Sensemaking in a complex world: What matters most for the Pacific?

By Johannes Schunter and Zainab Kakal. This piece first appeared, and is cross-posted from the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji, here.

Every once in a while, it is important to step back from what we are doing and take a look at why we are doing it, and whether our larger purpose is served well by it (or what might serve this larger purpose better instead).

For the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji, which had just experienced a full leadership rotation, it was a perfect time to undergo such a reflection moment, and take a broader look at our programme portfolio as a whole: Why are we doing these projects at this point in time? What do we want to achieve in the countries we serve, and is our portfolio of projects suited to achieve this ambition?

In addition to this, we recently launched UNDP’s new Accelerator Lab for the Pacific in Fiji which aims to explore and test solutions to the big, complex ‘frontier challenges’ in our region — emerging challenges that are complex in nature, that are accelerating in their urgency, and for which no obvious solutions exist yet. But out of the many challenges that the Pacific is facing, which one should the Lab dig its teeth in first?

In order to find answers to the above, we reached out to our colleagues from UNDP’s Regional Innovation Centre to undertake a portfolio sensemaking workshop with us.

At the end of an exciting and grueling three-day process, what emerged was a view of our collective assets, capabilities, and ways of working — our secret sauce that helps us serve the communities we work in.

From group think to collective intelligence

Getting to this secret sauce was not easy. We debated our motives, relevance, role and even the language we use to describe our work. At one point in the discussion, we realized that about 95% of the population we serve live within 10km of coastlines. At UNDP in the Pacific, coastal management has always been our focus, but what we learnt and what became increasingly evident through our discussion was that our communities don’t just face bigger development and environmental challenges now than ever before, they face existential threats on every level. A new paper by Nature Communications published this month shows that by 2050, 150 million people living in coastal areas will be impacted by the rising sea levels. This includes almost all of Southern Vietnam, cities like Mumbai, Shanghai and Bangkok and literally all of the Pacific Islands. With increasing threats from rising sea levels, disasters and environmental degradation, our work in the Pacific has never been so important and relevant.

Sensemaking took atoll on us

We wondered what would happen if we took the might of our portfolio and focused it in one location and one direction. If we slid magnifying glasses under the suns of our different projects, and channeled our joint energies, we could harness the power of our collective work. Then we wouldn’t merely burn little holes here and there (one for each project) but light a fire that shines from afar and has a chance to lead the way for others. We decided to go where the need was the most urgent. Coastal zone development and management in low-lying areas, in particular atolls, became a resounding choice for a frontier challenge worth investing ourselves into for the foreseeable future. We will use the capabilities of all our thematic areas and build and test solutions on low-lying islands and atolls that can address the existential threats island communities are facing from different environmental, economic and social angles.

Radical relevance

The Sensemaking exercise also helped us recognize how much we need such engagement and reflection — not just as a one-time exercise, but on an ongoing basis. To ensure we followed through on our promise, we decided to change some of our ways of working. While our projectized way of working has its merits, there are other ways of working that is vastly more conducive to information flow and accelerated learning. We need cross-cutting functions to our thematic areas that can ensure that we stay relevant and can response to the changing needs in our local contexts. We will have to do more homework on that front, but a good start has been made.

In a complex world, we can’t always have all the answers. Nevertheless, we continue to endeavor to stay true to our purpose. By keeping on our toes, building time for reflection, running quick trials designed for fast and adaptive learning, we hope to accelerate our impact on the ground here in the Pacific.

Johannes Schunter is Head of UNDP Accelerator Lab Pacific, UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji and Zainab Kakal is Head of Experimentation, UNDP Accelerator Lab Pacific. You can follow the latest on Twitter

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