propose new models of responding to change and complexity as outlined in his recent text (co-authored with Stuart Worsley), Navigating Complexity in International Development: Facilitating Sustainable Change at Scale. In the latest Sussex Development Lecture, Burns outlined three methods of approaching complexity and challenged the pervasive tendency of international development interventions to approach change as a clear and linear process when it is anything but.

Burns’ presentation, coupled with commentary from research fellow Ben Ramalingam and some thought-provoking questions from the audience, offered a refreshingly nuanced perspective for those who wish to understand and grapple with complex change.

The following are merely a few highlights of an event worthy of much richer reflection:

Everything is Connected

A critical point emphasised throughout Burns’ lecture was the need for system thinking – that is, the need to understand the interrelationships between factors and the systems they subsist within. In order to generate lasting, transformative change, we need to tackle the system as a whole rather than just its individual parts. This can most effectively be done, Burns proposed, by critically examining a complex system’s feedback loop – its self-reinforcing nature.

Think of the issue of gun control in the US:  A school shooting with mass fatalities once again brings the question of gun regulation into the public eye. The president declares that he will introduce legislation to further restrict public access to guns. The National Rifle Association spurs a counter-narrative that teachers should be armed, and laws in some states are passed to grant teachers this right. Gun ownership remains a norm while the question of control relaxes until another mass shooting. And the cycle continues.

As Burns pointed out, if one looks purely at the issue of gun ownership, the factor appears constant from the beginning and end points of the cycle. In order to sufficiently understand and respond to the problem, we instead need to look at it in relation to the various other components – power, politics, discourse and so on – within the system. When we do, we are able to see that the system’s dynamics are in constant flux and respond accordingly.

Unfixing Development Processes

But how do we engage with these ever-changing systems? The key, according to Burns, is to understand how the change happens, in all its complexity. Namely, we must first grasp that complex change is an emergent process, constituted by a collision of multiple linear pathways, which ultimately produces non-linear results. Knowing this, it is imperative that practitioners employ iterative learning processes that allow for a frequent revisiting of the question of how. Though a common sense approach in most people’s personal lives, this remains a significant departure from standard development matrixes and log-frames: Burns suggested that the dynamic nature of complex change demands a level of flexibility too often cast aside. Instead of fixed, structured measurement tools (or perhaps alongside them?), complex change necessitates re-evaluation and self-reflection every step of the way. “It’s what we do every day,” he explained, “but it’s not what the development industry does every day.”

Sustainable Change – An oxymoron?

To attempt to summarize Burns and Worsley’s model for achieving sustainable, transformative change in such a brief space would be a disservice to their work, so I will simply note a few of the critical points that Burns raised. In particular, Burns advocated for the adoption of social movement approaches within development interventions – what he terms as movement based development. Essential to this method are high levels of participation, iterative and experiential learning, and a process of nurturing community-led initiatives. These factors culminate over time in a movement for change, one that ultimately is propelled into a new paradigm of sustainable transformative change.

At the closing of the Q&A session, IDS Director of Research John Gaventa asked how one can possibly ever know if they’ve entered into such a paradigm? Moreover, he probed, if change is a constant, emergent process, is sustainability as an end goal not a contradiction to this very notion? Burns acknowledged that the question of sustainability is a vulnerable one, open to further deliberation, and Ramalingam expanded to say that we can never be certain of any cycle’s conclusion (think, for example, of the civil rights movement in the US and the illusion of a post-racial America with the election of President Obama).

This new model, Burns explained, is surely not the conclusion of a discussion on complexity – much the opposite: it is the start of a more nuanced conversation, which takes complexity out of its abstract, theoretical home and places it in real-life situations. Complexity can be a strength – an asset for change, Burns concluded – that ultimately give more people access to the meaning-making process.