Break through your barriers!

Development Policy30 Nov 2009Pepijn Jansen

In the train, on my way back home, I reflected on today’s keynote speeches. Somehow, I found them a bit contradictory while, at the same time, they matched perfectly. Perhaps it’s mostly the ‘setting the boundaries’ by David Snowden that caused my confusion, as Alejandro Litovsky was talking about breaking through the barriers that withhold us from change. So what are we supposed to be doing? Creating new boundaries or breaking through the old ones?

I discussed this briefly with Litovsky and we came to the conclusion that they were not actually talking about the same things. But I’m not entirely sure anymore. The boundaries Snowden was referring to are those that people create through interaction, learning and repetition – our ‘cognitive frameworks’. These are also the ones that keep us from really changing, being innovative, thinking ‘outside the box’. Only a few people truly dare to not only think outside, but also act outside this box. We feel comfortably safe within the frameworks our surroundings and we ourselves have created.

However, that’s the point both were making. Dealing with complexity means finding the right points for entry – those actors that truly have possibilities for positive change within, or even beyond, the system they are part of. This left some participants with the question: what is positive change, and above all, who defines what is positive? This is a rather normative question of course, and it reminded me of another emergent idea within the development sector: civic driven change, which is also partly based on normative assumptions (and luckily they are willing to admit so). It also very much relates to the idea of finding the right actors to bring positive change.

Some of today’s workshops also ended with rather normative questions. While some took the bottom-up perspective as very important, others questioned whether complexity really calls for bringing in so many actors. Constantly having to justify what you do as a politician heavily reduces your capacity to rapidly adapt to unexpected change. Accountability and democracy restrain innovation.