Systems & complexityTaking responsibility for complexity

Taking responsibility for complexity (section 3.1.4): Building adaptive capacity

This article is part of section 3.1 of a series of articles featuring the ODI Working Paper Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems.

Capacity building is likely to be a key element of strategies to address complex problems at the right levels. One aspect is that decentralising tasks within government will often require building capacities at lower levels of organisation – in local government bodies and elsewhere. There may be a ‘chicken and egg problem,’ whereby there is reluctance to decentralise tasks to lower-level units until they have proved their capacity to carry them out, even though it is impossible to do this until decentralisation has actually occurred. One solution is to begin by decentralising simpler tasks for which lower-level capacity is clearly evident or for which the costs of failure would not be severe1.

In many instances, capacity building should focus on local institutions and collaborative enterprises that are already engaged in tackling the problem. Adaptive capacity, defined as ‘the property of a system to adjust its characteristics or behaviour, in order to expand its coping range under existing climate variability, or future climate conditions’ 2, has had a good deal of attention as part of responding to the challenge of CCA [Climate Change Adaptation]. It is also likely to be of general importance in responding to a wide variety of complex problems3,4. As such, emerging knowledge on the determinants of capacity should be high priority: it is shaped by the ability of institutions to learn from experience, by flexibility and creativity in decision-making and by responsive power structures that consider the needs of all stakeholders5.

Communities’ and local organisations’ adaptive capacities could also be promoted by helping improve feedback about their local environment. The poor position of many communities owes to a lack of information about the environment, meaning they are not in the best position to deal with new problems affecting them. However, ‘many agents […], without seeing the dynamics of the larger system, can produce a self-organising strategy that effectively deals with a complex and out of control environment’ 6. Therefore, local-level and ‘rapid feedback’ indicators ‘help individuals, agencies and businesses make the best choices for their own actions,’ and they can ‘work together to improve the system [and their position in it] so long as they get feedback and so long as they have the capacity to respond’ 7.

As well as building the capacity of individuals, communities and organisations, it may be important to build collective capacity by supporting networks that address an issue or area of practice. Supporting the development of networks is a way to ensure that actors from a variety of levels, contexts and backgrounds are able to communicate on an issue, and helps build shared understandings and social capital that may foster (or be a starting point for) collaborative action8. Providing actors the opportunity to hold discussions will give them a chance to communicate, build trust and coordinate.

Next part (section 3.1.5): Remove the barriers to self-organisation.

See also these related series:

Article source: Jones, H. (2011). Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems. Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Working Paper 330. London: ODI. ( Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.

References and notes:

  1. Marshall, G. (2008). ‘Nesting, Subsidiarity, and Community-based Environmental Governance beyond the Local Level.’ International Journal of the Commons 2(1): 75-97.
  2. Brooks, N., & Adger, W. N. (2005). Assessing and enhancing adaptive capacity. Adaptation policy frameworks for climate change: Developing strategies, policies and measures, 165-181.
  3. Baser, H. and Morgan, P. (2008). ‘Capacity, Change and Performance.’ Discussion Paper 59B. Maastricht: ECDPM.
  4. The ‘capacity to adapt and self-renew’ (including learning, strategising, adaptation, repositioning and managing change) to be one of five core competencies required for an organisation or system to survive.
  5. Gunderson, L.H. and Holling, C.S. (eds) (2001). Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  6. Hemelrijk, C. (ed.) (2005). Self-organisation and Evolution of Biological and Social Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Innes, J. and Booher, D. (2000). ‘Indicators for Sustainable Communities: A Strategy Building on Complexity Theory and Distributed Intelligence.’ Planning Theory & Practice 1(2): 173-186.
  8. Swanson, D. and Bhadwal, S. (eds) (2009). Creating Adaptive Policies: A Guide for Policy Making in an Uncertain World. Winnipeg and Ottawa: IISD and IDRC.
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Harry Jones

Author of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) paper "Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems."

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