Looking to nature to forge a new path in development

The thinking about development has been dominated by the metaphor of the machine. However, the realities the international development community try to change — the big questions of development — are not machinelike at all. Photo by: AlphaGeek / CC BY-ND

Our thinking about development has been dominated by the metaphor of the machine. But, as deterministic systems, machines must be predictable to run smoothly, and their behavior is dictated by their structure and parts, along with the instructions of an external operator. The smallest change or variation can bring a machine crashing to a stop.

Using the same mechanistic model, project managers apply multiple controls to reduce variety in the system, with the goal of trying to make input-output relations more predictable and efficient.

When this approach is applied to complex development problems, it falls woefully short. It can even be dangerous. The realities we try to change — the big questions of development — are not machinelike at all. They involve exceedingly complex systems of interaction, coevolution and emergence, which are more like ecologies than machines. In ecosystems, as well as economies, variation or innovation provide the very possibility for change.

By applying mechanistic logic to development, we have come to expect underperformance from our interventions. Perhaps even worse, we have limited the problems we are trying to tackle to ones that are most machinelike and therefore measurable, such as the direct delivery of services. Much of our work has failed to address underlying problems because we have defined what is successful in terms of an outmoded machine metaphor. It is time for a new guiding image.

It would be more useful to treat development issues from the systemic health point of view, an idea inspired by nature. Whether we are talking about ecologies or economies, we ought to focus on key principles of healthy systems, such as circulation, self-renewal and balancing fundamental polarities — in addition to the total flow of energy and matter through a system.

We know from our own blood flow that circulation is critical to ensure the distribution of resources and information throughout the whole. This realization is now widely recognized in our approach to inclusive growth in economic development. Circulation is important not just in terms of total flow through the main channels, but also in the localized, intricate networks of economic and social exchange and distribution, similar to the meshwork of capillary action throughout the whole body. In fact, poor circulation of resources in an economy leads to what Sally Goerner, an expert with the Capital Institute, has described as economic necrosis, when whole sections of the population have been cut off from these life-giving flows. Goerner will further delve into this concept and its connection to development at the upcoming Challenge Conference in Washington, D.C.

A second principle of healthy systems is their capacity for self-renewal. In an economic sense, self-renewal means continually reinvesting, rebuilding and reproducing internal capacities and functions. Once they are understood, these self-producing qualities make it easier to see how real economic dynamism and vitality depend upon self-reinforcing feedback and regenerative flows, and not simply more quantity of throughput or efficiency, as with machines.

A third principle is that of polarity balance. Complex systems are composed of multiple poles or variables. Focusing on any single pole of a system while ignoring its opposite is likely to threaten the sustainability of that system. An underlying polarity between diversity and efficiency is necessary for sustainable growth. However, in pursuit of greater efficiencies, managers often prune redundant pathways, reducing the system’s diversity and inadvertently making the system less reliable and more susceptible to collapse. We seem to have forgotten that a system cannot be designed to maximize both high performance and low risk.

In the economic world, for example, the drive for efficiency in the retail sector has brought us big-box retailers that provide us with products at lower prices. But, in the process, they have reduced the diversity and richness of the local retail sector, dampened the multiplier effects within local economies and increased the vulnerability of local communities to external shocks like a corporate decision to relocate a neighborhood store. The most efficient systems are usually the least resilient.

The idea that there are underlying principles for all healthy systems, be they metabolisms, ecologies or economies, makes sense. Human societies arise from the same natural principles of energy flows, binding forces and principles that scientists use to describe the evolution of the universe. Nature is an all-encompassing and evolving network of forces and flows that links the metabolism of the cell with the functioning of an economy. It is time to explore this idea, even if only a new metaphor, and its usefulness for our development work.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Paul Bundick

    Paul Bundick is a senior program manager with more than 35 years of experience in international development. He currently directs the Department of Economic Development and Livelihoods at FHI 360 and oversees a large portfolio of projects in livelihoods, enterprise development, and inclusive finance. He holds a Ph.D. in human and organizational systems from Fielding Graduate University. His learning priorities currently center on applying the insights of evolutionary systems theory to seemingly intractable human development problems, and the role of consciousness in social change.

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