A response to last Monday’s presentation at UCT of the OECD report ‘Investing in Climate, Investing in Growth’

Were I not in a state-of-the-art lecture theatre part of the new engineering building at UCT, I might have wondered whether I had traveled back in time a decade.

The presentation of the OECD’s latest report on climate mitigation, ‘Investing in Climate, Investing in Growth’ offers little progress from how we framed the climate mitigation challenge in 2007. The glossy two page summary sheet summarised four key insights:

investing in climate OECD.jpg

The first, accompanied by detailed bar charts, reveals that a low carbon growth path will have a net positive effect on GDP across the G20 in both 2021 (1%) and 2050 (2,8%). Given economists’ rather appalling track record of predicting GDP growth over any time period, together with financiers and politicians timeframes of between 3 months and 4 years, this does not strike me as worth the headline news spot.

Secondly the report finds that there is only a 10% increased cost of investing in climate compatible infrastructure as opposed to that required to meet global development needs otherwise. What is this hypothetical ‘other’ future we climate mitigation people love so much (‘business-as-usual’ is our favourite)? There has been absolutely nothing usual about the Trumps and Brexits globally, and Zuptafication locally. But the real kicker comes in the research disclaimer (not provided in the key findings) that the planned, development-as-usual infrastructure investment falls vastly short of what is required anyway. So we aren’t investing nearly enough, but its only going to cost 10% extra to make it climate compatible. Great argument says the Elephant in the room! As the presentation proposed – just put the stable and sensible policies in place and the investment will flow…

Third, globally we are investing in sufficient renewables, but are also building almost three times the amount of coal we can afford from a climate perspective.   So this is useful, if not exactly entirely a revelation.

The final one is scarily obvious – that low income transitions will be country specific.   Sure, but what does that mean for how we support and advocate for them??

Really? Is this the best we can do in 2017? Despite the ‘country specific’ key finding the presentation showed a stunning lack of awareness of context. ‘Its all about getting the policy environment right’, South Africa’s REIPPPP was given a big thumbs up – just do some more of that, we were told. Sure, right after we re-build our disintegrating national utility, work out what to do with the coal-miners who will lose their jobs, put our President and half his Cabinet in jail and find a cheap desalination plant to prevent Cape Town’s 3+ million residents from dying of thirst come September.   No worries.

From where I sit, where the rubber hits the road for the climate mitigation challenge is not about technology or finance or stable policies or even rationale to act. Of course all of these are very important, and a huge amount of work by the global climate mitigation policy community has very usefully illuminated these aspects. But this challenge is a complex, wicked and systemic one. And as such involves aspects including how to act in the presence of powerful incumbents, understanding how policy translates into action, experimenting with how this action can take the issues of inequality, poverty, unemployment and climate mitigation forward together, and confronting the challenge of how we approach all of this in a state defined by complexity and rolling crisis. How, not what.  For how long will we keep on ignoring this, and fine tuning our 2050 GDP predictions?  In 2017 ours is a complex, dynamic, systemic world, and perspectives from a certain, mechanistic, knowable worldview are less and less helpful.   In fact, they are increasingly harmful as they tie up the valuable capacity and resources required to produce them. We now need to venture into a different conversation altogether.

So then, to the South African climate mitigation policy community who know a thing or two about complexity and crisis, I say lets turn the microphone around: what are our ideas? What are aspects of a conversation that can speak to our context and take us forward in the emerging complexity of the twenty-first Century? And how can we put this unashamedly South African and ‘developmental’ conversation at the centre of our work?



‘The best years of my life’

A couple of years before she died, I asked my grandmother about her experience of being a nurse in wartime London (WW2). Not being one for talking much about herself, she responded: ‘best years of my life’.

Now my grandmother had, by most accounts, a good life. After the world wars, hers spanned the unprecedentedly peaceful second half of the twentieth century, the peak of modernity’s success. Emigrating to South Africa after WW2, my grandfather achieved a senior position in a large corporate, she had four healthy children, material comforts, and the she found meaning and satisfaction in her role of wife and mother. Yet it was wartime London that provided her with her ‘best years’.

nurse london

What has this to do with South Africa’s challenge of reducing carbon emissions and simultaneously ‘developing’ in the twenty-first century? ‘Development’ is largely taken to be an expansion of what modernity achieved in the developing nations to the ‘undeveloped’ rest-of-the-world, the meeting of basic needs, consumerism, materialism, homogeneity, technology, progress. The question that my grandmother’s response provokes is whether this model has brought us ‘development’. Sure, hunger, malnutrition, high rates of infant mortality are not desirable. But neither is the obesity, depression and chronic disease of the ‘developed’ societies. Modernity did not bring my (admittedly very healthy) grandmother the best years of her life… These were instead found in a time of intense social solidarity under threat, meaning through immediate purpose, through collective and communal effort.

In these early years of the twenty-first century we are seeing ever more rapidly the environmental constraints that we were unable to see in the twentieth. Modernity’s offer of material comfort, and the extractive, industrial model it was based on worked to a degree, for a few, for a time. But it did not work for the environment. Whether it can work for the many now becomes a moot point – the environmental constraints are binding. However equally so is the urgency of addressing social inequality: access to information heightens both the visibility of inequality and the mobilisation of the oppressed.

In the face of this conundrum, it might assist us to ponder Einstein’s insight that solutions are not found within the same logic that created the problem. What is this ‘development’ that we seek? How do my grandmother’s reflections on her life help us to step back and ask ourselves what we really want? And from there, what other models might there be of societies that provide more ‘best years’?

Radical Economic Transformation

The academic community’s contribution in response to our political SA emblem guptacrisis, the paper ‘Betrayal of the promise: How South Africa is being stolen’ argues that South Africa urgently needs a new economic consensus, one to replace the concept of ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ which has been irredeemably hijacked by the Zuptas and Bell Pottinger. Not that there was ever economic consensus, the report points out, this the achilles heel of our 1994 miracle.

We are indeed at a critical juncture; and one of unprecedented opportunity. This opportunity lies in considering the broader context of our economic and political woes.

In the past decade the world has changed fundamentally. At the end of the twentieth century it appeared that we were at the pinnacle of our success as a species. Modern science had delivered to us a narrative that we could know, predict and from there control our destiny. We had mastery (sic) over our environment. Armed with the tools of modern medicine and science the twenty-first century was set to be our best ever.

Until it wasn’t. Until the scales started falling from our eyes and at different locations, different levels, from different perspectives, we are starting to realise that our modernist understanding of the world and our role in it, is partial. The intellectual underpinnings of the last century are increasingly ill-fitting with the dawning reality of this one: the waves of global political surprises, democratic mechanisms that are too simplistic to articulate the will of the people, an unstable international financing system, terrorism – actual and cyber, fake news, automation in the world of work, runaway inequality, the rapidly manifesting multiple environmental crises, and the strengthening and impatient voices of the long-marginalised.

This ‘brave new’ world might more usefully understood from a lens of uncertainty, complexity, interconnection, unpredictability and unintended consequences. Globally humanity has to reconceptualise how we want to be in this world, and quickly, if we are to survive.   We have to be nimble, the pace of change and complexification is relentless.   The environmental and social limits to our current trajectory are real.

Here, now, in South Africa, we have been gifted with an opportunity. For most of us the extent of the immorality and theft in our society has been very rapidly revealed over the past three months. There is shock, outrage, fluidity, momentum. As such, there is the opening for change. We have the opportunity to recognise the broader global and historical context and develop a new ‘Radical Economic Transformation’, one that is fit for the world we find ourselves in now.

How this is done is as important as what is done, if not more so. ‘Betrayal of the promise’ argues for the development of a new trust compact, and this indeed is a prerequisite.   But this is trust that has to be developed and maintained throughout the social system. This is not something that the experts and elites can be trusted with any more, although expertise is surely needed. Developing such a trust compact requires going to the people whom the current system is failing worst and asking them of their vision for the South Africa of the future. And then building; aka the change process as recounted by Jay Naidoo in his recent book ‘Change’, and the #UniteBehind movement.   This will require deep process, empowerment, listening. It is a process that must be led by the people, tapping into all knowledge systems and mechanisms to express values richly and constantly.


The field of complexity and complex systems

Climate mitigation is readily described as a ‘complex’ and ‘systemic’ problem.  But what is meant by this? It could be that these words go some way to convey the enormity and intractability of the issue, and our helplessness in the face of it. Commentators could also be referring to more of the literal meaning of these words, that the problem cuts across all aspects of life as we know it, and that there is no easy response.

What is seldom meant however is that this type of problem is particular, and that certain responses to it are more appropriate than others. There is an emerging area of study which specifically considers complexity and complex systems – worth taking a peek, right?

So what is this new field? Well, its new and its old. It entails some more tangible aspects, and some less tangible. It is certainly trans-disciplinary, and even breaks out of traditional academic confines to engage with all forms of knowledge. It is pragmatic. And it can change the way one views the world.

At its core is the concept of a complex system. Here there are many observable properties: non-linearity, self-organisation, feedback loops, heterarchies… a plethora of technical terms, but suffice to say  that complex systems operate in particular ways. We can learn about their properties and, as conscious actors in our systems, use them to leverage systemic change.

At a less tangibleeye and world level, the field of complexity also introduces a paradigm shift in how we approach knowledge and science, a new world view. In complexity we can no longer assume objectivity in anything. Certainty is a rare case, not the holy grail. Change is constant, the source of stability. Perspectives are the only truth we can know. (Is this resonating with some of what we are experiencing globally in our ‘post truth’ twenty first century?!).

How can one ‘be’ in such a world? What guides ‘right’ action here? Certainly we can no longer rely on finding the truth in order to act. The field of complex systems is emerging guidance and insights on how to act in complexity, such as elevating the role of ethics, values and understanding perspectives.  There is more.

So it seems to me worth taking our descriptors of climate mitigation more seriously and literally, and asking what we can learn about acting in complex systems. Because right now we are using an outdated set of assumptions about how the world works to tackle one of the most threatening problems humanity has faced.

Policy mechanisms for the ‘time- inconsistency’ challenge

I suggested in my blog on ‘Time-inconsistency’: the heart of climate mitigation as a policy problem’ that our current hegemonic paradigm of classical reductive science might be a reason why we are battling to respond adequately to the urgent and long term policy problem that is climate mitigation.   From this paradigm, we typically understand time to consist of uniform, interchangeable units that proceed in a linear fashion from the present through the short – medium and then to the long term.

A complex systems view of time arises from a different logic: there is no long-term, short-term time distinction (Meadows, 2008). Rather, various sub-systems evolve according to different rhythms.   Think here of the building of big industrial plant, or rail infrastructure, compared to social media topics, or fashion. In concert, this differentiation of timing results in the long periods of stability punctuated by moments of rapid change in large and complex social systems. As Lenin observed: there are decades where nothing happens, and then decades happen in weeks. Time from complexity is non-linear and multiple, with different time-scales nested within each other.

time men cogs

So what might this alternative ‘complexity’ paradigm reveal in terms of policy mechanisms to address the urgency and long-term characteristics of climate mitigation?   Here are four initial ideas gathered from the (few) policy writers who are exploring complexity – I expect though that if this paradigm gains traction it may support a rich stream of insights going forward.

First, policy interventions need to be differentiated according to time as a dimension across various sub-systems. What needs to be tackled where and when (and how?). This directly addresses the urgency issue, and is a priority under a complexity view.

Second, non-linear system mechanisms provide opportunities: Levin et al (2012) write of developing path dependent processes in a low carbon direction, using the logic of positive feedback loops. By paying attention to entrenching and expanding the sub-systems supporting a policy intervention – designing policy for ‘stickiness’ – small incremental changes can gather pace and power without encountering opposition from powerful incumbents at the point of policy promulgation.

Third, Meadows (2008) advocates using the creation of negative (balancing) feedback loops to keep the system evolving in the direction of the low carbon objective. A climate mitigation example would be a carbon tax that rises with the level of fossil fuel exploitation in an economy.

And fourth: The cognitive heuristics described in ‘Time-inconsistency’: the heart of climate mitigation as a policy problem’ are related to delays in feedback loops between the excessive greenhouse gas emissions and the consequences. Policies that create new balancing information feedback loops may reduce the effect of these delays and support the system to adhere to a low carbon direction.


Stability and change in complex social systems

In order to write about how policymaking can address problems of time-inconsistency, I first need to clarify my interpretation of a complexity view of change.  (So those not in favour of rather technical posts – I’d suggest giving this one a skip!)

Complex systems change continuously. Not oscillating around an equilibrium point (complex systems are non-equilibriac), but more in the sense of seeking stability through change (Shine, 2015), a more ‘homeostatic’ type of process as the system journeys through time.

This ‘stability through change’ process is termed ‘self-organisation’. Every agent in the system constantly responding and adapting to both internal and external stimuli.   The more self-organising capacity a system has in the form of information and connections, the more stable and resilient it is.

In social systems, human self-organisation happens according to social norms and rules. Therefore, influencing these influences the direction of this ‘stability through change’. Norms and rules are codified in institutions (think of SA’s Constitutional Court), and so the direction of a system is augmented through its structures.

But there is another source of change in a social system. And in true complexity fashion this one is inseparable from the first! But worth considering separately to aid understanding. It is this change that often attracts attention in that can be very quick and dramatic.

Complex systems are non-linear. Small changes can set them off on a particular pathway that snowballs towards a tipping point. Once a system ‘tips’ this either results in systemic collapse, or substantial re-ordering with the possibility of different systemic properties emerging.


So the connections between the two types of change? Well, the greater the level of self-organisation, the lower the likelihood of collapse at a tipping point. And the ongoing self-organisation can itself lead to a build up of pressure in a system, providing ripe conditions for a ‘tip’. If a systemic re-ordering after a tipping event destroys structure, a different direction of self-organisation may more easily emerge.

Therefore, as well as attending closely to social rules and norms and hence institutions, those agitating for change in a system should also be on the look out for positive feedback loops, ‘snowballing’, and either dampen these down or speed them up! However, once the drama subsides, the source of enduring change is the way a system self-organises: a collapse or re-ordering can cause a loss of system function and structure (desirable or undesirable), but it’s the rules of self-organisation that effect the ongoing emergent properties.

‘Time-inconsistency’: the heart of climate mitigation as a policy problem

Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions has been described as the quintessential long term policy problem Hovi (2009) and Sprinz (2009). So what does this mean? What is special or different about long term policy making as opposed to short or medium term policy making?

Today’s policies will not impact the rate or extent of climate change the current generation experiences. We are already locked in. So this is policy making solely for the future. And whilst the climate change impacts are long-term, there are urgencies and irreversibilities within our economies which need strong short term action to avoid triggering runaway climate change. It would also be sensible to avoid building fossil fuel power stations or roads which we cannot use in the future. These are decisions being made now.

Lazarus (2009) writes how psychologists have found that human’s have ‘cognitive tendencies and limitations which produce a “massive social trap” when it comes to long term issues such as climate change:   We are myopic, tending to discount things in the future in favour of short-term reward; we use an ‘availability heuristic’ (or mental ‘rule of thumb’) whereby we largely only respond to things that are imaginatively available to us; and we use a ‘representative heuristic’, we are not compelled to respond to issues where the cause and effect of our actions is not clear.

time image

Even if we were able to access a collective rationality (Levin et al, 2012), the unequal distribution of power in society serves to further work against action for the long term, as it usually comes at a cost to the present incumbents.

These aspects of long-term policy making have been termed a problem of ‘time-inconsistency’, where the optimal policy decisions for the long term are not the optimal policy decisions today (Prescott and Kyland, 1977). It is exactly this conundrum that should be the focus of the climate mitigation policy communities attention. Whilst we are very good at identifying the emissions and cost implications of particular scenarios of the future to time periods of 2050, or even 2100, knowing how to translate these results into policy that effects transformative change for the long term has been far less considered.

Up until recently, scholars have not been able to imagine policy mechanisms that address this problem of time-inconsistency, likely because of the dominance of a reductionist, classical science paradigm constraining our thinking.  However, emerging analysis appears to be starting to make some headway, much of it grounded in principles of complex systems.   I will outline some of these in a follow up post.

Complexity thinking and ‘wicked’ policy problems

In the 1970s the urban planners Rittel and Webber introduced a rather exotically-termed concept – that of ‘wicked’ policy problems. They used the term ‘wicked’ in the sense of ‘tricky’ rather than ‘deplorable’.  They claimed that these problems are different to those that natural scientists and engineers routinely deal with, and are typically are open societal problems.  Further, they held that the classical scientific paradigm is inappropriate for addressing them.

So what makes a problem ‘wicked’? In Rittel and Webber’s formulation, each wicked problem is unique, but has no definitive formulation or explanation, with each being a symptom of another problem.   These problems have no stopping rule, no immediate nor ultimate test of a solution, and the choice of explanation for the problem will determine the ‘solution’ adopted. There are therefore no definitive solutions for wicked problems,but rather multiple possible solutions (or options for progressing the problem).


Others have contributed similar terminology and concepts subsequently. Ackoff used the term ‘messes’ as distinct to ‘difficulties’ (which are simple problems that can be extracted from ‘messes’ and solved). And Schon talks of the ‘swampy lowlands’ where the confusing problems of the greatest human concern lie, defying technical solution.

Complexity thinking as it is emerging from the social sciences is (rather obviously) directly relevant to this class of policy problem. But what does a complexity take add to the concepts referenced above? True to the complexity field, there is no easy distinction. Some would argue that some of these concepts originate from a complexity paradigm already.

My current take (and I’d love thoughts on this), is that complexity thinking throws a light not only on the policy problem itself, but also on the policy approach to the problem – and that the two are inseparable. A complex problem requires a complexity approach to the activity of policymaking, whereby  policymakers realise they are part of the complex policy problem system (Ackoff’s ‘mess’?). There is little agreement even on what the policy should look like, and certainly no on how it should be realised. This complex policy system has to be managed, not ‘solved’, from within, calling for humility, self-reflection, experimentation, understanding different perspectives, putting process above evidence, being agile and responsive. Its about managing a complex policy journey.

Perhaps this complexity insight provides some explanation for why, as Ison notes, over 40 years after Rittel and Webber called our attention to wicked policy problems, we largely don’t identify them as such, and persist on approaching them with tools of the rational, deductive paradigm of classical science.


Restitution: innovating processes for a Trump-resilient world

The day after the Trump thing happened, I found myself in a blustery marquee inside the historical Cape Town Castle talking about ‘restitution’ at the inaugural South African Restitution Conference. It was a bizarre juxtaposition of events – polar opposite directions that humanity can take right now. I was very grateful to be in Cape Town, Southeaster notwithstanding.


A number of things struck me about Trump’s win: The unexpectedness, the very different perspectives that have been revealed throughout the election campaign but which were exemplified in the outrage and delight that were on view in the news coverage on the 7th, the polarising role of social media, the huge uncertainty and unpredictability about what the Trump presidency will bring.

Certainly, on the southernmost tip of Africa the world looked different as the outcome became certain. A sense of disorientation still pervades my daily routine, my dreams. And yet we do not fully know to what extent Trump will make good on his election promises, will encourage hate and other-ing, nor the extent to which the institutional structure will act as a counter to him. We do not know whether this opportunity for reflection will be taken up by US society. At the very least this occurrence will be disruptive. How can US society work towards emerging desirable disruptance as opposed to that which is undesirable? How can the international community support their efforts? For the issue of climate mitigation in particular, how can Trump’s potential disruptance of a hardwon and fragile global co-operation be contained, minimised?  How can the momentum that is gaining in the clean energy space be expedited?

Back to #restitutionconference: We had a wonderful story in South Africa for a moment in the early 90’s, but we assumed a quick fix to a long history of systemic oppression, and neglected many aspects of ourselves, our communities, our society, our economy, where transformation had not yet begun.  We now find ourselves in real trouble.

How can we work together now to re-orientate and develop the complex system that is a nation, to ensure that it self-organises towards a common vision, collectively re-imagined and maintained over time? Certainly understanding one another’s perspectives by listening to each others stories is a necessary starting point.  What if more of that had happened during and prior to the US election campaign?

Encouraged by the striking presence of Advocate Madonsela at the Conference – proof that great and moral leaders can yet emerge from amongst us – I wondered whether the work being explored on that windswept day, together with similar initiatives around the world, might be very relevant to this ‘fresh hell’ that 2016 has just delivered (to quote a writer friend of mine living in the UK and reflecting on the Trump win so soon after Brexit) .   That perhaps it could contribute to the complexification and resilience required to safeguard our world from the runaway Trumps of today and the future.



Articulating complexity

I had the opportunity of presenting to members of the WWF Policy and Futures unit recently on complexity thinking and sustainability transitions. Our discussion afterwards was fascinating, as their questions challenged my articulation of the complexity thinking soup that is simmering in me.

It seems that my problems in articulation centre around a few issues. I’ll only tackle a couple here.

First, complexity has an informal meaning, which is a shadow of its technical, academic meaning(s). The boundary between these meanings is, appropriately, contested and indistinct.

Informally, ‘complex’ is used to describe something that is technically just complicated. Or it can be used to imply something that is truly (in the full technical meanings) complex. This is confusing, as the distinction between complex and complicated is a cornerstone of formal complexity.

Often too, informal complexity is associated with an inability to act, or a reluctance to act, as in: ‘Its complex!’


Whilst this too is confusing for formal, technical complexity inquiry, it is also a very useful and acknowledged criticism of the field.  Which leads to a second articulation challenge: What does complexity imply for action?

Taking action within complexity is possible – thankfully, as most of the world is technically complex.  But it seldom relies on ‘knowing the right answer’. The social sciences, on departing from a positivist paradigm of science, battled with this same issue of action, within the muddy waters of post-modernism and constructionism. Some authors argue that generalised complexity, perhaps aligned with a critical realist philosophy of science provides a way through for these disciplines (for example Byrne, 1998). But this is an aside.

How then does an understanding of complexity support action? I would argue that this happens through two iterative aspects. First, humans are components of complex systems, and we have the ability to develop consciousness, to learn, and to reflect on our positions and practices.   By making a choice regarding how to act, we have the ability to influence the system of which we are a part in a particular way.

Secondly, if we understand the mechanisms of complex systems (feedback, non-linearity, networks etc), and the principles of complexity (such as unanticipated consequences, incompressibility, unknowability), we can learn how we can leverage our actions given their complex context.  For example, understanding the role of a highly connected hub in a complex system will mean we can focus on how change can be transmitted through this hub, rather than focusing our efforts on the whole system more generally. The implications of the complexity principles are more nuanced, but return us to ‘how’ we do what we do (Ison, 2010), as opposed to the ‘what’ we do that we have been mesmerised with for so long.

The ‘what’ is not unimportant. It is critically important, and this is an aspect of my complexity that also requires a lot more articulation work. But we have neglected the ‘how’ aspect of action which generalised complexity emphasises. To work smart in contexts of urgency such as climate mtigation, we need to catch up.