Resiliency, Risk, and a Good Compass: Are Joi Ito’s ‘Tools for the Coming Chaos’ relevant for development?


I recently came across an interview in Wired magazine from mid-2012 with MIT Media Lab ‘guru’ Joi Ito on Resiliency, Risk, and a Good Compass: Tools for the Coming Chaos.
He concluded the interview with his ‘9 or so
principles to survive in this chaotic, unpredictable system where planning is almost impossible (which sounds a lot like some of the current day complex or ‘wickeddevelopment scenarios that are discussed):
  1. Resilience instead of strength, which means you want to yield and allow failure and you bounce back instead of trying to resist failure.
  2. You pull instead of push. That means you pull the resources from the network as you need them, as opposed to centrally stocking them and controlling them.
  3. You want to take risk instead of focusing on safety.
  4. You want to focus on the system instead of objects.
  5. You want to have good compasses not maps.
  6. You want to work on practice instead of theory. Because sometimes you don’t why it works, but what is important is that it is working, not that you have some theory around it.
  7. It’s disobedience instead of compliance. You don’t get a Nobel Prize for doing what you are told. Too much of school is about obedience, we should really be celebrating disobedience.
  8. It’s the crowd instead of experts.
  9. It’s a focus on learning instead of education.
I looked at these principles (the emphasis is mine) for quite a while with a growing sense of bewilderment: Why does the organizational, discursive, programmatic, practical landscape of international development almost look like the exact opposite of his principles in 2013 and has so for many years, potentially even decades? And what does that say about the future of development?

First of all, the principles are a reminder that any cutting-edge, this-is-how-the-future-will-look like predictions always need to be taken with a few pinches of salt, because aid is not the only industry that doesnt really work according to them.
But more importantly, it is also a reminder for those inside the development industry to be more realistic about the locus and speed of ‘change’, especially when digital innovation and organizational cultures of large entities are involved. The idea that the UN Security Council will be abandoned, bilateral agencies will stop providing aid and China and India will take over the development landscape, because traditional actors didn’t see the ‘chaos’ coming sounds not realistic - despite predictions of fundamental changes.
It
s hard to imagine that it’s now almost 25 years ago that the communist bloc pretty much imploded and ‘the end of history’ was announced. But many, maybe even most, of the predictions about freedom, democracy, peace and prosperity haven’t been fulfilled yet. 

Was there chaos in the past ten years?
Timothy Ogden asks very related questions in his latest piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review: Ten Years On: Are Donors Different? Were They Ever?
[The authors] found common beliefs: there wasn’t much difference between nonprofits, any giving was good, and performance measures were a waste of time and money. Most importantly, they found that the donors picked nonprofits based on personal relationships, not performance. Same as it ever was. That’s the other side of the double-myth of the “donors care about impact” meme: that claims to care about impact are new or a distinguishing feature of the present. A decade after the original article, you still can’t read about philanthropy without encountering the claim that today’s donors are different. You can also find the same claim in stories about philanthropy from 1994—years earlier. The truth is that donors have always claimed to care about impact. If you care to look, you can easily find examples of donors making this claim in every era of American philanthropy.
So what is the ‘answer’ to new prophecies and familiar stories of stagnation, change and disrupture? First, keep calm, carry on and don’t listen too much to ‘Internet gurus’. And second, good, somewhat traditional research that empirically engages with some of the hypotheses (as the research that Ogden is highlighting does), still matters.

Itos principles and the realities of social media and development policy-making
This is also part of my Internet and social media-based research interest when it comes to assessing the impact of new technologies on traditional development discourses. In a forthcoming article in Third World Quarterly (ungated pre-print soon!) Daniel Esser and I analyzed social media and the rituals of international summits and global development policy-making (in the context of the MDGs). Very short summary: Blogs and Twitter and global virtual civil society have little to no impact when experts whose views are compliant with the mainstream discourses around the MDGs present their maps for a ‘post-MDG’ future, focusing on safe results and desirable objects and numbers. Almost needless to say that most of these experts have high levels of formal education and are  centrally stockpiling knowledge in the environment of a global summit in New York and the affiliated structures of UN agencies, Think Tanks or university institutes etc. 

In the end, despite my lack of enthusiasm for belligerent comparisons, I found Stowe Boyds addition in his comment on the Ito principles quite useful for the development and research domain:
One thing missing is the principle related to resilience: ‘go slow to go fast’. This means you need to step out of the flow of today’s operational frenzy to take new actions. In martial arts, this means you must relax your muscles and nerves to respond or attack quickly.

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