At a Pivot Point: From System Thinking to System Doing

An Update from our systemic design journey to fight plastic waste in Asia

by Alex Oprunenco, Brent Wellsch, Shumin Liu

When we last left you, we were in the midst of launching our initiative looking to address the complexities of plastic waste management in Asia and the Pacific. As outlined in our initial blog by Alex, the Regional Innovation Centre in Bangkok is engaging in an ambitious undertaking by applying a systemic design approach for seeding new ways of thinking and acting in response to the plastic waste challenge. Specifically, we are working in 4 countries (Vietnam, Maldives, Pakistan, and the Philippines) and in each utilizing systemic design as a convening methodology by gathering stakeholders and immersing them in the “plastic waste” system. The objective is to help bridge system “blind-spots” amongst participants and drive opportunities to (re) frame the challenge space collectively in a way that inspires whole-system shifts through experimentation.

For the past few months, we have found ourselves at a pivot point in the work with a shift in focus required to move from system framing to experimentation at the system level. As has been well documented elsewhere, we are also adhering to a portfolio approach for experimentation because of the deep synergies that exist between the spirit and intent of this approach with the character of complex systems. Plastic waste generation and management is in crisis globally, and the challenge space is comprised of a myriad of variables that span human, environmental and physical systems. To be short: it is an intractable social challenge where siloed one-off interventions are insufficient for prompting the seismic system shifts required to drive needed change. In complex development challenges where the operating environment is highly dynamic and influenced by a multitude of drivers (some known and some unknown), a portfolio logic presents a path forward for practitioners that recognizes the sheer size and complexity of the challenge space that they are intervening in.

Fundamental to our approach is that plastic waste management is a human challenge, and as such we must be mindful of this human dimension constantly in our efforts. For us the creation of a portfolio for experimentation is not only a technical exercise. It is not as simple as collecting data-points and running an algorithm to determine what to do next. Rather, the portfolio must (in some way) seek to blend technical precision and expertise with an appreciation for the complex (and unpredictable) human elements presented by social systems (e.g. power-dynamics, culture, politics, etc.)

To this end, we have surfaced a few promising practices (things we have found valuable/useful in our work) in developing portfolios for experimentation that we would like to share with you.

Designing a Portfolio and Discovering Portfolio Architecture

As systemic design practitioners one thing we truly appreciate in this work is its experimental nature. Bridging portfolio approaches for intervening in systems change work is cutting edge and emergent. There is no rule-book, guide, or recipe for how to curate the portfolio or implement it in practice.

We have found, like in any pure research endeavour, a team needs to approach this work with a culture of openness and discovery. Creating the portfolio’s architecture serves as an example. Our work in Vietnam revealed to us that (beyond the requirement for developing an internal coherence and complementarity for the portfolio) to do this work well we had to account for experiments that range in focus across the waste management process chain (generation all the way through to recycling and treatment) AND across a range of system level intervention points (e.g. policy/regulatory, behavioral, physical and social infrastructure, etc.). Once completed, this enabled us to visibly adhere to a shared canvas that facilitated deeper conversations about how to further build out a portfolio design.

The point that we would like to stress here is that this architecture was not pre-planned, it surfaced through team reflections resulting from the engagements with system stakeholders previous, understanding of the dynamics specific to our efforts (i.e. in this case Da Nang) and our own intuitions. Of course, we have also had to be flexible in this approach, allowing the rough framework to evolve as it is socialized and shared with others. In this way the design of the portfolio itself is an act of prototyping, and we believe that this is a forming principle for efforts that are tried elsewhere.

Developing a Strategic Narrative

In addition to the design of the portfolio itself, we have found that a portfolio must be infused with a sense of directionality. As such, we have found it important to take the time to discover the narrative/story that is surfacing as a way to ground our thinking and better understand the problem space that we are dealing with.

Like theory of change efforts, this process at the culmination of the portfolio design process helps teams to take a step back and develop an intellectual abstraction of the portfolio. Critical questions the narrative helps to address include:

  • What is the overall story of this work? What do we know about the challenge space that inclines us to intervene in this way?
  • Why is the portfolio structured in this way for this initiative?
  • What are we seeking to learn through this approach? What would desired impact look like?
  • Whom are the system stakeholders that may be most affected by this work? How might they be impacted by this work?

We have found this helps to crystalize team unity and assists in developing communication points and materials regarding this work for relevant audiences (decision-makers, funders, potential partners, etc.)

How a narrative is developed can differ. In the case of our work in Vietnam it surfaced organically through our team reflections at the culmination of the design. In our work in Pakistan the narrative is emerging through a much more intentional process. At this point in time we do not believe one process is preferable over another BUT we do believe that strategic narrative development holds great value and should be a core aspect of the emerging portfolio experimentation methodology.

Envisioning Transition Pathways

Applying a portfolio logic for experimentation has emphasized the importance of envisioning what system transition might look like. As has been well documented in this challenge space, the gap between our current (system premised on disposability) and idealised states (system premised on circular principles) for plastic waste management is wide and closing these gaps will likely require transitional patience. Put another way, in many cases system shifts of this magnitude are likely to occur in an ebb and flow dynamic whereby weak signals of change emerge with some frontier events dissipating and others scaling in impact over time. Through this the dynamics in the dominant system are challenged and often result in resistant efforts in a spirit of preservation. Often a tipping point is required to transition the previously dominant system to a new paradigm, creating the illusion that change happened suddenly when in fact it is the net result of this system shift tug-of-war.

This system shift tension has been helpful in our own work in both designing portfolios AND articulating its narrative. In portfolio design work we have tried to think about how the portfolio might provoke/nudge current system dynamics that result in shorter term desired change while being cognisant of a more radical vision for shifting the system towards a new state.

In the case of Vietnam we have used the Berkana institute’s Two Loop Theory to help embed transition thinking into our portfolio. What has resulted are two streams of work: a portfolio of experiments seeking to improve the current system (what we are calling a compliance portfolio) with another portfolio embedded with more transformational intent (what we are calling the green consumption portfolio). Over time we are interested in seeing how the work of one may blend/impact/overtake the work of another in the spirit of transition like dynamics.

This is not to say that transition needs to be a part of portfolio work per se, but we do think it is an interesting provocation for the work: what level of change are we interested in driving? What will change look like? Feel like? How will we know if it is happening? And given how deeply rooted incumbent current system states are, transition pathways are critical to help systems to evolve not to simply disrupt. These are all questions that surface through a transition emphasised approach.

Imagining transition makes a lot of sense from a political economy lens as well. Driving system transformation often requires (as our friend Pia Andrews says), delivering “quick wins” (credibility) while preserving “long value” and building momentum for that (legitimacy). And this brings us to the next point.

Catalyst for Movement Building

As the saying goes “It takes a village….” As we have proceeded through our work a requirement to leverage the portfolio in a way that mobilizes system actors by engaging them in this work more intentionally has become obvious.

This is a sentiment that we have held from the outset and why (in part) we are using systemic design as a backbone methodology for this initiative. However, as we continue to contemplate this work it is becoming apparently obvious that we need to continually seek to extend ownership of this work into the communities and networks that interface with this issue directly. They need to be empowered to drive agendas to the extent that they are fit to do so. As is espoused in the collective impact literature, to spark this work a backbone is required to convene, mobilize, and synthesize intelligence. In doing so the backbone can stand up the DNA for the system change effort. But for this work to have lasting impact, it must over time transition to the system actors themselves.

To put this insight into practice this work is trying a few things. In the Maldives from the outset we were focussed on bridging divides and building community will amongst a wide range of system stakeholders whom are all experiencing a range of different impacts resulting from plastic waste pollution, and have collective shared interest in addressing this through systemic means.

In the case of Da Nang City, UNDP is partnering with a local business incubator (DNES) to launch a circular economy hub that has a vision to train/develop sustainability champions locally that will be ambassadors of the portfolio work and will work over time to experiment with, learn, and iterate as required. They will use the portfolio we have developed as a springboard for driving experimental change around plastic waste.

Finally, in the case of Pakistan the UNDP Country Office is partnering with Unilever to implement the plastics portfolio in Rahim Yan Khan as a local testing ground. UNDP in concert with Unilever will be working together through implementation as one team to leverage each-other’s strengths, networks, and efforts.

All represent attempts to catalyze a movement behind this work. We look forward to observing and documenting what results as the work continues.

Looking Forward

So, this is where the work sits now. As we move forward there will be a few notable developments:

  • We will be launching a similar project in Manilla in early 2021 that will leverage systemic design and portfolio experimentation in the work with even stronger understanding of the plastic waste challenge and its ecosystem from the onset;
  • Continue to push forward with this work in Vietnam and Pakistan;
  • Begin to think about how a portfolio logic can be used as an investment attraction vehicle for funders interested in facilitating system change given the emerging attention (see here for example: https://www.alliancemagazine.org/blog/funders-recognise-systems-change-philanthropy-as-critical-according-to-report/)

As the work continues, we look forward to updating you on our learnings. Also, we are very interested in hearing from you. How are you experimenting with system change in your on context? How might the merits of a portfolio approach work/not work in your context? Why? In the spirit of collective capacity development, please share 😊.

We would like to thank our colleagues and friends from the UNDP’s Pakistan (Beenisch Tahir, Javeria Masood, and Ehsan Gul), Vietnam (Nguyen Luong and Phan Lan), and Maldives (Ahmed Shifaz) country offices. Thank you for your brilliance, commitment, and hard work in stewarding this work through. We are privileged to be on this journey with you.

In the Asia-Pacific region, we are interpreting the renewed mandate for innovation as an opportunity to reframe: follow us and contribute as we explore