The 4th in the emerging series on aid and complexity took place at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex on 3rd October 2008. Pete Cranston blogged about it shortly thereafter – here is an extract from his thoughts.

“I was at an IDS seminar last Friday – “Knowledges, Capacities and Learning for Development: Insights from Complexity approaches”.  If the title is alarming then this ODI paper is an excellent primer, “Exploring the science of complexity Ideas and implications for development and humanitarian efforts”. An even shorter introduction comes from this post by Duncan Green, Head of Research at Oxfam who wrote a summary introduction to the ODI paper.

Ideas from complexity theory have permeated everyday discourse – see the butterfly’s wing and the hurricane – but so far I have never made the time to understand more…

I’ve read Dave Snowden’s work but this was the first time I have seen him perform. He has a rock-star style, as befits his KM guru status, full of anecdotes and one liners: the guru comes through in the principles, axiom-like, with which he peppers his delivery (if you tire, you can spot them because most of the audience start writing quickly: people stop taking voluminous notes quite early – he is very fast and the content is dense). He is also intensely human, which is why I chose this picture of him. He lodges his slides on his site, and like most of us, I suspect, has a set that evolve slowly over several events. This one seems to be close to the version we heard at IDS.  The slides are interesting in themselves, and capture a lot of his ideas, but not the performance of the day.

He has developed a body of work that I think is exceptionally broad and deep: his politics (I declare an interest here) are old left  but he works for British and US intelligence, military and business clients (“development consultants are those prepared to live with low margins”); he is a convergent academic, whose first degree was in Physics and Philosophy, and whose work now ranges across natural science, informatics, IT, social science and development – to name those I can distinguish; he has developed, with colleagues, methodologies for introducing to organisations and groups the ideas and implications of complexity (some of which we experimented with at the seminar); he has spawned a sophisticated software tool – sensemaker – that crunches and displays patterns derived from analysis of metadata associated with narrative fragments of sense making (signified – tagged – by the providers). These patterns display – numerically and, far more impressively, graphically, correlations that – it is claimed – illustrate culturally specific clusters of meaning, value and judgement. He is also sharing much of his materials and ideas at a site designed to be an Open Source, collaboratively developed resource.

Read more and watch video clips of participants perspectives on Pete’s blog

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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Knowledge and learning, Meetings