Are networks/complexity the future of policymaking? (RSA event report)
‘21st Century Policy Development – how networks and complex systems can inform policymaking in the UK’ was the focus of what was, for me, a fascinating conference – jointly organised by the RSA – which attracted an audience of 200 Fellows and others to Westminster Central Hall.
The first speaker at the event was Paul Ormerod FRSA, author of the 2010 RSA pamphlet N Squared – Public policy and the power of networks.
“The idea of complexity is about much subtler and much cleverer government,’ explained Paul.
“The science of networks has advanced enormously in last 10-15 years”
if we knew how to do it, we wouldn’t bother to hold this meeting
- Paul Ormerod
However he candidly admitted, “if we knew how to do it, we wouldn’t bother to hold this meeting”.
RSA Director of Research Steve Broome explained during his session: “if we have some idea of the network structure then we have a better chance of seeding interventions in those places that will enable network effects?”
He drew on examples including the pioneering drug recovery work the RSA is beginning at scale in West Kent and the mapping of local relationships in Blackburn, “to tap into the hidden wealth in communities… that can be encouraged to be more co-productive”.
“At the heart of the networks are active parents at the school gates, the quiz-master at the local pub,” said Steve.
Another RSA project mapped social networks in New Cross Gate in London: aiming to “bring local latent change-makers together”.
“There is a role for a new kind of public servant: a network weaver, an enabler”, said Steve.
There is a role for a new kind of public servant: a network weaver, an enabler
- Steve Broome
He also shared that: “complexity is difficult, it can give you a complex – in some ways I feel less capable and knowledgeable than I used to, but I feel more confident in my reduced sense of capability being more effective.”
The organiser of the event, Greg Fisher FRSA, co-founder of the think-tank Synthesis with Paul Ormerod and Bridget Rosewell, feels the approach is very much part of the RSA’s ‘21st Century Enlightenment’: “The most poignant moment for me was during the breakfast seminar in Parliament when Jeff Johnson, Professor of Complexity Science and Design at the Open University, emphasised that the world is currently undergoing a scientific revolution. For me, the shift underway, which was very much catalysed by the computer revolution, is equivalent to the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th Century.”
“Curiously, this chimes with the RSA’s tagline of ‘21st Century Enlightenment’. This revolution is not confined to the natural sciences because it involves an improved understanding of systems we call ‘complex’ (those with lots of constituent parts that interact with and adapt to each other), which includes human systems. Computer power gives us the ability to model such systems much better than we did before.”
The key role being played by the RSA seems very appropriate: “One of the most poetic aspects of the day for me was the co-hosting of the event by the RSA and Synthesis. Synthesis recently emerged during what I think is a new Enlightenment, while the RSA, the grandfather of think-tanks, emerged during the first Enlightenment.”
it’s great that the infusion of this new thinking into policy is being led by one of the oldest and one of the newest think tanks
- Greg Fisher, Synthesis
“So it’s great that the infusion of this new thinking into policy is being led by one of the oldest and one of the newest think tanks. It was good to see a number of RSA Fellows there (in addition to me and Paul Ormerod!), including a number of Fellows from the Living Systems Group” (which was founded in 1994 by Eileen Conn MBE FRSA – and has involved around 100 Fellows since its launch).
“Finally, one of the points I struggled to get across during the day was that a networks and complexity take on human systems will not get us to some modelling nirvana when we have a perfect understanding of people and society,” said Greg.
“We’re moving a step in the right direction but one of the lessons that emerges from this thinking is that we should be humble in the face of the complexity of the world around us. We will never have a perfect understanding but this new thinking does lead us to understand things better i.e. it’s a step in the right direction.”