In Defense of Theory (Part IV) — Meso Matters

Does the connective tissue between micro and macro hold the key to systems change?

Connective tissue — boring, but vital.

This is the fourth article in a multi-part series that argues for greater appreciation of conceptual work in addressing climate change and other wicked societal problems. You can read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here. The other parts are forthcoming.

Over the past five years, while working for Climate-KIC, I’ve had the privilege to engage with hundreds of fascinating climate innovations. Many of them convert human ingenuity, technological prowess, and entrepreneurial talent into a promise to bend the world’s greenhouse gas emissions curve or strengthen its resilience to global warming.

Concurrently, I’ve also observed or contributed to bold climate actions hatched in parliamentary halls, government offices, and corporate board rooms, including the development of the European Union’s R&D programme Horizon Europe, Slovenia’s pursuit of a circular economy, UNDP’s attempt at redefining sustainable development, and the revision of Switzerland’s CO2 law.

So I’ve been able to engage both the micro and macro levels of systems innovation — the bottom-up and the top-down, the individual ingredients of a sustainable future and the institutions controlling the most powerful levers of change at the societal level.

What I’ve come to realise over the years is how little these two worlds know of each other, how little they understand each other, and how little they interact. All too often, the micro cannot reach into the macro, and the macro cannot make sense of what’s happening on the micro — the distance is simply too far.

Here is why that is, why it is a problem, and why coping with the most pressing and tangible challenges of the 21st century might depend on our ability to build more effective bridges that connect the two worlds.

Of Trenches and Ivory Towers

Imagining and developing the building blocks of a better world requires vision, creativity, courage, ingenuity, and risk tolerance. These qualities tend to reside within people who have fallen in love with a problem and who dedicate their careers to innovation and experimentation, have the capacity to think differently, and persevere in the face of adversity.

People of this calibre usually work in the trenches, where making progress depends as much on intangible assets such as trustful relationships and hard-earned legitimacy as it does on more mundane matters such as engineering, permitting, hiring, cash flow, marketing, or the laws of thermodynamics. I know this because I’ve laboured in the trenches myself, most notably during my time as an entrepreneur at the renewable energy start-up Electrochaea.

On the other hand, sketching and negotiating the future of entire cities, regions, countries, or continents requires a different version of vision and foresight — one that considers the aggregate, calculates with averages, pays attention to societal strata, celebrates compromise, and prepares for evolutions, not revolutions.

People thriving in the ivory towers of the macrocosm enjoy the big-picture view, revel in the dynamics of politics, know how to play the game of power, love a good report, and excel at finding common ground. I know this because I’ve dwelled in ivory towers, studying environmental change and management at the University of Oxford, developing policy recommendations for the Swiss government, compiling industry analyses for GTM Research, and writing white papers for Climate-KIC.

Left, “ivory towers” at the University of Oxford, where I studied. Right, the methanation tower of Electrochaea’s power-to-gas demonstration plant, which I project-managed for a period of time, partially from the trenches of the Avedøre sewage plant on the outskirts of Copenhagen.

In the context of systems innovation, both the micro and macro matter. Neither is superior to the other; we need them both. But the two worlds represent different kinds of work that happen in different contexts, are governed by different incentives and dynamics, and require different skills and mindsets. And because they are so different, micro-level entrepreneurs and macro-level officials often struggle to relate to and engage with one another in a generative way, even when they both address the same problem and get their coffee from the same shop around the corner.

The Complexity/Connectivity Relationship

“Bollocks!”, some may say, “The micro and the macro connect all the time.”

And that’s right, of course. Macro-level actions can change the boundary conditions for micro-level activities, such as when a new subsidy scheme makes rooftop solar more attractive. Likewise, a micro-level intervention can cause a stir at the macro level, such as when a Swedish teenager decides to go on a school strike.

However, the strength of this connection seems to depend on the nature of the problem. Simple or complicated problems (in the parlance of the Cynefin framework) are easy to connect over because they can be analysed, categorised, and assigned. For instance, when the world needed COVID-19 vaccines (a complicated problem), the White House launched Operation Warp Speed.

Cynefin Framework by David Snowden (via Javier de Vicente Javier, here)

But for complex problems, it’s considerably harder to make the micro and macro connect. Take the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, whose impact on society is so profound and incomprehensible that governments around the world struggle to regulate them. Or consider the response to COVID-19 beyond vaccine development — the actions taken in the complex domains of social and economic policies — and how they laid bare how little governments are prepared to deal with fast-changing, non-linear phenomena that play out against a politically polarised backdrop.

Confronted with complexity, both micro and macro players tend to reduce the messiness of reality to bite-size chunks that are easier to grasp and handle. The default response on the macro-level is reductionism, which you can experience when walking through “solutions exhibitions” at high-level fora such as the UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties (COP). The default response on the micro-level is greenwishing — the belief that single-point innovations are going to bring about system-level changes — which you can experience by browsing through the portfolios of most cleantech venture capital firms.

In either case, what tends to emerge is a patchwork of loosely related innovation artefacts — technologies, policies, initiatives, projects — instead of a holistic fabric weaved from the yarns spun from technological, cultural, political, social, and economic innovation.

Why is that?

How Complexity Changes the Demand on Connectors

Simple or complicated problems are the domains of best practice and expertise. The problems are static, root causes are known, and cause/effect relationships are apparent to those with the right training and experience. So problem-solvers — entrepreneurs, politicians, bureaucrats, and managers — can rely on categorization and analysis to pick or develop the right solutions.

Complex problems, on the other hand, tend to have multiple (non-obvious) root causes. They are difficult to analyse and impossible to forecast. And they tend to evolve constantly. Nobody has a thorough, structural understanding of complex issues and how they can be tackled — to a large degree, everybody is flying blind.

So in complex domains, it’s difficult for macro-level players to make sense of what’s happening at the micro-level. This may be the case when the situation on the micro-level is changing faster than the macro-level can measure and interpret, as with COVID-19 infections; or when the people operating at the macro-level don’t have the skills to understand how the micro-level operates, as with cryptocurrencies; or when there are simply too many solutions to track, as with renewable energy.

Meanwhile, it’s hard for innovators and other micro-level players to reach into the macro space. Often, they simply don’t have the time to play in both spheres, or they lack the connections, the vocabulary, or the political savvy to navigate bureaucracies. And even if they do possess these qualities, they may be seen as self-interested and therefore as lacking the legitimacy to argue for their cause.

My hypothesis is that as the degree of complexity of a problem grows, it becomes increasingly difficult for the micro and the macro to connect.

On simple problems, the connection typically happens organically — just consider the plethora of hackathons sponsored by companies, universities, and governments around the world.

On complicated problems, traditional connectors in the form of information aggregators and advocacy groups can bridge what is often just a knowledge gap. This is the domain of innovation platforms, trade associations, conferences, and think tanks.

But somewhere in the transition zone between complicatedness and complexity, the nature of the connection challenge changes. While in the complicated domain the task of connectors is to broker information, in the complex domain it’s to generate knowledge, navigate fundamental uncertainty, and enable collective learning and sensemaking. In other words, in the complex domain, micro-macro connectivity no longer occurs organically, and information aggregation becomes much less effective at bridging the two worlds.

A Hypothesis: In simple contexts, micro-macro connections happen organically. In complicated contexts, information aggregators provide effective bridges. But in the transition zone between complicatedness and complexity, the nature of the connection challenge changes, creating the need for a new type of connector adept at connecting the micro with the macro in the context of complexity.

Our collective challenge is that the most pressing and tangible problems of the 21st century — from climate change to income inequality, gender discrimination, or biodiversity loss — happen to fall into the domain of complexity. In the absence of effective micro-macro bridges, ambitious policies remain empty promises with no large-scale uptake, while ingenious innovations remain beautiful exceptions that never scale beyond their original testbeds.

That’s why complex societal challenges require that the micro and the macro interact in novel ways, with a different quality. What we need is a new kind of connective tissue, one that understands what each sphere needs and can amplify innovation effects on both sides.

The Meso Space

The sandwich zone between the micro and the macro is, of course, the meso. It’s the area between ivory-tower institutions, corporations, and governments and the “trench folks” of innovators, entrepreneurs, community organizers, free spirits, and ordinary citizens.

Connective tissue capable of linking the micro and the macro — what I call the “meso space”— should perform six core functions:

1) Convener

This role is about “building the field” for addressing a particular (complex) challenge within a “space”. It entails structuring diverse and trans-disciplinary innovation ecosystems and community engagement activities with the purpose of sourcing and exchanging ideas, cultivating collaborations, developing trustful relationships, generating a sense of possibility, connecting new members to the community, and attracting resources.

To play this role effectively, meso players should be free of conflicts of interests so that they can act as honest brokers. They should also be fluent in the lexicons of the worlds they seek to bridge so that they can play the role of translator and mediator.

2) Sensemaker

This role is about building a learning infrastructure across the portfolio of experiments within a specific space. The purpose here is to extract insights and generate intelligence about what might be possible and how the micro and macro can support each other in the pursuit of their respective goals.

For instance, a meso player could help a corporation scout for innovations to support strategic risk management, support governments in building portfolios of innovation experiments to test transition pathways, or advise bureaucrats on how to design innovation policy.

3) Coherer

Systems innovation isn’t about swapping out individual elements — it’s about creating new wholes. Yet operating in the fundamental uncertainty of complexity means that it’s never clear, at the outset, how exactly to do that.

So innovating in complexity requires a pluralistic approach in which different truths, world views, practices, and timeframes can co-exist. The challenge, then, is to steward the portfolio (or parts of it) toward coherence, where a system’s identity and design is aligned with its purpose and with the environment in which it is embedded (cf. Luca Gatti’s treatise on “Strategy as Coherence”). The meso level is here to do just that — be the guardian of pluralism and the creator of coherence.

4) Impact Guardian

Meso players are ideally positioned to safeguard the systems change effort from mission drift and mission retreat. Macro and micro players often have vested interests, for instance in particular policy proposals or specific single-point solutions, and may not be neutral in assessing the effectiveness of their propositions. Moreover, they tend to be interested in their specific areas of work and not necessarily in outcomes at the level of the system as a whole.

In contrast, meso players can assess individual propositions free of bias and with a degree of rationality not available to those with vested interests. They can also advocate for people who are affected by the system innovation efforts but not represented in the space. Most importantly, they can represent the interests of the system as a whole, calling out if change doesn’t go in the right direction or if negative spill-over phenomena or unintended consequences are creating adverse secondary effects.

5) Balancer

Systems organise around attractors. In human systems, attractors are often people with power, such as decision-makers, influencers, funders, and the like. This means that the playing field is never level and that imbalances of all sorts exist — between the wealthy and the poor, the powerful and the directed, and the mainstream and the marginalised.

The meso layer can play an important role in mitigating these imbalances. It can surface them, call them out, and propose mitigants such as engaging the underrepresented (to increase legitimacy), moderating the share of voice (to maximise the generation of collective intelligence), and using participatory decision-making (to democratise the effort).

6) Scaler

Generating impact beyond its starting point is a challenge for all innovations, whether it’s a new technology looking for a global audience (the story of many an entrepreneurial endeavour) or a new government policy looking for citizen uptake (a case in point being the disaster that was the UK Government’s “Green Deal” energy efficiency programme).

The meso level can help entrepreneurs engage with policy-makers to shape a market for their technologies. It can connect micro-level innovations with institutional mechanisms to generate long-term demand. It can also connect dispersed innovation communities working on separate but adjacent problems into innovation superclusters (cf. Quanta Magazine’s treatise on “explosive percolation”). And it can construct and disseminate narratives from the experiences and proof points of both macro-level and micro-level interventions from a neutral vantage point.

Many think that network connectivity happens in a slow, continuous manner. But researchers have discovered that in special cases, connectivity emerges with a bang via a phenomenon known as “explosive percolation”. This happens when clusters connect with other clusters, thereby forming superclusters — a process that a meso space can facilitate.

The meso layer is an increasingly important stratum in making systems innovation work. Yet it doesn’t come into existence on its own, at least not with conductive properties — it must be deliberately built and carefully nurtured.

Through my work on the TransCap Initiative, I’ve come to understand just how difficult it is to convey the importance of meso spaces. Macro-level players are often too comfortable remaining in their ivory towers. Micro-level players retain a steadfast belief that their solution will scale simply based on its own merits. And funders often prefer either the highly abstract or the extremely tangible.

In my experience, few are drawn to the connective tissue, not least because it’s boring and unspecific. But I remain convinced that without it, wholeness cannot come into existence.

Postscript

This article uses a dichotomy between “micro” and “macro” to convey the point that systems innovation happens on different scales that must connect but struggle to do so in contexts of complexity.

This framing is, of course, both arbitrary and reductionist. There are many ways of conceptualizing layers in a system. Real-world systems also tend to have many more layers than just two. And even where a micro/macro dichotomy is useful, in reality, the boundaries between these layers are often blurry.

Here is how Cassie Robinson. makes sense of system layers (via Millie Begovic R.). This representation also conveys a notion of scale and hierarchy but is more spacious than the dichotomy between micro and macro. And yet the connection challenge remains.

Nevertheless, the key messages stand — systems are layered, the people operating in these layers are different, and they care most about their own layers and propositions. A connection challenge thus exists in all systems, irrespective of how we represent them, and where there is a connection gap, it must be bridged with spaces attuned for the specific context at hand.

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Dominic Hofstetter

Dominic Hofstetter

I write to inform, inspire, and trigger new strategies for tackling climate change.