Dealing with complex global challenges

Event: Sitra Heräämö XL
21st of November, in Helsinki

Sitra Heräämö XL event is a part of Sitra Lab’s Heräämö breakfast event -series. This specific event was extra-large, because instead of one there were three interesting international speakers, who gave presentations about societal innovations and global challenges: Indy Johar from Dark Matter Labs, Piret Tõnurist from OECD’s Observatory for Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) and Joseph D’Cruz from the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) global Accelerator Labs network.


The presentations formed a good combination, because Johar explained the need for systems change, Tõnurist on the other hand explained what systems change does mean in practice, and D’Cruz gave an interesting example of creating a lab network.

Indy Johar – A Great Transition

Indy Johar is a designer, an architect and a co-founder of Dark Matter Labs – an organisation that designs institutional infrastructures and new forms of collaboration that help build democratic futures.

The name of the presentation was “a Great Transition”, because according to Johar, the next ten years is going to be a very significant transformation in our society. This is because many global challenges we face today, like climate change, water pollution, poverty and global inequalities, are very wicked and complex challenges: there are many actors involved and due to interdependency, everything affects to everything. This means, you can’t solve these problems alone, “there is no magic bullet” for that. In fact, Johar argues, that these challenges are only the symptoms – the real problems are the structural failures in the system, “deep codes”, which are historically very deep rooted in our society and economy. If we want to make changes into the real problem, we need a systems change.

However, the challenge in systems change is, that there are many actors who have to be involved, who have to act – nothing happens if all actors are not committed to the change. Johar states, that if we want to make a change, we must think and act differently: systems change requires a new way of organizing. It is not enough to say that you know what the problem is – it is fundamental to build a shared understanding of the problem. Shared understanding can be constructed through co-creation, for example in labs, and through shared understanding there can be commitment to the problem solving. Solutions can be tried out as small scale experiments, which can be indicators of larger scale transitions.

The presentation and the slides are available below.

Piret Tõnurist – Systems Change: how to get started and keep going?

Piret Tõnurist works for the OECD’s Observatory for Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) where she promotes practical approaches in Systems Thinking and Anticipatory Innovation Governance.

Tõnurist talked about systems change and according to her, systems thinking is a good approach to dealing with many societal issues, because they usually are quite complex. However, defining the problem through systems thinking and setting the development goals are usually not enough to make something actually happen. The most difficult phase in systems change is the phase of implementation, and that’s why it is said to be the phase where “the ideas go to die”.

According to Tõnurist, the challenges in systems change are associated especially to three following problems:

  1. Knowing and “knowing”. You might know existing problems and challenges, but it is quite another thing to “know”, to actually internalize the problem. For “knowing” purpose, systems thinking is an excellent method: it is useful in framing complex, societal issues and it helps to understand how to get into the intended goals. However, the negative side of systems thinking is that it is quite difficult and time-consuming method, which needs a lot of effort and investments. So, it is worth to think about when it is a good time and place to use it.
  1. Knowing and ”doing”. Knowing and analysing systemic problems is very different than actually doing something systematically about them. It is possible, that even though you are able to understand the whole systemic framework of an issue and the interconnections between different factors, it does not lead to solutions. The result of systemic analysis can be a complicated map full of different factors and connections, which leaves you just wondering that what on earth you are supposed to do. The systemic analysis doesn’t give you a direct solution and sometimes, in the end, there will be only a “complexity paralysis”. In order to be able to go further, Tõnurist argues, that first, the new purpose of the system must be defined. There should be done a problem framing exercise, where you can start comparing also what has to be changed in that complicated system in order to be able to deliver the purpose – the complexity of the system has to be analysed with the purpose and goal in mind. For example, “Mission Planning Canvas” is a good tool, where you can make the value proposition for the pubic and the private sector. In this way, it is possible to make all the actors committed.
  1. Powerful feeling powerless. Tõnurist has noticed, that even very powerful people feel powerless, when problems are not directly under their control, under their mandate. In dealing with the complex problems, the organisational boundaries and silos should be surpassed, there is a need for new ways of working.

As a conclusion, in systems change, the challenge is not only framing and analysing the complex problems, but also building capacity to do it continuously. Tõnurist states, that in systems change, if there are involved people who are willing to act – anything is possible!

The presentation and the slides are available below.

Joseph D’Cruz – Reimagining International Development Cooperation to tackle 21st century challenges

Joseph D’Cruz works as a senior advisor in strategy and planning in the UNDP. He gave a presentation about UNDP’s initiative in which the aim is to find out a new approach to deal with complex and wicked development problems which currently are increasing more rapidly than the ability to solve them.
Against this background, UNDP defined following three main questions:

  1. How do we better tackle complex and fast-moving challenges?
  2. How do we find the most relevant solutions that work locally?
  3. How do we learn more quickly about what works and what doesn’t – and then bring solutions to scale?

For this purpose, UNDP has built a network of Accelerator Labs in 60 countries, with the aim of creating the world’s fastest learning network of solving development problems. The mission of the network is: “To catalyse positive change by finding and sharing solutions that fit the times we live in, and generating new ideas for the times yet to come.”

D’Cruz explained the structure and function of labs and network, and the very interesting part from design perspective was to hear about what kind of initial tools the labs are provided (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The initial tools for Labs (slide from D’Cruz’s presentation)

From the point of view of development projects, D’Cruz stated, that the key insight is, that the phase of solutions mapping should be done properly. Before, in many international development projects, this has been neglected, and the knowledge that already exists in the context have not been used efficiently or not at all. D’Cruz emphasized that people who are already working in the contexts where development problems exist, they are very likely already working with the solutions. The way to start is to find out, who have already identified the problem, which different actors are already working on it and then solving, how to bring them together as a network to leverage the expertise they have.

Another problem in international development projects traditionally has been, that projects have a linear approach to the problem. The result is that the learning process is very slow, because usually learning reflection is done at the end of a project, which lasts usually three to five years. So, instead of this, in Lab network, the aim is to design and conduct experiments around portfolios of solutions rather than individual solutions, which enables to learn about what works and what doesn’t – and this will be done in weeks or months instead of several years, so the learning process is much faster than before. The Accelerator Lab cycle is presented in Figure 2.

Figure 2. The Accelerator Lab cycle (slide from D’Cruz’s presentation)

The presentation and the slides are available below.

For me, as a Service Design student, this event as a whole, was very interesting introduction to systems thinking, societal questions and global challenges. Especially from a service design point of view it really inspired to dig deeper into the topic of how to combine systems thinking and design thinking.

Author: Erika Niemi-Vanala

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s