Addressing Complexity by “Bundling”


Mark Halle, Senior Fellow, International Institute for Sustainable Development and Financing Transformations Working Group Member

To address sustainable development, transformation agents commonly enjoin colleagues to move beyond their silos, to think in systems terms, and to understand both that everything is connected and that most actions have knock-on effects well beyond the neighborhood of the silo from which they originate.  This leads to quests for ways to reduce the complexity of transformations challenges to manageable dimensions, which in turn commonly leads to disappearance into the realm of intellectual speculation or getting lost in the weeds of models that seek to capture all the interactions in a meaningful way.

The stark truth is that there is a trade-off between handling complexity and making progress.  While we should never allow ourselves to get stuck in our single outlooks and whereas we should always think of the consequences of our actions on other parameters, at some point we have either to fish or cut bait.

In view of that reality, one approach worth exploring is what I term ‘bundling’ – or the loose coordination of many different approaches to tackling a problem so that the sum of the parts reaches the critical mass that allows real impact to be achieved or tipping points to be reached.

Take the example of fisheries: the world’s marine fish stocks are, with rare exceptions, being managed irresponsibly such that one fishery after another is exploited beyond its capacity to recover, placing the future of fish protein on a hungry planet ever more in danger.  We still tolerate politicians adopting irresponsible quotas for short-term electoral reasons.  We still allow pirate fishing fleets to scour the oceans – and then buy their catch.  We still subsidize fishing in ways that will hasten the demise of the very fishing communities intended to benefit.

And for each of these problems we have a solution – none of which will succeed on its own. Indeed, each of the ideas may be good – even excellent – in its own right, but the failure to ‘bundle’ them effectively means that they never combine to generate a scale of reaction that turns the situation around.  How could this work?  Take five approaches to addressing over-fishing from the twenty or thirty that might have been adduced:

  • Eight major insurance companies have declared they will no longer insure fishing fleets that indulge in illegal fishing operations. That could be spread to the whole industry with an organized effort.
  • The World Trade Organization has a mandate to agree disciplines on subsidies that lead to over-fishing. Simply put, they are asked to get rid of the use of taxpayer money that today is encouraging over-fishing.  Ceasing to encourage fishers and fishing nations to overfish using public money seems and obvious first step.
  • Available technology allows us to track every fishing vessel in real-time, beaming the information to land and making it possible to ensure that these vessels are fishing in places where they are allowed to fish. Onboard cameras can also record what they are catching and what they are throwing overboard.  This technology could be a condition of securing a license, or insurance, though it is not today.
  • The Marine Stewardship Council’s and other standards allow consumers to purchase only sustainably-caught marine products. Consumer demand can be a powerful tool and campaigns can put pressure on outlets, and particularly large supermarket chains and send a powerful message up the value chain.
  • Institutional investors – including pension funds, insurances pools and sovereign funds – are massive investors, churning deep pools of investment capital.  If they were to divest from companies that indulge in illegal fishing it would send a very powerful signal to the market.

Each of these approaches is being tried and promoted to some degree and achieving some success.  Each has a community of action behind it, but these communities rarely talk much less combine efforts.  And yet, together, the potential to bring about real change in how fish stocks are managed is enormous.  What is needed is to bundle a small number of highly strategic approaches together to achieve scale and impact.

Is this systems thinking?  In a sense it is, in that it seeks to make the parts of a complex web of actions interact in a way that ensures that all will benefit.  But it is not an approach overly concerned with understanding the relations and interactions among the parts.  Instead it seeks to augment the influence and effectiveness of the different streams of action so that, together, they begin to shift matters towards the tipping points needed to change present trends.

And yet it is focused on much simpler interactions – the assembling and intertwining of approaches so that each makes an optimal contribution to advancing the others.  This is not modelling, it is social mobilization, information sharing, best practice harvesting and communications.  If it is a systems approach, the systems are comparatively simple.  And yet in my view the transformative potential of bundling is enormous.  Through it, issue after issue could be brought to a tipping point and flip into a new reality.

Sometimes the answer is closer and much more straightforward than we think, and far more readily accessible than we feared.  Let’s leave the modelling, the indicator design, and the reporting algorithms to the academics and focus instead on the change processes, change models and change actors that will actually deliver transformation.  I suspect bundling could be an important part of that approach.

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