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.