The new zeitgeist: relationships and emergence

Bill Bannear
5 min readMar 9, 2023


Why, in the world of complex design, don’t government clients value the creation of relationships as an outcome? For the past few months, I’ve had the luxury of a sabbatical, exploring how to drive change in complex systems. It’s been a time to reflect, and to connect. Across nearly a hundred conversations I’ve had in that time, it’s this question (on the undervaluation of relationships) that stands out.

A quick story to get the ball rolling: It’s 2016, and I’m managing a complex innovation project for a government client. The commissioner of the project is a recently established innovation team — they have ping pong tables, grass on the walls, the whole deal. They really want to work differently. As we get deeper into the project, the sponsor, who is an economist, starts getting nervous, and wants evidence of the tangible outcomes that will arise — jobs, investment, development indicators.

‘Well, we don’t know. But what we do know is that this is going to create a lot of new and novel relationships that have never existed before, and we think that’s the key to unlocking the value you want,’ we argue.

‘We can’t fund that, it’s too fluffy,’ our sponsor explains. ‘You need to prove to us that this will lead to tangible outcomes, or it’s never going to get funded.’ Things grind to a halt.

Fast forward to 2023, and there is a new zeitgeist around complexity and systems change. Depending on who you are, dear reader, I’m either late to the zeitgeist, or in the vanguard, but it basically boils down to this:

  • We need to stop trying to design the solution, and instead design for the conditions that enable the emergence of many solutions.
  • Fostering more, quality and trusted relationships is a critical enabler of that emergence.
  • For the catalysers of complex system change (often government), that means starting to value relationships as a key outcome.

Let’s unpack this.

Firstly, on stopping designing the thing, and starting to design for the emergence of the thing.

Of the many conversations where this theme emerged, one in particular was with Dave Snowden, at his masterclass on the Cynefin Framework and the emerging method of Estuarine Mapping. In short, this is a method for identifying constraints in a system, understanding what can move, what can’t, and what constraints to prioritise efforts around. By shifting key constraints (through a portfolio of microprojects), we can try to create more favourable conditions for the emergence of more of what we want to see.

At the same time, I was in a series of conversations with people in the orbit of Indy Johar and Dark Matter Labs, on redesigning social governance, and decentralising capital allocation decisions for local value creation. How can we enable the emergence of more sustainable, regenerative investment by shifting structure of investment?

Meanwhile, conversations with Kate Bennett and her colleagues at Hypha, were exposing me to the detailed working of self-governing decentralised autonomous organisations (DAO). I was also colliding with the work of Sir Geoff Mulgan, on collective intelligence, which combines crowdsourcing with analytics to support scaled action with better insights.

As a strategic designer for the past ten years, working on all manner of complex design challenges that usually involved visioning, preferred futures and designing solutions, there was a new paradigm at work here for me: one that recognises that, in the face of the sheer complexity of global challenges like climate change, or trusted information in society, we really ought to channel our energies into enabling the effective action of millions of people, rather than kid ourselves that we, the designer, could find the correct solution or pathway.

To put that another way, we’re trying to create the conditions that allow for effective improvisation at scale, with the right level of constructive constraints (constructors in Cynefin language), that make those improvised efforts useful. That means less concrete visions and roadmaps, and more structures that enable useful decentralised, and improvised action.

So far so good, but what does this have to do with relationships?

Put simply, a key driver of constraints and constructors in a complex system is the relationships of the people within it. It’s storytime again:

It’s 2019 and I’m stewarding a design challenge for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, trying to design a new business model for food distribution. It’s like a big simultaneous equation, where a whole set of capabilities need to come together for the thing to work. Many of these things seemed impossible — until we met the person in the world who had done it already. Luckily for us, the Gates brand served us well in support of finding these people, and opening the door to a relationship with them.

In subsequent work, like with the Alliances for Action model in Singapore, a big part of our practice has been to identify the different capabilities needed to get traction on an issue, and to create the relationships and networks for them to connect.

A diagram of different people who need to form relationships to create an improved ecosystem for change

Diagram: Thinking through who we’re connecting in an Alliance for Action (Extended 4 Voices of Design by ThinkPlace)

This approach to relationship building draws on existing literature around innovation ecosystems, like John Bessant’s spaghetti model of innovation, or Hwang and Horowitz’s Rainforest metaphor.

Value is created, and breakthroughs are made through the strength, number and quality of relationships in these systems. Exactly what these relationships will produce isn’t determined — but they create new affordances in the system, allowing for the emergence of value naturally over time.

I was reminded of this in another recent conversation with Sally Washington, Executive Director for ANZSOG in Aotearoa-New Zealand. We were connecting over a mutual love of creating organic spaces for issues exploration.

In Sally’s case, these are curated conversations, bringing together a group of senior officials from different jurisdictions grappling with similar challenges (like improving policy advice or building foresight capability) to share and generate knowledge. For me, it’s salons — small, intimate, serendipitous gatherings at the pub or cafe on topics of mutual interest. Both seek to create relationships and create space for playful, yet earnest, exploration. There is both intentionality and randomness in who’s there, and the nature of the relationships formed through these actions.

There is much more that can be said and learnt on the topic of relationships — on the role of empathy, on defining the ‘quality’ of a relationship, and on how they scale (when trust is often built on the closeness of relationships). It’s a space I certainly want to explore, to further my work around driving high performing consortia and coalitions.

For now though, I’m content with sitting in the current zeitgeist, and shifting away from designing the thing, to designing for the emergence of thing, driven by the formation of the necessary relationships.

What is absolutely clear is that our government systems need to start seeing time spent building relationships and networks as decidedly ‘not fluffy’. Rather, it is an investment in legitimacy and better outcomes. While they may not have the comfort of a linear line of sight from relationship formation to concrete action and real world impact, they are critical to the emergence of more of what we want to see. The future of policy-making is shifting inexorably from the smart person in a room making decisions, to something decentralised, collaborative and scalable — and relationships are a critical medium of this future. We need more brokers, facilitators, and catalysts in government, connecting government to the wider ecosystem, to make that happen.



Bill Bannear

I'm a strategic designer, with a passion for convening ecosystems, and facilitating complex groups for design.