Complexity - okay, but how?

July 7, 2008

Feeling my way through the material from the April CE London course, my main concern at the moment is ‘how’. Working in a world of simplifications, averages and fear of emergence (see Floor’s Thirtysomething blog) contrasts with a strong post-workshop awareness of patterns amidst colourful diversity, the need to cater for weak signals amidst over-standardised information systems, and the potential of tagged narratives. But how to translate this into practice?

Last Friday yet another talk with a small non-government organisation working with livestock development as the entry point for equity and sustainability. The director sought ideas to help see and make sense of the many unanticipated outcomes of their work. Current information systems focus on litres of milk, numbers of various two- and four-legged creatures, numbers and types of farmer groups, financial performance of community-owned small livestock enterprises, and so forth. Yet the real changes they seek relate to shifting norms about gender empowerment and ‘de’-marginalisation, self-initiated political change processes, and sustained economic independence.

We talked for hours about how to supplement the existing number games with narrative-based alternatives that could ‘hear’ the unpredictable longer term changes being sought. The notion of ‘mass narrative cluster’ and tags is appealing, but needs some adaptation for (rural) locations and organisations with very limited experience and access to computers and the web. They deal with dozens of farmer groups, in many countries, of varying sizes and capacities, and engaged in different activities. A web-interface is not an option yet in most cases. Capacity building is needed to ensure the use of prompting questions by facilitators to elicit stories. The efficacy of such questions as a stand-alone method cannot be assumed. Culture and power relations inevitably mediates how such questions are heard and responded to.

It’s time to try it out in practice and see what variations emerge.

Irene Guijt

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