What's the difference between landing on the moon and tackling climate change? Reflections on complex problems and conventional solutions...

The past month has been, in a word, complex.

I’ve found myself in London helping Google grapple with emerging markets, in Somalia with the British Government wrestling with ongoing conflict and then back to Nairobi overseeing projects tackling issues of community security and extremism. And in amongst it all, I’ve become preoccupied by the search to understand these problems better, and to figure out how meaningful change can happen.

Somewhere in between all of that, like a dim light bulb that slowly grows brighter, the concept of ‘complexity’ has emerged.

In recent years there has been a lot of talk of concepts such as Systems Thinking, Complexity and Complex Problems. Such thinking proposes that many of the challenges we currently face (whether as an organisation or as a global community) go far beyond being merely ‘complicated’, and that we need entirely new ways of thinking and acting if we are to make change happen. 

Complexity thinkers argue that conventional approaches to problems assume that - however big or nasty an issue is - with enough clever thinking from enough experts, with enough forecasts and models and spreadsheets, we can plan our way to a clever solution – and we can build a logical framework to prove it. In essence, this ‘theory of change’ is a theory of comprehensive planning. (It’s worth knowing the UK’s Department for International Development has pioneered this approach for global development problems).

Don’t get me wrong - this sort of approach has worked well for all sorts of issues – from building hospitals, to putting human’s on the moon. 

But what about those situations when we don’t even understand the nature of the problem itself? When things are so volatile that the consequences can’t be calculated, or it’s impossible to fully understand what’s going on? and the future we desire equally difficult to predict or agree on? 

These are complex issues. And as Einstein once said; ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ So it seems our usual ways of thinking wont help us figure out the kind of complex solutions we need.

Like the alarming issue of violent extremism spreading across the Horn of Africa, where we don’t understand the root causes, or the consequences of intervening. Or the problem of a multinational extractives business trying to operate amongst fragile local communities where it’s difficult to identify myriad interests and agendas. Or climate change where we don’t really understand what is happening, why, or the future it will bring.

These are all issues we at Wasafiri are helping our clients grapple with. And they can’t be tackled merely with very good planning. 

Rather, we need to think in different ways; systemic ways. We must approach such issues not with the metaphor of a machine that can be built and mended and adjusted, but as a complex living system, where there are many different things going on at the same time, connected in ways we may not see, and which adapt and evolve constantly.

So my search for the threads which bind our work is helping me realise the need to stop looking for universal, simple solutions, to get rid of the mind-set of linear planning, and abandon the search for best practice from what has gone before. 

But this journey is only just beginning. Over the coming months we will be deepening our exploration of complexity and how to bring it to the complex problems faced by our clients and partners. As we go along we will share our thinking, our questions and no doubt our uncertainties.

We’d love your thoughts and questions, so please drop us a line if there is a question you would like us to explore, or a thought, experience or challenge you’d like to share.


Hamish Wilson