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How to evaluate innovation? In conversation with Jordi del Bas

Innovation is a confusing buzzword. The Oxford Dictionary defines innovating as “making changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products”.

Other definitions include ‘turning an idea into a solution that adds value from a customer’s perspective.’ (Nick Skillicorn);  ‘ideas that are novel and useful and that can be applied at scale.’ (David Burkus). The list is long.

These definitions point to the fact that there is no clarity and that what innovation is can be very subjective. Is the lack of a clear definition of innovation a problem in terms of evaluating innovation? What do the evaluators of innovation look for when they are called in to do their work?

Innovating through evaluations, Jordi del Bas

I spoke with Jordi del Bas to find out what he thinks about this. Jordi is an evaluation specialist and senior researcher at the EU-Asia Global Business Research Center. Over the years, he has been involved in many evaluations focusing on social/policy innovation.

Arnaldo Pellini – Can you briefly describe your background? 

Jordi del Bas – I am an economist by training. I have specialized in private sector development. Over the last 17 years, I have worked as an independent evaluator for international agencies in several countries throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. At present, I combine work as an evaluator with research and teaching in business schools and universities. 

AP – Do you have a definition of innovation?

JdB – This might seem a simple opening question but it is not. Really. Innovation is an overused and abused term that means different things depending on who you ask. Over the last decade, there has been an upsurge of articles questioning the word.

I do not have my own definition, but I feel very comfortable with the TSI Foundation (The Netherlands) definition: New ideas that work to address pressing unmet needs. In the specific area of international development, I would define innovation as solving pervasive and new problems in new ways. New ways meaning adopting approaches that differ from those applied in the past.

Whatever definition you go for, to me there are two critical aspects to innovation. The first is that innovation depends on the context because pervasive or new problems are context specific. The second is that innovation is about valuable solutions, that is ideas that work in practice, that solve issues we care about, things we value.  

AP – What are you looking for when you evaluate innovation processes/systems?

JdB – In innovation, we usually evaluate solutions, supposedly innovative solutions. Evaluation in innovation focuses on finding robust evidence of whether innovative solutions work, how and why, so that they can go beyond a pilot and be scaled up to maximize their positive impact. 

AP – Is there a difference when evaluating innovation along with the traditional criteria of efficiency, effectiveness, impact, etc.?

JdB – Yes, there is a difference. The OECD Development Aid Committee (DAC) criteria are usually applied to traditional interventions where the focus is on achieving planned goals. Efficiency, effectiveness and impact criteria put the lens on expected effects. In traditional interventions, you do not expect significant deviations from the way you thought things would happen. It is more about gathering evidence about the outcomes achieved. Traditional interventions build on a reasonable degree of certainty, predictability and control.

In contrast, innovation is about trial and error and about iteration. In innovation, failing (not achieving intended objectives) is a source of critical insight, a source of learning. In a traditional intervention, failure tends to be a problem, as the focus is on achieving planned goals within planned resources. At times, when innovating, you also have an idea of how things could work. Still, the focus is more on testing your assumptions. There is an intentional interest in identifying unplanned and unexpected effects, as we know that valuable insights may be found in assumptions that do not hold true. You might fail over and over and then all of a sudden, find something that works. Implementing innovative solutions means a higher degree of uncertainty, lack of predictability, and lack of control. 

Some of the criteria used to evaluate innovative solutions are: feasibility, desirability, viability, acceptability, usability and scalability. You could eventually evaluate if an innovation has been effective or efficient, but you would do it in terms of generated or acquired learning rather than in terms of whether it achieved planned objectives and goals. In my opinion, however, the focus when evaluating innovation is not on evaluation criteria.  The focus is on finding reliable evidence of whether innovative solutions are having an impact, how and why. In this regard, the NESTA Standards of Evidence set out an interesting approach.

Moreover, I think evaluation in innovation is also about sensemaking. By sensemaking I mean making collective sense of the evidence obtained to inform what is next in the process of solving the pressing unmet needs of my earlier definition.

AP – From what you are saying the evaluation principles and guidelines set out by the OECD DAC and the evaluation methods that align with them do not see to fit well with innovation.

JdB – I think that there is a growing need for methods that allow us to capture the effects of interventions in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous contexts (so-called VUCA). This is the case for innovation, but also for policy changes and reform processes. Evaluation designs that incorporate systems thinking and complexity theory are urgently needed. This is the case with Developmental Evaluation, an approach grounded explicitly in innovation. Michael Quinn Patton, one of its main proponents and developers, promotes developmental evaluation as an approach intended to assist social innovators in developing social change initiatives in complex or uncertain environments. Patton refers to innovations in a broad sense. To him, innovation can take the form of new projects, programs, products, organizational changes, policy reforms and system interventions.

A developmental evaluation can be easily embedded into design processes of solutions and experiments. When this happens, developmental evaluation provides real-time or quasi real-time evidence, informing the innovation process along the life of a project, an experiment, a pilot. Developmental evaluationsalso fit organizational development and learning processes very well.  

Just a few days ago Patton wrote about the implications of the coronavirus pandemic on evaluation. One of his points was that all evaluators should now become developmental evaluators. His argument is that developmental evaluation is about evaluation under conditions of complexity, and this is now becoming the natural environment in which we must operate. We cannot model and predict the effects of interventions in complex systems, and traditional evaluation methods and criteria become almost obsolete.

AP – Are there specific skills or tools that evaluators interested specializing in evaluating innovation need to familiarize themselves with, or know well?

JdB – In my view, three skills characterize the evaluation of innovation: facilitation skills, a versatile attitude, and good analytical skills.

Let’s start from facilitation skills. In innovation, you test, iterate, analyse and share results to collectively interpret what works (or not), how and why. Such feedback loops involve bringing people together and enabling sensemaking processes. This is the reason that good facilitation skills are very useful. By versatile attitude, I mean the capacity to adapt and adjust quickly to emerging findings. Evaluating innovation builds on adaptive frameworks and on iterative feedback loops, which demand to be ready and feel comfortable with modifying courses of action when needed. Good analytical skills are needed for quick turnarounds in data collection, analysis and feedback. When evaluating innovation, data collection, analysis and feedback loops are carried out continuously, and often they need to be run in parallel alongside testing of solutions.

Different viewpoints to understand complex realities. Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

AP – Tell me more about the sensemaking process

JdB – Several scholars and practitioners have written about sensemaking from different perspectives. Karl Weick addresses sensemaking in organizations and Brenda Dervin in information and communication systems. Klein, Moon & Hoffman define sensemaking in a way that resonates with me, “a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively.

Sensemaking is always linked to emergence, which in turn is linked to complex settings or to processes that cannot be planned or forecasted.  This is usually the case in innovation, where it is very difficult to predict what will happen. We usually understand why things happen in retrospect, looking back, making sense of what has occurred.

My closest experience with sensemaking within a developmental evaluation has been with UNFPA. We analyzed emerging patterns in the data and made sense of it through several rounds of feedback loops with a wide range of business units in the organization. We used visual mapping techniques and discussed the findings in a participatory process that allowed answering questions such as how does ‘what is going on’, affect what you desire to be as an organization?  A question that to me, reflects the essence of organizational development.

AP – The skills you describe are similar to the ones required from managers and experts involved in the design and implementation of experiments to test solutions to public policy problems. These skills are an integral part of adaptive programming, something that is slowly being accepted in international development. I have one last question, Jordi. You mentioned in the beginning of our conversation that innovation has become a buzzword. What is or are the risks associate to this?

JdB – There is a crucial aspect of innovation that is often omitted or downplayed: the assessment of undesired adverse effects of disruptive innovation on society. 

There is a tendency to look at positive impacts for a number of stakeholders, usually the target group of an innovation. We tend to miss questions such as, What is the broader negative unexpected impact of disruptive innovations? For whom are disruptive innovations good or bad in terms of society as a whole?

We are in a world where almost every organization is compelled to innovate in one way or another. If organizations do not innovate, they become second class. Answering these questions is essential if we want innovation to be meaningful and transcend the stigma of a dangerous buzzword that soaks up massive budgets and hides worryingly negative impacts. In this context, it is vital to strengthen the use of impact evaluations in evaluation portfolios for innovation. This would help us answer questions along the lines of, For whose benefit do we innovate? It would allow us to delve deeper into the purpose of innovation.

Thank you very much, Jordi.

If you republish please add this text: This article is republished from Knowledge Counts, a blog by Arnaldo Pellini under a Creative Commons license. You can read the original article here

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Digital futures and the governance systems of tomorrow. In conversation with Shivam Gupta

The economic and social consequences of digital innovation require, and will continue to require, political responses to take advantage of the opportunities that these innovations can bring to society. The challenge for government and regulators is that the speed at which these technologies evolve is much faster than the speed of policy decision making. In Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech, Jamie Susskind argued that governments must rapidly develop the capabilities required to adapt to a near future characterized by: 1) increasingly capable systems, 2) increasingly integrated technology, and 3) increasingly quantified society.

But what capabilities are required? How do we develop them? How do we prepare for this imminent future? I reached out to Shivam Gupta who works as a researcher on Project digitainable at the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research / Innovation Campus Bonn (ICB) (also on Twitter @bonnalliance) to find out what he and his team are up to in terms of working to find some answers to these big questions.

Innovation and AI for the SDGs, Shivam Gupta

Arnaldo Pellini – Can you briefly describe what Project digitainable intends to achieve?

Shivam Gupta – Project digitainable aims to uncover the influence of digitalization and artificial intelligence (D&AI) on the indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), considering the intricate interrelations between the indicators. The research is conducted by utilizing expertise from the natural and technological side, as well as from the social side. Furthermore, the project will act as a platform for furthering research on how to efficiently and sustainably use the opportunities provided by D&AI for sustainable development.

AP – The digital revolution offers incredible opportunities for governments to design policies and services that are well informed by evidence (data and analysis), efficient, and that contribute to the equitable and sustainable development of society. Yet, the public sector seems to struggle to take advantage of these opportunities. In an interview I published on this blog, Johannes Mikkonen of Demos Helsinki said that government organizations are traditionally better at the maintenance of stability than at the transformation and change required to make use of AI in governance and policy processes. What do you think?

SG – Considering the public sector and its responsibilities, stability is much desired; hence his opinion makes complete sense. Also, the application of AI in the public sector currently is in an experimental phase along with staff who need a considerable push to realize the advantages and risks of AI. Some countries are already able to provide stability while using AI in their workflows, for example Singapore and South Korea. I believe stability also depends on the providers’ and consumers’ acceptability and tolerance. Currently, we are all overwhelmed with the data regulations. After getting comfortable with data sharing, only then we can talk about the effective use of AI. The future may bring some interesting insights to it. I am optimistic that soon the public sector will be AI-enabled for an efficient workflow.

AP – Most governments have subscribed to the SDGs. How can digital technologies help countries to progress towards them? Can you give some examples? Can SDGs be the doors through which digital technologies begin to inform policy processes?

SG – D&AI is now a significant part of life in much of the world. People may not have access to healthy air to breath or safe water to drink, but the majority of people have the option to use the internet and share their information. So basically, this information can be gathered easily by just one tap from anywhere in the world to support progress towards any SDGs. For example, Health (SDG 3):  mobile phone cameras are helping to identify malnutrition in new-born babies; Food security (SDG 2): real-time monitoring of crops is done using drones and satellite images to forecast any possible food scarcity situation; Safe drinking water (SDG 6): the application of blockchain is under experiment for delivering safe drinking water and recycled water to society. There are countless examples that demonstrate the potential of D&AI for progressing the SDGs. In Project digitainable, I am developing the basic theories of change at the indicator level of the SDGs to investigate how, where and what kind of digital technology is playing a role. I am also investigating through theories of change the ways we can identify any positive or negative implications on other indicators. I personally believe that the SDGs are certainly the gateway through which D&AI will play a crucial role in informing policy processes. The silver lining which we should not miss out is that the potential is there, but there can be cultural and normative issues that can prevent tech use in a social construct. In the digitainable project, we consider that the social aspect is as important as the technical aspect, precisely to answer the last question you asked.  

AP – Understanding the context and the politics within the context is a key element of designing true problem-driven governance solutions for public services. It seems that those principles also apply to tech solutions. So, to paraphrase Jaime Faustino of the Asia Foundation in the Philippines, tech solutions to help progress towards SDGs have to be technically sound and politically feasible.

SG – Jaime Faustino’s statement stands very true. Further to that, there is also an essential aspect of digital democracy which has been a matter of discussion in the recent past. Various initiatives are being taken up by citizens in the form of citizen science projects, using ICT and new advancements in digital technology to address the localized problems that may or may not be taken up for further development. These kinds of bottom-up initiatives are already making a significant impact in policy making and public services, for example actions taken by citizens on Amsterdam Schiphol and London Heathrow noise monitoring. Open street maps are one of the game-changers in getting geospatial data of places that even Google is not able to reach. Hence, I would like to add that along with understanding context and political feasibility, it is also important to consider social aspects and desires for making it more inclusive and ‘leaving no one behind’. In the project, I find the part of equally weighing the social context with technology fascinating and crucial for technology-driven progress towards the SDGs.

AP – You have held a Thinkathon in April on these topics and issues. Tell me more about it.

SG – Yes! We have organised an event called Digitainable Thinkathon, which aimed at bringing together people from research, the private sector, civil society and public administration. Participants came from different places and disciplines and discussed their ideas together with D&AI experts about mega discourses of our time, raising a range of questions for sustainable development and its implications at indicator level for the SDGs. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic we held the event online on 28th April 2020 and we will have soon updated on our website.

Thank you very much, Shivam.

If you republish please add this text: This article is republished from Knowledge Counts, a blog by Arnaldo Pellini under a Creative Commons license. You can read the original article here.

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Experimenting with innovation and accelerating development in Vietnam. In conversation with UNDP’s Ida Uusikylä

Vietnam is one of 60 countries where UNDP has established Accelerator Labs. The aim is to instil innovation principles and approaches into the work of the projects that UNDP implements and into the way UNDP works.

At the end of January, I went to Helsinki to participate in a two-day workshop on sensemaking and innovation portfolio management, organized by the Finnish Innovation Fund, SITRA. Giulio Quaggiotto who leads UNDP Bangkok regional office presented some of the experiences of the Accelerator Lab initiative in the Asia-Pacific region.

Testing innovation in Vietnam, Ida Uusikylä

To me, the labs are an experiment that is attempting to adapt UNDP to the development challenges of the 21st century. They are an attempt to move from a linear and results-based model of addressing development challenges to a systems approach which is more experimental, and to acknowledge that solutions to the complex development challenges of today require new methods, approaches and capabilities.

I am interested in learning more about how the labs are evolving in different social, political and economic contexts. As I worked with UNDP in Ha Noi for two years between 2006 and 2008, I decided to start there. I got in touch with Ida Uusikylä (Twitter), an innovation consultant with the UNDP Viet Nam country office.

Arnaldo Pellini – Ida, thank you for making the time for this conversation. Before talking about UNDP and the work of the Accelerator Lab, I want to ask about the situation in Ha Noi around COVID-19. In Finland, most schools and public places are closed.

Ida Uusikylä – Strict social distancing measures have been in place nationwide in Viet Nam for the past month and the schools and non-essential businesses have been closed. However, this week these measures have been eased as there has not been new cases for 7 days. Overall, Viet Nam has responded to the outbreak relatively timely and efficiently, and there have been only around 268 confirmed cases in the country. Despite limited resources, the government has been able to mobilize the authorities, army and civil society to respond to the outbreak and effectively contain the spread of the virus. The state has also been efficient in using social media and mobile phones (SMS updates from the Ministry of Health) to keep citizens informed. Viet Nam has also been one of the few countries to develop affordable and efficient test kits for Covid-19 that are now in production and being exported to Europe. This has been a huge success for Viet Nam globally.

AP – What is innovation for you and why did you decide to follow a career working on and with innovation?

IU – Innovation, although many times meaning everything and nothing at the same time, to me and to UNDP more broadly means ‘accelerated learning’ about what works and what does not. We acknowledge that we can’t just solve development challenges through traditional projects, but we need to explore new processes and approaches and learn quicker. On a more systemic level, as Luca Gatti from Chôra Foundation well put it: “Innovation is furnishing a system with renewal capability.” This new capability is something that we see as crucial in driving forward innovation and impact, and essentially remaining relevant to the governments we serve around the world.

At UNDP in the Asia Pacific region particularly, we have been driving forward the concept of inclusive innovation, as there is a major opportunity for policy makers in the region to play a more active role in fostering mission-oriented innovation policy and creating the conditions for innovation that addresses the new strategic risks faced by the region instead of focusing on quick fixes and single point solutions. Instead of exacerbating inequality, this type of innovation also fosters inclusion and aims to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. UNDP partnered with NESTA, building on its comprehensive framework of inclusive innovation to produce case studies from across ASEAN countries highlighting Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Viet Nam. At UNDP Viet Nam we have also embarked on an ‘action-oriented research journey’ to further understand what inclusive innovation means for Viet Nam, what the existing policies are to foster inclusive innovation, what are the next steps in advancing the agenda. We will be publishing the study soon!

I am eager to learn more about how we can institutionalize these essential renewal capacities in organizations, not just in UNDP but also in governments and other partners to accelerate impact and create more inclusive and sustainable systems. What is fascinating and challenging at the same time, is to learn how to translate different new theories and concepts from systems thinking to positive deviance to practice and strive for more systemic transformation. Oftentimes things get messier on the ground.

AP – I think that on innovation, systems thinking and design thinking, etc., the development sector is a bit behind. How did you find the discussion around innovation in UNDP when you joined the country office in Ha Noi?

IU – When I first started at UNDP, innovation wasn’t really considered as a process but more of a solution and predominantly technological one. Our innovation portfolio was very small and focused on supporting the development of the social impact business and start up sector in Viet Nam. With the establishment of the 60 Accelerator Labs around the world, a new narrative was introduced, not only to innovation but to development work more widely. The new approach introduced by the Accelerator Labs brought many new concepts to UNDP, such as systems thinking and collective intelligence, fundamentally questioning our traditional linear, project-based way of working shifting the focus from solutions to processes. Turning these concepts into practice has truly been eye-opening. The labs built on the lessons learned from our own innovation journey and other organizations to prevent the new labs from remaining as separate silos outside the core business of UNDP. Instead, from the beginning, they are deeply integrated at the heart of the organization. The intent with the network is far from modest – to build “the fastest learning network around development challenges”.

AP – Paraphrasing from the PDIA methodology, I think that two factors are key to support any new initiative: 1) Authority, that is, someone with decision-making authority gives the go ahead; and 2) Acceptance, that is, recognition by managers and middle-level staff that the initiative is worth pursuing. How do these two elements/principles resonate with the Accelerator Lab in Vietnam?

IU – I couldn’t agree more with how important it is to have strong support from the leadership and acceptance by the rest of the office. With the Accelerator Labs network, this was thankfully realized from the beginning and we were fortunate to have it launched by the Administrator himself, giving the highest priority to the agenda. Similarly, in each of the 60 country offices, the Resident Representative is the head of the lab. In our case, the lab team is also part of the management team, which shows the commitment to driving forward, institutionalizing and integrating the new approach in the office.

As with all organizational change, there is always some resistance. Before, we used to talk about the labs as the virus injected into the organization’s core and the body trying to reject it, but in the current context we might need to come up with a new metaphor. Nevertheless, with such a fundamental shift to the prevailing development paradigm it is understandable that there will be questions and initial scepticism. Moving away from the traditional project-based delivery to a portfolio of experiments is not an easy task for any organization. Still, the general reception of the lab has been very positive, and the approach has been widely approved and sparked a lot of curiosity and excitement among colleagues.

AP – When did the Accelerator Lab start and what, in your opinion, have been the key moments so far?

IU – The Accelerator Lab Network was launched in January 2019 and depending on each country office the teams were on board at slightly different times. For us, the first real kick off was the internal Portfolio Sensemaking we organized in June 2019. The Portfolio Sensemaking protocol is something UNDP developed with Axilo as a process to help country offices evaluate the composition and cohesion of their current portfolio of activities. Portfolio Sensemaking provided us a space for structured conversation about the scale, diversity, impact and coherence across all our current activities. These discussions allowed us to identify patterns emerging from the current set of projects (including on capabilities, system effects and inter-linkages) and formulate insights that were used to frame a portfolio of options for our country office moving forward. These insights set the ground for the lab’s work, which was up and running in July with our newly recruited team in place.

As a result of the Sensemaking, we have been developing key capabilities in the office and with our government partners on new governance approaches to complex development challenges, which we refer to as Triple A Governance: Anticipatory, Agile and Adaptive. Additionally, some key highlights have been working on addressing some of the most pressing issues in Da Nang city, namely waste management and plastics pollution, through carrying out a systemic design workshop for Da Nang city authorities, conducting our first experiment in a month to help the city develop its waste management model, and building a portfolio of experiments to create a more systemic impact. Currently, we are also engaged in a more fundamental process of systems transformation within UNDP Viet Nam through building new set of competencies about emerging policy problems for which there are no single point solutions for. This is with the acknowledgement that we will need to continuously strengthen our skills and capabilities to learn faster.

Da Nang, photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash

AP – What have you learned through this experience?

IU – Overall, some key learnings within UNDP have been around the importance of institutionalizing the Accelerator Lab approaches and systems thinking to the core business of UNDP, including existing and pipeline projects and internal processes and mechanisms. Additionally, we have been learning a lot about creating behavioural change within the office and developing new cross-unit ways of working to create a more systemic impact. One can’t underestimate how important good people skills are in leading and implementing such change within the organization or the government. Many times, a change is catalysed in informal gatherings instead of official meetings. Furthermore, at the wider organizational level understanding the underlying incentive structures and embedding the change within this existing system have been fundamental.

With our partners we have faced challenges in ‘legitimizing’ the new experimentation approach, for example in the eyes of local government officials, and building our credibility to work in Da Nang on the more system-level change. We learned a lot about behaviours affecting waste segregation practices as a result of our experiment, and about the systemic leverage points in the waste management system as a result of the systemic design workshop. This forms the basis of our subsequent portfolio of experiments. We also realized how reactive the local government’s response has been to many pressing issues, and therefore we have been developing key capabilities on Anticipatory, Agile and Adaptive governance to better support our government partners to respond to complex development challenges and new systemic risks.

The whole journey so far has definitely been accelerated learning for all of us in the office on multiple fronts, and the team is only getting started!

AP – What lies ahead? How do you imagine the Accelerator Lab in 2030?

IU – I think it goes without saying that COVID-19 will have a big impact on everything we do as it will most likely fundamentally shift the economic and social structures in place, creating a ‘new normal’. The question for us now is: how will we let it shape our societies and institutions? I think this is where the lab’s focus will be in moving forward, how to help governments in building back better. The crisis has emphasized the need for more anticipatory approaches, highlighting how initially a weak signal can create such massive disruption. It has emphasized the increased complexity of change: in speed, inter-connectedness and uncertainty, in which our work and the governments need to adapt. This is just one example of global disruption, which requires new types of responses from the government, businesses, civil society and development organizations alike. Accelerator Labs are UNDP’s way of responding to these challenges. Although their shape and form might change overtime, the approach they represent will be increasingly needed for us to remain relevant in addressing these strategic risks.

AP – Thank you very much, Ida.

If you republish, please add this text: This article is republished from Knowledge Counts, a blog by Arnaldo Pellini under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

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Systems thinking in a time of crisis. In conversation with SITRA Lab’s Mikael Seppälä

As of today, there are more than 2.17 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally. The pandemic has spread at an unprecedented speed to more than 190 countries around the world. By the end of March 2020, over 180 countries had closed down their schools. Governments are taking action around the world to manage school closures, country-wide healthcare emergencies and likely economic recession (if not depression).

Governments have to take multiple policy decisions across policy sectors, very quickly and with high uncertainty. Systems Thinking seems to me to be the appropriate lens or framework to do that, but can it be applied at a time of crisis such as the one we are living through? And if so, how?

I reached out to Mikael Seppälä (also on Twitter) at SITRA Lab in Helsinki for a chat to find out more. We started with Systems Thinking and ended up talking about how we should use innovation to actively manage systemic risks such as COVID-19.

Thinking about systems, Mikael Seppäla

Arnaldo Pellini – Let me start with my main question: does Systems Thinking help government decisions at a time of crisis, like the one we are living through? The background to this question is that I have been working on a policy brief about the challenges and opportunities for governments in developing countries to transition to distance learning. Most governments are taking big decisions like this very quickly and in all sectors. They do so with incomplete information and a high degree of uncertainty. In this context, during a crisis what does it mean to apply systems thinking?

Mikael Seppälä – I think a lot of governments are in the complex mode where, borrowing from Dave Snowden, they have to probe, sense and respond quickly with what you mention, incomplete information. Since the start of the lockdown period in Finland on 16 March, I haven’t spoken to anyone working in the government, but I’d guess the mode they’re in right now feels very uncomfortable.

As an academic discipline, Systems Thinking is notorious for having a bunch of interesting methods and ways of exploring and understanding the world, but with no real meaning outside of academic circles and some communities of practice. Many of us have seen those intricate Systems Maps of obesity in the UK or the factors affecting stability in Afghanistan. Have those led to actual impact? I don’t really know. I’d guess that they have not had the impact at scale they wanted to have. So instead of just using Systems Thinking, during a time of crisis what governments might need is to amplify that with managing Systemic Risks.

AP – So, leaving the intricate theories in the background and identifying the Systems Thinking that is more appropriate at a time of crisis.

MS – At a recent webinar organized by David Snowden’s Cognitive Edge, the COVID-19 pandemic was defined as a Black Elephant (rather than a Black Swan), meaning we noticed it but mostly ignored it. With crises of this scale, we (and governments) have to be able to act fast rather than focus on the prerequisites of systems thinking and systems doing. When it is time to act, we don’t have time to start building trust, to develop a shared understanding among citizens, to help the system see itself and everything else that requires a lot of convening. We need to prepare our responses before the crisis hits.

Managing Systemic Risks is a lot about preparing for something we know is likely to happen even though we don’t know when it will happen. This requires  government institutions and organizations to adopt a reconceptualization of risks that fits the complex domain – they shouldn’t just try to avoid them or control them, but actively manage their relationship to the possible risks. This means preparing and innovating to build resilience rather than trying to react when something happens. 

AP – What are the capabilities that are required in government organizations to apply systems thinking at a time of crisis?

MS – I really liked the post about Taiwan that you shared. Taiwan has been preparing for the next pandemic since 2004 when it encountered SARS. Whereas much of the rest of the world was waiting to see what it was all about, the Taiwanese were already actively asking whether this might be the new SARS and already managing the risks in December 2019. Over the years Taiwan had developed a portfolio of 124 action items it was prepared to implement should it encounter a similar situation.

Another example is from the World Economic Forum. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2020 report does a great job of outlining interconnected Systemic Risks that are already present and likely to emerge despite nations and international institutions trying to work on the Sustainable Development Goals. You can see that infectious diseases are just one of the Systemic Risks.

Global Risks Interconnections Map. Source: World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2020 report

Another example comes from the OECD.In October 2019, the OECD’s New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC) Initiative, which was established to distil the lessons from the 2008 global financial crisis, organized a conference on Averting Systemic Collapse. This explored the question of how to manage Systemic Risks. At the conference they published a report called Resilience Strategies and Approaches to Contain Systemic Risks, which I can warmly recommend to anyone interested in the topic. The report outlines some of the capabilities that enable resilience management. The capabilities are essentially adaptive and networked and span the physical, informational, cognitive and social domains. Using these perspectives to understand Systemic Risks in a complex adaptive system is key to being able to manage them.

AP – So, there is a lot of thinking and knowledge production out there. Why were our governance systems, with some exceptions, not ready for the COVID-19 crisis?

MS – Considering the financial collapse that COVID-19 has created, I’m a bit confused about why the dominant narrative that drives innovation is that of creating new businesses, jobs, products and services. Given the imminent Systemic Risks that we face globally, governments should direct more finances into Systems Innovation that seeks to build the resilience that would help us mitigate future risks. The goal here is to work on networks of whole systems rather than inventing silver bullets that would magically solve the problems. Rather than being the starting point, the outcome of such innovation could be new businesses, jobs, products and services.

The investment logic of this could be borrowed from insurance, but with the difference that rather than paying to fix problems after the risks have been fulfilled, investment would be up front to be able to plan, absorb, recover and adapt faster and cheaper. This requires systemic capabilities that help governments and societies to do this.

AP – Mikael, thank you very much

If you republish, please add this text: This article is republished from Knowledge Counts, a blog by Arnaldo Pellini under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0). You can read the original article here.

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Education during the COVID-19 crisis: Opportunities and constraints of using EdTech in low-income countries

Over the last two weeks, as part of my work with the Edtech Hub, I have worked with Raluca David, Digital Pathways at Oxford, Blavatnik School of Government, Katy Jordan, EdTech Hub, University of Cambridge, and Toby Phillips, Digital Pathways at Oxford, Blavatnik School of Government on a policy brief about government responses to the COVID-19 crisis in the education sector in low-income countries.

You can read/download the brief here.

The key messages in the brief are:

  • During this time of crisis, education will not be business-as-usual, and EdTech alone cannot close the learning gap. It will be dedicated teachers and resilient educators who will ensure learning doesn’t stop — but they could be helped by the right EdTech tools
  • The digital divide means that internet and mobile network access varies greatly in middle- and low-income countries
  • Governments can provide immediate support by informing teachers about simple grassroots platforms where they can share their own EdTech solutions
  • Educational television and radio broadcasts in combination with SMS are effective communication channels between educators and students when the internet connectivity is poor or not available
  • It will be important for education authorities to begin planning how in 12 months’ time they will diagnose and treat the learning gaps that have emerged during the crisis

Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash