Designing for Outcomes: the Dilemma of Complexity and Scale

July 17, 2017 | By Innocent Obi Jr.

Part 2/2

Social problems are complex. The social sector, which is enmeshed in complex webs on contracts, services, and partnerships, is complicated. As we scale interventions from the level of a community to a county, we increase the number of agents, actors, contracts, processes, and interactions. In this way, the social sector is not only interested in people, programs, and behaviors, but also structures, processes, and interactions. Any social mission that endeavors to ‘have impact’ and ‘ensure positive outcomes’ cannot just be disruptive and innovative; it must be relevant and effective. Over the past decade, alongside the growth of social enterprise and venture philanthropy models, the social sector became increasingly focused on scaling proven interventions. Only recently has the sector become fully aware of the dilemma it faces: what do we sacrifice to complexity when focusing on ‘scale’?

Explicit in this question is a concern not only for what works, but what works at different levels and scales. It is not solely a focus on the effect of an intervention, but also on the interaction between the actors, contracts, existing programs, and partnerships that an intervention is comprised of or comes into contact with. The late Jay Forrester in his controversial work Urban Dynamics identified this very dilemma. In the July/August 1976 issue of the Technology Review, he wrote,

“More alarming than the adoption of destructive policies by older cities is the way the same policies are being adopted by whole states in the old industrial regions of the U.S. Already, the result is becoming evident. We run the risk of a major segregation of the inner-city-versus-suburbs type in which the northeast quadrant of the country becomes the old decaying core. State policies in the Northeast are attracting the unskilled and trapping people in welfare, while the other three quadrants of the country become “suburbs,” and attract wealth, jobs, management, and labor skills. Such social processes are too complex and are perceived too slowly to become a part of informed political debate […] The human and economic penalty for unwise governmental policies is potentially so staggering that the country can ill afford to “muddle through.”*

Jay’s advice to us then is now ever more potent: Go for the long-game! Effective and relevant solutions to social problems, particularly through the mechanism of public policy, must consider the host of interactions that take place in a system over time. Today’s attempts to structure public private partnerships that share knowledge and promote learning across sectors do just that. The many tools in our toolkit — social impact bonds, performance-based contracting, impact investing, grant making, Medicaid reimbursements, New Market Tax Credits, housing vouchers, etc. — support the social sector in designing more effective and relevant solutions for social problems. They allow us to not only raise more funds, but also to more effectively communicate and collaborate within and across sectors. In this process, we can come to learn together from both our successes and failures.

* Excerpted from “Letters: The Validity of Systems Dynamics: An Interchange by Dr. Herbert Weinblatt — Response by Dr. Forrester,” from the July/August 1976 issue of Technology Review.

Developing new solutions to old problems.

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