The System Shift: Frames, Energies and Experiments

By Alex Oprunenco

Our journey in search of policies and investments that will drive system-level change around the challenge of waste is under way. As a reminder, our interest is in moving beyond single entry point solutions or greenwashing riding the hype of plastic backlash. The kick-off of the initiative in the first two countries, Vietnam and Maldives, that included ethnographic research and systemic design workshops, brought abundant data to reflect upon and feed into our current focus on portfolio design.

There is however an important, parallel learning path (along with implementation) that we are embarking on — one of organizational learning from the perspective of how differently we need to do things and what different competences we might need as organizations for that. As we anticipated, the shift from “running projects” to “designing portfolios” requires something more than a focus on tools such as system maps or organizational commitment to run experiments. We are entering the much more challenging territory of changing mindsets and developing new competencies for working through and with complexity. I would like to take some time to explore this with you. Below are some early insights from our nascent work in Vietnam and Maldives.

Framing the challenge

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” says the famous saying, and I would add that if all you have is a project, everything looks like a magic bullet. It is reductionist and does not allow people and teams to see interdependencies between project and thus the nature of issues more holistically. Another way of putting this: we tend to project our organizational building block (aka projects) onto the world, thereby limiting our understanding of issues (particularly when it comes to non-linear dynamics) rather than working backwards from the nature of the problem we are addressing.

In this project, we are attempting to break this tendency by shifting culture. The initial engagements have been very much underpinned by:

· Ethnographic Interviews: to understand human experience behind plastic pollution and waste management;

· System Dynamics: to better understand influence, power, and culture (among other things) as drivers of behavior in the system;

· Participant Reflection: to create the space to allow participants to reflect on the system as they have experienced it, how they would like it to be, and the role they as individuals and as a collective have in shifting current state behaviors.

When combined, these three processes have allowed for considerable reframing of the challenge space in the case of Da Nang city and the Maldives. Collective action has been endorsed not as a nice to have, but a must. Moreover, the shared understanding and representation of the social, cultural and economic drivers of the plastic waste has allowed the conversation to shift along several axis:

· From single point solutions to a broad palette of strategies: shifting from an instinctive bias towards technology focused interventions TO approaches premised on working with social norms and building social infrastructure, with technology playing an auxiliary role. In both cases, the system exploration navigated to seemingly deeper drivers of current state complexity that include surfacing and working with worldviews about the way people perceive waste (e.g. out of sight-out of mind). This is very much converse to a surface level technical analysis of the nature of the problem. (what happened to all those shiny apps?);

· From top-down, one size fits all solutionism to initiatives that reflect varied geographies and bottom-up energy. In both Da Nang and the Maldives we identified grassroots initiatives like a recycling start-up in Da Nang or several local councilors driving local responses on several atolls in Maldives;

· From centrally planned micro-management to “mission driven” public policy that sets “green” direction, engages communities in decision-making and spurs bottom-up action on the ground.

· From projects as an end in itself to experiments as units of learning about the challenge at hand, in a portfolio logic. Astro Teller’s n. 1 principle for good experiments states that “Any experiment where you already know the outcome is a BAD experiment.” Among the stakeholders we convened there was a widely shared sentiment that failed projects kept being regurgitated, and learning was not advancing as a consequence. This was ultimately hindering the articulation of coherent policy responses.

As we collectively walked through these shifts the attention moved from questions of implementation of “quick fixes” to questions of portfolio design: how to ensure coherence and complementarity of future experiments? How do make sure we have a sufficiently diversified set of experiments, testing at times competing hypotheses concurrently as well as how articulated experiments can build on each other?

Layering social energies: from research and workshops to movements

The way we engage and work with local ecosystems is a definitive element of success for our initiative and this cannot be compromised. Waste is a wicked problem that will require long term commitment; the development of a granular understanding of specific contexts; and the employment of different strategies to identify and mobilize “unusual suspects” so that they can coalesce around a common purpose.

Building on local networks, and social capital is fundamental. The stronger our connection with the two the better the diversity of views in understanding the systemic nature of the challenge, visioning paths for system transformation and engaging in “deep demonstrations” for change. Below is a case in point. In Maldives surfaced an idea for a 3R waste festival as a possible way to experiment with shifting social norms and driving social energy in respective communities towards desired change.

The question for us moving forward is how can we help facilitate this space, keep on layering these social energies and talents (even if that means going beyond the initial thematic focus) and orchestrate a cascade of moments?

Developing Portfolio of Experiments — towards new competences

The initial phase highlighted that we need to acquire a different set of competences to carry this work forward. The table below summarizes some of the competences that are- or-should be at the core of our initiative now and moving forward. These come from our work in the field to day and dovetails with the broader conversations about new set of skills and capabilities required to work on complex challenges.

These competences are not necessarily widespread in the public sector or development organizations. Hence our work in the coming months will be very much focusing not only on designing a portfolio of experiments but also locating, bringing in or developing those competences to help us move away from our engrained project obsession and developing responses to the challenges our societies are facing. All in all, this will help us learn about ways of working and organizational capability we need to nurture to be able to make a dent on this new class of emergent and complex issues such as plastic waste. Stay tuned and more importantly, let us know if you are interested in getting involved!

I would like to thank Brent Wellsch and Salvatore Cucchiara of our wonderful institutional partner, Alberta CoLab, for their support through this phase of our joint learning journey and inputs into this blog. I am also grateful to Binh, Lan, Luong (UNDP ALab Vietnam) and Shifaz (UNDP Maldives) for being “partners in crime” in this initiative.


Alex Oprunenco leads several cross cutting initiatives on future of government and application of system-based approaches in development with the UNDP Regional Innovation Centre. You can see more on Twitter at @ricap_undp and @AlexOprunenco

    Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

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