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Start Evolves: Embracing complexity in the humanitarian sector

Making our vision a reality through complex systems thinking

  • by Kat Reichel
  • 12 Jul 17

© Dan McClure Thoughtworks

Blog Post

Kat Reichel, Senior Manager for Network Design and Engagement, talks about how the Start Network is making its vision a reality through complex systems thinking.

The humanitarian sector is a complex system. This might sound obvious (and we are certainly not the first to suggest this) – but we rarely acknowledge and embrace this fact as vital to the way we approach the challenges facing the humanitarian system. Humanitarians deal with complexity every day in the emergencies to which we respond. At this moment there are tens of thousands of humanitarian actors - individuals, organisations and governments - providing interconnected and interdependent services to vulnerable populations around the world.

Yet, when we try to come up with solutions to solve problems that span the humanitarian sector – such as the participation revolution - we tend to do so by focusing on its individual component parts, each with its own problem and discrete solution. “If we increase funding to local actors we’d meet our commitments to localisation... If we could just harmonise our reporting formats we’d reduce bureaucracy in the sector... If we could only build technology to get better feedback from beneficiaries, we’d be more accountable to the communities we’re seeking to serve.”

However, linear problem solving will not change the incentives or structures that impede the sector from addressing its challenges.  Climate change, limits to humanitarian financing, unequal power structures, the politicisation and nationalisation of aid are just a few of the complex problems that the sector faces. Creating meaningful and lasting change will require different relationships, ways of working and problem-solving strategies.

Dan McClure, Innovation Lead at ThoughtWorks, has been helping the Start Network look beyond the search for linear solutions to smaller and isolated problems, and think instead about how the humanitarian sector can embrace complexity. (You can watch his recent talk on this subject here). Dan sees complex system thinking as a way to achieve high impact.

Rather than thinking of the sector as a single large project, or of the individual changes we make as a series of pilot innovations that are difficult to take to scale, we need to understand how the pieces of the system fit together, and invest in feedback loops that allow us to respond rapidly to the changes and challenges that constantly arise.

Dan and his team think we need to begin by creating an early version of the kind of system we hope to generate, and set an evolutionary path toward a guiding vision. This does not mean setting out a detailed road map in its entirety but rather pointing out the destination - the vision of where we want to end up. As our experience develops and as the world around us changes, we can adjust our specifications for the individual outcomes, constantly evolving towards this guiding vision.

This guiding vision is what Start Evolves is seeking to put in place. The Network needs a light framework that enables it to scale and allows more actors to align in the complex system. This process does not assume that we have all the answers – but it hopes to provide enough structure to help us move forward and to create the systems that enable us to adapt.

Start Evolves is a collective endeavor to co-design this vision - we do not expect to find this guiding vision alone. We think the answers already lie within our members, existing networks, donors and other stakeholders across the humanitarian community. We need you to engage and give us feedback on this, so we can achieve this vision together. You can find out more this process, and how you can engage with it, here.

As Start has shown over the last 8 years - we are about practicing our vision, not simply talking about it. This is only the beginning of a conversation in our collective ambition to change the humanitarian sector for the better.

Watch Dan McClure's talk

Read more about Start Evolves


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Start Evolves

  • by Kat Reichel