Despite years of dead aid and persistent failures in the social sector, there are good signs that the kinds of social technologies required for successful community based solutions are growing fast.
In this article I want to bring to attention several related approaches and resources that I see as capable of addressing the intention-result gap in social action. They have emerged over recent years and have roots in different places - Lean Startup, Human Centred Design, the Cynefin framework, and narrative based approaches to sensemaking.
What these concepts and methods have in common is a focus on individual experience, the nonlinear nature of problems, and the capacity for rapid low cost solution discovery, development and implementation. I will begin with theory before describing practical tools.
With roots in mathematics and complexity science, the Cynefin framework offers a conceptual perspective for decision makers that divides problems into types and offers insights into the radically different responses required. The name itself is ‘a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways we can never understand’. Developed by David Snowden, CEO of Cognitive Edge, as an approach to culture rooted in natural sciences (rather than sociology), Cynefin suggests that there are Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic and Disorder problem situations.
Whereas both traditional development and business methods have shown spectacular success at simple (obvious) and complicated (expert) problems, most human issues can be classified as complex. To make the distinction clear, imagine the building of a hospital, a highly technical or complicated procedure in which expertise is critical - versus the decision about the location and necessity of a hospital rather than distributed health practitioners. In the second problem, information about living patterns and cultural attitudes play a role, and this information cannot be simply derived from professionals using blueprints and linear planning; meanings, beliefs, and history play continuous roles that are not fully determinable.
Because in a complex system there aren’t distinct cause-effect relationships, but an ever evolving pattern that can only ever be partially known, the appropriate response is to act, sense and respond. And the best kind of actions are small, safe-to-fail experiments (see below). By detecting the dispositional state of the system - rather than imposing an ideal - there is more opportunity to enhance better outcomes that already lie in potential. The state of chaos, requires emergency actions to bring about some semblance of stability in order, to move the system into one of the other manageable states. And finally, Disorder represents a space in which the system is mixed or unknown, and for which breaking down into constituent parts is appropriate.
The Cynefin framework brings both practical and theoretical explanation, and a language to a persistent issue in social projects (and politics): the pressure to plan ahead and offer certainties where none can exist. The pattern might be tied to a broader historical trend for social sciences to try to replicate the predictive success of physical sciences, and the sense that there might be consistent laws for human culture. Where I favor this approach is that it provides for communication with project managers and donors, giving a clear image of when, why and how certain approaches can function or fail,. Aand can create a space in which failures can become encouraged rather than punished. For a great description of an iterative approach in development see Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation for Development.
Incredibly, and I have yet to discover any explicit linkage, these complexity based principles of decision making seem to be appearing in the form of tools and practices for business and social projects on a large scale. These tools are widely and cheaply accessible from a variety of platforms linked to networks of practitioners and examples of applications.
The emergence of Lean Start-up over the last few years, created and popularised by Steve Blank, might epitomise the potential for positive adaptation of new business ideas for the social sector (rather than misapplication of industrial techniques). While teaching and guiding business students, Steve realised that traditional notions of 5 year business plans, predictable finances and markets, and design before delivery, often failed in an age of rapid change and distributed knowledge. Instead, their place he now emphasises customer experience engagement, rapid hypothesis testing and the minimum viable product (MVP), so that failure can happen early and cheaply. Central to the approach is really making sure you know that someone needs a product or solution, and even getting their involvement in testing key assumptions, long before any investment is made in production, marketing and distribution. It is a business method for small safe-to-fail experiments.
When applied to the social sector, the implications are that traditional multi-year development targets, pre-ordained armchair solutions, and approaches that ignore user experience have a higher risk of failure when confronted with social issues. It’s not that some problems don’t require linear programs - recall the hospital example above - but that when you are starting out with a new idea, or, importantly, applying an already existing idea to a new environment - experimentation, failure, and multi-agent engagement are crucial to success. Further, the space in which this can be tolerated or encouraged (see the head of X, Astro Teller on TED) must be consciously created in the face of our tendency to tell ourselves we are a success without evidence. For free courses on Lean Start-up applied to social issues and much more, see PlusAcumen.
Built on similar principles to Lean Start-up, Human Centred Design (sometimes called User Centered Design) continues to focus on individual experiences, experimentation and nonlinear processes. There are multiple histories and institutions to what has become HCD, which in the 1990’s moved from more technical applications toward a social focus. Where HCD differs from Lean Start-up is that HCD brings a mindset - big social problems have elegant accessible solutions - and a whole toolbox of games, methods and activities for different aspects of the process: Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation. During inspiration you might immerse yourself directly in people’s lives and use creative games to discover what they really think. In Ideation you could make storyboards, use Business Canvas or rapid prototype (MVP) to test an idea. And finally, Implementation includes pilots, pitches and partnerships. As the name suggests, returning to users at each stage of the design process is what makes HCD stand out - along with a preference for attempt and failure, iteration and ambiguity.
In terms of the social sector, thise approach is in use and offers myriad examples of success. Importantly, it has the capacity to be both user-need focussed, and developed by users themselves - thereby circumventing a key criticism of traditional development as being given or imposed from outside. When organisations bring this kind of attention and tools, assistance can be given that respects the capacity of people to design, create and work for themselves, instead of undermining that very capacity. For more examples, see IDEO and for the free tools see their Design Kit. And a further piece on the integration of behavioural sciences with HCD.
As we have seen, social problems are complex problems, and design problems are often situated in complex contexts. Another thread that holds these different approaches together is a focus on narrative.
Rather than purely numerical or systematised data, and as the Cynefin approach makes apparent, it is narrative information that is most adequate to the task of capturing the multiple layers of meaning and relationships of complex human culture. And alongside narrative, there is a substantial body of work around sensemaking, that is, the ways in which people give meaning to experience. This approach is not to be confused with generating marketing narratives, imposing pre-designed organisational narratives, or even classical performance storytelling. The real power of narrative and sensemaking lies in both revealing culture through anecdotes, metaphors, images and archetypes, and collectively giving meaning to particular shared experiences. In co-creating shared stories, culture can be brought to light and negotiated in a way that offers shared solutions and actions.
For anthropology, development and the social sector, perhaps the most fundamental challenge to working with different cultures and significant power differences (perhaps even organisational life) is the need to overcome unconscious failures of comprehension when worldviews and assumptions differ in unexpected ways. The strategies associated with narrative sensemaking such as story circles, story games and processes, narrative analysis and reflection, form a potential practical response to more philosophical critiques of traditional development as having ignored local epistemologies, perpetuating the colonialist attitude that arguably caused the original problems. They also offer simple, practicable ways in which many people and projects can include human experience within design and application, bringing balance to a western mindset focussed on purely measurable factors and results and becoming more successful in the process. See Cognitive Edge’s SenseMaker software for an attempt at resolving large scale narrative capture and representation, and a piece by David Snowden accessible narrative practices.
Despite different origins and uses, Lean Startup, Human Centred Design, the Cynefin framework, and narrative based approaches to sensemaking, each seem connected in their perspectives on problem solving, and to have incredible potential for success in social, development and anthropological contexts. These approaches embrace diversity, creativity, story, experimentation, failure and learning. Beyond this, they are accessible and immediately applicable to a wide variety of contexts.
Considering critiques of the western paradigm as too linear minded, trapped in Nnewtonian attitudes to social change, and struggling to cope with the legitimacy, diversity and complexity of human culture, these approaches are an immense opportunity; they represent platforms for concrete action that can take the best of rigorous analytical thinking, and add this to the colour and life of our feelings, imagination and engagement. A real issue I have had with so many academic and philosophical critiques of western mentality is that they spend too much time asking and explaining why, and not offering the hands on practical actions that can bring about a more balanced world.
My hope is that, along with the rapid visible physical technological evolution evident around us, social technologies are evolving to become deeply sophisticated, distributed and accessible as well - and that this might offer us real pathways to solutions that speak to us all.
For more examples of social technology, check out Dragon Dreaming project management and OASIS community empowerment.
Thomas Rickard is from the UK, and studied Human Sciences at Sussex University after working for several years in social care. He lived and worked at Schumacher College, a centre for sustainability in Devon, for two years, and now lives in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, with his Brazilian wife. There, he teaches English, learns HCD, and is designing a social project for farmers along the Rio Doce. Get in touch at email@example.com