Owen Barder

Complexity and innovation in development

We need to think of global development not as the equivalent of the sum of individual firm outputs but as traits of a whole system – Owen Barder discussed complexity and innovation in development.

Tuesday 15.05.2012

Owen Barder argued that development should be understood as an emergent feature of a complex adaptive system, which usually have the following five characteristics:

  • Its evolution is difficult to predict
  • It cannot be pinned down to a component
  • It can have a broad shape, but it remains largely unpredictable when it comes to details
  • It tends towards greater complexity
  • It does not tend towards equilibrium

The argumentation was built around the ideas that evolution would generate more efficient solutions, that society and economy are outcomes of adaptive processes, habits, products, institutions, and individuals, and that change is possible through adaptation.

In supporting his claims, he gave examples from fields as diverse as psychology, climate studies, economics and engineering.

The last part of the lecture consisted of seven policy recommendations:

  • Resist social engineering (because evolution outperforms design) and avoid isomorphic mimicry (new institutions would not have the drivers for evolution to perform)
  • Resist fatalism
  • Promote innovation
  • Embrace creative destruction (there is a feedback loop that selects those performing)
  • Shape development
  • Embrace experimentation
  • Act globally

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Owen Barder is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and the Director for Europe. Barder was a British civil servant from 1988 to 2010, during which time he worked in the UK Treasury, No.10 Downing Street and the Department for International Development. He was Private Secretary (Economic Affairs) to the Prime Minister and previously Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the Department for International Development he was variously Director of International Finance and Development Effectiveness, Director of Communications and Information, and head of Africa Policy Department. Barder is an influential blogger on development – http://www.owen.org/blog.

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