Integrating complexity in development handbooks, with mayors on the front page

August 4, 2021

Photo: Shutterstock

Amidst his country’s COVID-19 response last year, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte noted “we need to take 100 percent of decisions with 50 percent of information”. 

By now, we recognize that traditional planning and decision-making tools are no longer relevant in this age of complexity and uncertainty. But the acknowledgement of that challenge also brings an opportunity for transformation.  Could a “new normal” for development planning and implementation emerge that embraces radical uncertainty and complexity as a feature, not a bug?  A new “handbook” per se for the way we approach development issues.

We are inspired by Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. He describes anti-fragility as a convex response to a stressor or source of harm, leading to a system that is not only more resilient, but grows, develops and gains from shocks. What would be the conditions and how could we, in the countries where we work, support our national counterparts to deal with shocks, be resilient and enable growth and rejuvenation. 

Taleb advocates for learning through experimentation:

“It is in complex systems, ones in which we have little visibility of the chains of cause-consequences, that tinkering, bricolage, or similar variations of trial and error have been shown to vastly outperform [judging only the results of actions].”

Similarly, John Kay (author of Radical Uncertainty and Obliquity) argues for disciplined pluralism: ”a system that encourages lots of experimentation.  It cuts off experiments that fail, and experiments that succeed are rapidly imitated,”

In neither of these cases are experiments thought of as short-term investments, but rather as rigorous, well-designed, and quantitatively and qualitatively monitored interventions that allow us not only to learn about their direct effects, but also the indirect (oblique) effects that they have on the systems in which they are applied.

Odessa, Ukraine is one of the cities involved in the initiative. Photo: UNDP Ukraine

It is against this backdrop and with this intent for exploration and discovery that Mayors for Economic Growth (M4EG), a joint initiative by the EU and UNDP, was launched - with a reflection by Sir John Kay on why policymakers need to embrace radical uncertainty. 

The decision to work in cities in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region was a strategic one: 1) these countries are at the forefront of change; 2) the EU and UNDP have a long-term and standing engagement and support to cities; and 3) cities are a system in themselves and have been significantly affected by the pandemic. More dense urban areas have had a higher prevalence of the virus, higher exposure to air pollution was linked to higher mortality rates, and access to green spaces (the benefit of which was widely recognized) is unequal, with more affluent areas having greater access.

Mayors for Economic Growth supports secondary cities in the Eastern Partnership countries to rejuvenate within planetary boundaries, allowing the environment and humanity to thrive for generations to come. The initiative engages over 400 municipalities to strengthen their capabilities to design for and finance regional development, develops an Urban Learning Center, and strengthens the learning network (exchange of best practices), including an annual forum. 

It will also have demonstrative interventions in at least 12 of the participating cities, exploring diverse trajectories for inclusive growth by taking a systemic approach, building on what works, and adapting and supporting local governments to attract and channel investment for local development.

The objectives of the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative

Beyond these targeted goals, the initiative is relevant in more strategic ways:

  1. Developing and nurturing partnerships with a shared intent is crucial. Complex challenges like the rejuvenation of industrial towns, climate change and building back better require an unprecedented level of collaboration, where trust and openness are foundational elements. Our work with local authorities and communities reflects this collaboration and shared intent between different actors and our two institutions. Partnerships with other institutions—Climate KIC, Vinnova, SITRA, OECD and others who are working in similar transformational spaces—are essential to share resources, learn faster and accelerate system transformation. This is just the beginning, and the initiative’s ability to hold open dialogues and exchange experiences will accelerate our collective learning.

  2. In pursuing different growth trajectories at the city level, we recognize the interconnectedness and need to work in systems. This goes beyond asking what problems we face right now, and instead looking towards understanding their drivers, interdependencies, models of resource distribution and how decisions are made. It requires moving away from linear models towards iterative learning, adaptation and flexibility. For mayors involved in the initiative, the purpose is to provide a sense of expanded options in the face of complexity, rather than resorting to “magic bullets” which don’t work.  Portfolios of development options are inherent to this. UNDP is already designing and activating this approach in around 20 locations globally.

  3. This shift requires a broader cultural and organizational change, as well as a change in mindset. The capability to listen, learn and adapt, while putting local ecosystems and existing societal narratives at the center, is key. Moving from predetermined solutions to discovery, creating an authorizing environment, opening space for social imagination, reflection and learning, and being guided by networking and co-creation, we will help drive this.  Systems leaders, including both individuals and institutions, will serve as catalysts and enablers of this process. The role requires optimism, flexibility and endurance, along with the ability to understand and empower stakeholders with very different viewpoints and incentives. The experience and influence of Mayors for Economic Growth informs strategy for change while empowering new leaders to enable that shift.

With the regional launch behind us and national launches in full swing, it’s important to state that this is only the start of a longer process of change and adaptation for the cities, our partners and ourselves.. At stake is institutional renewal for both of our organizations. This is an invitation for others who are working on tackling similar challenges to engage and learn jointly with us as we devise our new “handbooks” as development practitioners.