Restrictions on the movement of people impedes Africa’s development, limiting economic integration and trade between African countries. Using a systems-thinking approach, champions and decision-makers have led the charge towards a visa free Africa. The free movement of people is a continent-wide visa openness effort for greater competitiveness of African industries in international markets, through labor mobility across African countries. A group of diverse champions and decision-makers articulated a single ambitious goal, identified points of leverage and plugged into existing activities to drive policy reform and get buy-in from individual nation states. Fifty percent of African states have signed the protocol to date, signalling a departure from narrow approaches and protectionism.
The global development sector has learnt hard lessons on the shortcomings of narrow approaches that address discrete aspects of a social change, while “assuming away” other constraints. As a result, actors are rallying around systems-thinking and moving away from only addressing individual parts or “root causes” of the problem, recognising that very often multiple co-dependent forces are at play – and collectively need to be addressed.
Why have development actors historically adopted narrow approaches? Our experience tells us that it is difficult to develop a holistic vision, and we often miss the forest for the trees. Development actors have a tendency toward plugging immediate gaps and leaks, which is a function of organising around discrete silos of technical expertise and speaking only from their vantage points. Additionally, it is timely and costly to do the type of deep work required to understand the layers of complexity that are the sum parts of any system’s architecture, and to understand the relationships and feedback loops among their many elements.
In contrast, a systems-thinking approach examines the wider context, enabling better solutions. Habitually, those in development spend more time troubleshooting the system as it currently functions, without envisioning what a healthy and self-correcting landscape of actors and interrelationships looks like in the future – the end state ecosystem. Early approaches around financial inclusion illustrate a missed opportunity for systems-thinking. Initially, financial service providers over-emphasised on credit. Later, more holistic solutions to financial inclusion emerged – including savings, insurance – to address the breadth of financial concerns facing the world’s poor.
There are a few emerging “systems entrepreneurs”, using tactical approaches to observe, understand and influence change in complex systems. There are actors anchoring on human-centred design (HCD), to achieve integrated outcomes from an end user perspective. The human account is a product of this approach. This is a data-driven tool and resource developed through HCD, to enable the financial inclusion end state ecosystem. There are actors leading discrete initiatives that contribute to solving many problems at once, like a high-level policy change, or introducing a digital identity system. There is one key commonality amongst these actors, they herd different types of groups around a single, ambitious goal.
If development actors were to define the end state ecosystem and lean into the approach of these “systems entrepreneurs”, four guiding principles would prove useful:
1. State the desired outcome, and this should be an ambitious goal that mobilises resources and people
2. Identify points of leverage which can be harnessed as key enablers of long-term impact, e.g. global trends in capital, data and technology, policy change, consumer behaviour, talent
3. Define the boundaries of the current system, which is a ‘who and what’ as-is analysis that maps actors, beneficiaries, and interactions
4. Design the future system, laying out what is required to achieve the desired outcome. This is an important and often overlooked step, as it requires planning for the future in often volatile and constantly-changing societies and contexts. This type of planning certainly goes beyond a linear Theory of Change.
The impact potential of systems-thinking in solving systemic global development issues is significant, we just need to develop better ways to apply this approach. The process of arriving at a future end state needs to be more efficient, to enable more actors to solve problems through this lens. The immediate invitation here is to codify a rapid and accessible approach to envisioning future end state ecosystems for development actors, without compromising on quality. It logically follows that this should be tested in implementation, to develop a practice for emerging systems entrepreneurs.