What is Development? : The Road Ahead

What implications does complex adaptive thinking have for how we manage development?

In his 40-min lecture posted on the Center for Global Development, Owen Barder makes a new and compelling case about how we should think about development. His talked, titled “What is Development” presents us with key ideas that should shift the way we think about foreign engagement in developing economies.

In Part 4 of this blog series (Part 3: Evolutionary ProgressPart 2: Progress in a Vacuum ; Part 1: Where we've been) we discuss the imperatives we face given the systemic nature of the development challenge.


Why have I written this post? We spend billions on development aid, and if the end result of a generation of goodwill is inefficiency and anemic progress, then we risk disillusioning those that follow. The world not only needs us to have a big heart, but also the best of our mind.

How can we be smarter about the change we seek to make? I'm going to skip the justifications (read prior posts for the build-up) and delve into a short list of how our development efforts much change.

1. Resist Engineering
It's tempting to design the ultimate solution. However, evolutionary biology is a story of adaptive change consistently outperforming design. As the challenges get tougher, the simplifying assumptions we must make to comprehend and the model undercuts the value of such an approach.
It takes a level of humility to abandon the illusion of control engineering gives us, but it is a necessary step.

Resisting the lure of over-engineered solutions will also mean that we approach problems with fresh eyes and appreciate the context. What matters in Peru will not matter in Indonesia. Even if the guiding principles hold, the small differences that tip the balance of change can never be fully predicted.

This also means we must find ways to resist the pressure from donors to adopt "best practices" or "industry standards". The history of poorly applied best practice is well worn.

2. Resist Fatalism
It may feel like waiting for evolutionary forces to drive change will leave us watching for the proverbial pot to boil. However, intentional, market driven pressure to iterate fast and effectively can drive dramatic improvement quickly.

It took computers a decade to transition from the office desk to our back pocket, but the pace was driven by companies experimenting and innovating. It wasn't one company that drove that change either (I'm sorry Apple fanboys) but whether Dell changing laptops, or Nokia the cell phone, or Apple the smart phone, or Google the eye-whatever, the progress comes through an optimistic drive for persistent failure and occasional success.

3. Encourage Innovation
Though necessary this can be a hard task to fulfill. Sometimes we need Apple like safeguards to create the right conditions. The argument of pharmaceuticals and the entire patent system is that innovation must be nurtured safely, much like a seedling in a greenhouse.

However, the era of open-source innovation has challenged the notion; arguing the opening the floodgates and creating a collaborative culture will be far more effective. Crowd sourced fundraising have enabled a generation of entrepreneurs to bootstrap their innovations outside the strict confines of corporate R&D.

The method you prefer may reflect as much of your temperament as the circumstances you find yourself in. If the patent system is weak or non-existent, then perhaps open-sharing might be the way to go. Whatever the method, the mandate is clear. Keep placing bets and make sure you stay at the table.

4. Embrace Creative Destruction
Innovation cannot sustain itself without selection. In his follow-up posts he discusses the idea of identifying the right fitness function to enable proper selection. Iteration without a meaningful method for promoting the promising results is meaningless.

Effective selection is the underlying engine for crowd sourced funding. By allowing people to vote with their dollars, the hope is that the best outcomes will bubble up the surface. Similarly, by creating the right marketplace for developmental work we can create an objective lens through which the screen initiatives. The process might seem ruthless and none of us wants to envision our own demise, but progress demands culling and renewal.

5. Act Global
The world is far too large for us to operate in a static and simple framework. Here I relinquish the page to pose a series of ideas:

"If we believe...

that open and accountable institutions are important, we could make a bigger effort to reform international institutions of which we are part. We still participate in processes to appoint leaders of international organizations based on stitch‐ups behind closed doors.

that trade is important, we could do more to open our own markets to trade from developing countries.

that property rights are important, we could do more to enforce the principle that nations, not illegitimate leaders, own their own natural resources, and that anyone who buys oil or minerals from un-elected governments is guilty of handling stolen goods.

that transparency is important, we could start by requiring our own companies to publish the details of the payments they make to developing countries. (the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is a step in the right direction.

that rule of law is important, we could entrench those rights more firmly in our own systems, and resist the temptation to make exceptions in the name of political expediency
that openness and exchange of ideas are important we could do more to welcome the movement of people around the world, instead of making it more and more difficult for people to migrate temporarily or permanently from one country to another."
- Owen Barder


In Part 1, we discussed the complexity of development and how each successive theory of progress has added more layers or agents that are necessary for development to happen. The economy is a highly complex inter-dependent system and it has proved difficult to find the right levers to spur growth.

In Part 2, our case example highlighted the networked nature of systems. A simple toaster making company requires a large ecosystem of products and services in order to function, yet once these are in place, growth is exponential. 

In Part 3, our review of the innovative way Unilever increased soap powder efficiency a hundredfold illustrates how an evolutionary approach to problem solving allows us to overcome incredibly complex challenges.

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