Creating Systemic Change In An Age Of Dwindling Cooperation

by Adi Gaskell

Creating Systemic Change In An Age Of Dwindling Cooperation

The past few decades have seen the world become an ever more interconnected place, with the problems we face increasingly complex. The latest Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum highlights the need for collective action to help tackle crises ranging from climate change to cyber attacks.

One such challenge is that of plastic waste, as billions of pieces of plastic litter our oceans, causing untold destruction to marine life and entering the food chain.  It’s an issue that has received a growing amount of attention, with the charge for change led by Sir David Attenborough, who used his Blue Planet series to rally support for action.

The aftermath of the show saw a huge rise in activity as people took to their computers to learn more about plastic recycling, with traffic spikes to charities such as the WWF and Plastic Oceans Foundation.  This was followed by a report from the UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) (House of Commons, 2017) into plastic, which noted the strong rise in public appetite for urgent action in this area.

It’s a movement that has rapidly gathered support, with China announcing plans to ban the import of foreign recyclable material, and the European Union launching a plastics strategy that they hope will fundamentally change the way plastic is used in Europe, with approximately €350 million funnelled into research into modern methods of plastic production and collection.

The food and beverage sector have channeled this energy via the UK Plastics Pact , with companies such as Asda joining Coca-Cola in promising to enact a number of strategies to reduce both the use of plastic and its impact on the environment.  The signatories to the agreement currently contribute to approximately 80% of plastic packaging used on products sold each year in British supermarkets.

Whilst the level of support and commitment for such endeavours is indeed impressive, it is likely to require concerted collective effort from across industry and other stakeholder groups to ensure that the outcomes so many of us wish to see come to fruition.  The will is there, now we need the action.

Collective action

Unfortunately, the WEF report suggests that this kind of collective action is less and less likely, as worsening international relations presents arguably the biggest risk the world faces in 2019.  These worsening relations present a significant hurdle to tackling so many of the serious challenges that we as a planet face.

The report highlights how trade disputes worsened during 2018, with more expected in 2019.  Indeed, 88% of respondents believed that multilateral trading rules and agreements will suffer tremendously in the coming year.  A further 85% believed 2019 would witness a growing number of political confrontations between major powers, with these geopolitical instabilities reflecting not only changing power balances, but also fundamental differences in values.

“With global trade and economic growth at risk in 2019, there is a more urgent need than ever to renew the architecture of international cooperation. We simply do not have the gunpowder to deal with the kind of slowdown that current dynamics might lead us towards. What we need now is coordinated, concerted action to sustain growth and to tackle the grave threats facing our world today,” the WEF say.

Of course, engaging in the kind of collective action that underpins systemic change is difficult enough at the best of times, let alone in an age where trust is dwindling and the world is becoming more dog-eat-dog.  Nonetheless, there are glimmers of hope.

People-led change

One of the pioneers in this space are The GovLab that has emerged out of New York University, and they’ve recently teamed up with the Bertelsmann Foundation to create a new initiative around People Led Innovation.

“In the modern era of governance where municipalities increasingly face incredibly complex challenges, the need for innovation is clear,” the partners say. “Cities need to go beyond providing innovative solutions – they also need to transform and modernize the way those solutions are developed.”

The website was born out of a report that was published last year that outlined the importance of people-led innovation in cities and urban environments.  The report highlights both the rapid growth in cities and the inherent complexity that this growth provides in solving pressing social challenges, and also the importance of taking a people-led approach to problem solving that would see cities become policy laboratories whereby approaches are tested and solutions proven.

“The People-Led Innovation initiative is built on the idea that, as governments increasingly experiment with new means for drawing on the public’s knowledge and skills to address common challenges, one-size-fits-all citizen engagement efforts are often too broad and unwieldy to surface useful insights for city governments,” the team explain. “This new initiative provides city officials with a more strategic and actionable consideration of the most effective ways to engage the right people for the right task at the right time.”

Four phases of change

The report outlines four phases that the team believe are crucial to successful people-led innovation:

  • Define and curate problems – specifically engaging people in the identification, definition and prioritization of the problems that need addressing.
  • Ideate and curate solutions – tapping into the expertise people have whilst also utilizing the data contained within cities to create ideas to solve the aforementioned problems.
  • Experiment and curate capacity – use whatever spare capacity people have to experiment and implement novel innovations in an agile manner to road test solutions and learn what works in the real world.
  • Expand and curate feedback – work collaboratively to ensure that the lessons from these experiments are shared widely and subsequent projects improved upon as a result.

The methodology is designed to be flexible enough to support a people-led approach to change. It requires clear segmentation of tasks people can perform at various stages, and the methodology outlines eight distinct segments of people with whom one should collaborate, and four different roles those groups of people can play.

It emerged out of previous work undertaken by the GovLab, with lessons also fed into the methodology by the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Transatlantic Policy Lab project.

“Our Methodology for People-Led Innovation provides public entrepreneurs in cities with a set of steps that enable them to tap into their potentially most important – but underutilized – asset: people,” the team explain. “With localities around the world increasingly seizing the initiative to develop bold solutions, including people at all stages of the policy development process is critical to obtaining the best outcomes for the greatest number of people possible.”

In many ways, the methodology is not especially ground-breaking, and indeed borrows heavily from the kind of lean methods that have become standard practice in many domains in the past few years.  Where they could potentially be invaluable is if GovLab can prove that they can support systemic change in a multitude of different use cases. If they can do so in an era of the kind of dwindling trust and cooperation the WEF highlight, then they could be worth their weight in gold.  Time will very much tell.

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Adi-Gaskell-150x150Adi Gaskell tells us: “I am a free range human who believes that the future already exists if we know where to look. From the bustling Knowledge Quarter in London, it is my mission in life to hunt down those things and bring them to a wider audience, with my posts here focusing particularly on the latest research on innovation and change.” Follow Adi @adigaskell

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