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The Systemic Insight podcast

The Systemic Insight podcast series is presented by Marcus Jenal and Shawn Cunningham. Marcus and Shawn are development practitioners that are passionate about more systemic impact within economic development. Finding more systemic intervention points are becoming more important as donors realize that interventions have to be more sensitive to the complexity of the societies where they want to see positive change happening.

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Apr 28, 2020

Marcus is welcoming back Dr Toby Lowe to the show! The Covid-19 crisis has hit the world and so many things have changed in the short time since we talked to Toby last. Particularly, ideas on complexity and systems thinking have suddenly gained a lot of traction as people realise that the world is indeed an uncertain place and the certainty that we imagined to be in, pre-crisis, was not to last forever. Marcus discusses with Toby how this plays out in the world of social interventions, which has many parallels with the world of international development, as we found out in the last episode.

The chat with Toby was guided by the three elements of the new paradigm of social interventions that Toby and colleagues have describe in their report Exploring the new World (see link below): human learning systems.

Here a brief summary of the points made about human learning systems:

  • Human: The devolution of decision-making enables the people on the front lines to use the detailed and context specific understanding that comes from the relationships they have with people who they serve. That depth of knowledge that is created out of the direct human-to-human relationships should be brought to the centre of decision-making in service delivery. This is particularly important because crises like C-19 impact different people in very different ways, so a standardised response for all people would not have the same benefits for all. Understanding the uniqueness of each person enables bespoke decision-making about what services are needed.
  • Learning: Managers’ primary focus during the C-19 crisis is on creating learning environments. The C-19 crisis has brought the truth front and centre that the world is complex and this truth has become unignorable. People don’t have a rule book to fall back to, there is no target to tell them what to do, so they have to learn. There is now a sudden burst of energy around learning, centred around ideas and practices of rapid learning environments. Crises are ideal moments to learn as things are forced to be done in different ways – we just need to assess these different ways on whether they are better than what was done before. True learning organisations are now putting in place capabilities to do just that.
  • Systems: in places that have built the infrastructures for providers of social services – councils, charities, commercial providers, mutual aid groups, etc. – to work together, the response to the C-19 crisis was much quicker and much more coherent because they already had the channels and the trust-based relationships to coordinate quickly. In places where the provision of social services was driven by a sense of control, competition and mistrust, the response has been much more fragmented and much slower.

Besides the three elements of human learning systems, Toby and Marcus also touched upon other aspects like the question of which decisions should be taken centrally on a national level and which decisions should better be devolved to the local level to people with knowledge of the context, which led to a really interesting discussion.

Resources referenced: