At the core of the challenge we face is the inevitable uncertainty of dynamic combination human-natural systems. Rapid modifications of biophysical systems have the potential to trigger regime shifts —abrupt and irreversible changes—that will have significant consequences. It is clear that the likelihood of regime shifts is higher in ecosystems where humans have reduced resilience by modifying biogeochemical cycles, altering hydrological regimes, reducing biodiversity, and changing the magnitude, frequency, and duration of disturbance regimes. We know these are hard problems to solve, but they are by no means impossible. The understanding of complex systems is growing, evolving and is ripe for innovation. It is important for all of us to recognize that just because it may be hard to see the pattern, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. The new approaches focusses not only on the unpredictable dynamics of ecosystems, but also on the institutional and political flexibility for learning, reconfiguring problem solving frameworks, and formulate innovative policies. In practice, this is the hardest one to tackle.
A better understanding of the success principles of societies is urgently needed. When systems become too complex, they cannot be effectively managed top-down. Guided self-organization is a promising alternative to manage complex dynamical systems bottom-up, in a decentralized way. The underlying idea is to exploit, rather than fight, the inherent tendency of complex systems to self-organize and thereby create a robust, ordered state. For this, it is important to have the right kinds of interactions, adaptive feedback mechanisms, and institutional settings, i.e. to establish proper “rules of the game”.
In a world where social problems and the government bureaucracies designed to solve them are each getting more complex, we are ever so faintly seeing the beginning of a trend toward simplification. When we did not succeed, we hid behind the vastness of the problem as a way to excuse our mediocre performance and avoid holding ourselves truly accountable. Today’s challenges – unemployment, exclusion, inequality, economic shocks, poverty, etc – oblige us to rethink the way we do business.Transparency, accountability, awareness, and collective responsibility, moreover, social capital such as cooperativeness or trust is important for economic value generation, social well-being and societal resilience. In its essence, social innovation refers to new approaches and tools for solving societal challenges. It is not simply the repackaging of old ideas. We’ve learned a lot over the past decade about what works and what doesn’t in health, development, education, sustainability, and many other challenging areas. We’ve learned how to design and deploy interventions. We can now have a strong perspective on which interventions have the potential to truly alter the course of young people out of debilitating poverty, based on the evidence of actual outcomes. The best social innovations can transform our communities with new approaches to the complex challenges of the 21st century.
Human communities are the engines of social transition, and thus meaningful development programs must put communities at the center of the design process, but doing so in a high-threat environment poses extra challenges. Addressing major social problems, especially in an era of limited resources, is both daunting and enthralling.
The next big disruptive force that will take the development sector’s efforts to a new level will be found neither in a lab nor through logistical advances, though no doubt these can still take us further. The biggest wins will come from a shift in mind-set that will refocus our efforts on improving our organizational effectiveness. The rise of a new, more disciplined approach will force us to ensure that we invest our funds where the potential benefit is highest. It will require us to adapt management tools and to build our collective capacity to deliver concrete results.