Sample projects

Applying a Complex Systems lens

The idea is work with a group of people to demonstrate and experience how looking through a complex systems lens, leads to different solutions than if you don’t. The ambition is to create a bridge from deep abstraction to absolutely practical action. Compromise on either, and the exercise becomes either superficial or impractical.

It includes an introduction to complexity, tailored to the audience, with a little bit of practice. In some cases a game of a simulation, always something interactive. The next step is to apply the lens to a problem of interest to that group of people. Focussing on a real-world problem is essential. Having a diverse group of people, including a fair share knowledgeable about the problem also. But having some independent thinkers, and in all cases a diverse group makes all the difference.

Here are three examples of this process:

1 Enabling business decisions that integrate natural capital – Learning from a complex systems perspective

2 A systems lens on the Dutch energy transition (in Dutch)

3 Complex systems education in schools

The engagement typically takes 3-6 months and includes the drafting of an introductory paper, two workshops with 20-30 participants and a final report. The design is highly adaptive.

The Resilience Garage described below is another example of such an engagement.

The Resilience Garage

This is an engagement workshop to look at a city, an industry or a business risk through the lens of resilience – and define practical actions. This was first applied with a group of 9 multinationals (Dow, DuPont, IBM, McKinsey and Co., Shell, Siemens, Swiss Re, Unilever and Yara) as part of a CEO-led initiative.

The Resilience Garage is a form of peer review or Resilience Assurance Review performed by trans-disciplinary  and  cross-­sectorial  teams  of  resilience  experts  for  the  purpose  of  improving the likelihood of success of the reviewed project. Overall, the purpose of the Resilience  Garage  is  to  accelerate  the  rigorous  application  of  resilience  theory  in  practice  and the refinement of resilience theory based on practical experience and empirical evidence.

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The first Resilience Garage  was  held  in  Amsterdam  in 2014,  at  a  historic  shipyard,  at  Shell’s initiative and sponsorship; participants  were  widely  spread  across corporate, academic, NGO and government sectors. This  Garage  reviewed  two  projects:  one  of which on the challenges of Norfolk, Virginia, put forward by the Rockefeller  Foundation  100  Resilient  Cities. See “a dispatch from Christine Morris, the Chief Resilience Officer of Norfolk.” .

“In this garage, resilience “mechanics” (experts from private industry, government, nonprofits and academia), got down and dirty, addressing the dilemma that Norfolk posed to them.”

Long term energy scenarios

A large corporate client was interested in developing long term energy scenarios for the country. Heavily dependent on a single fuel source for power, the necessary diversification of energy was considered in the context of the tensions in the social and economic evolution – not merely as a technical or economic issue.

Partnering with a local organisation, I provided expert advice (in the quirky scenario terminology as a “remarkable person”), as well as design and facilitation of workshops. The resulting stories were unveiled in a board retreat, both in presentation form, through stories and by theatre performance.

“Scenarios encourage attention to the future’s openness and irreducible uncertainty.”

Director Global Commission on the Economy and Climate – inception phase

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate is a major new international initiative to analyse and communicate the economic risks and opportunities which arise from climate change.The Commission is a partnership of seven economic and policy research institutes – located in the US, China, Europe, India, Korea and Ethiopia – overseen by an International Council comprising former heads of government and finance ministers and leaders in the fields of economics, business and finance.

The Commission’s flagship project, the New Climate Economy, aims to produce better and more comprehensive evidence on whether and how climate policy can be made compatible with strong economic performance. Engaging directly with decision makers in both public and private sectors in a variety of countries, it will seek to synthesise existing knowledge with original research and analysis.

The first four months of the project required a director to start-up the global partnership and initial research agenda.

Resilience Action

Ten global corporations formed a consortium to develop a resilience lens on the food-water-energy nexus. The purpose was to develop a set of pilot projects that would strengthen the resilience of local socio-economic systems. A resilience methodology to enable operational assessment and deployment was developed by a core team and applied to the various pilots projects in different stages of development.

A toolset was developed to make possible the integration of resilience into the Enterprise Risk Management systems of the corporations, consisting of a checklist of ten risk and resilience dimensions to be assessed by management.

“Collar the black swans by including resilience in risk management.”

Strategy development

A large NGO with a very strong national reputation requested advice on how to best leverage its domestic capabilities and capacity for global impact with regards to methane emissions. This applied to both traditional gas development, and to new shale gas developments around the world.

Collaboratively a strategy was developed, as well as practical support provided by preparing positions and attending international conferences on behalf of the client. Notably the bulk of the work was done remotely, through regular conference call and email updates, with only occasional travel.

“Shale gas can in principle be exploited safely, but its impact on the energy system is more ambiguous.”

Green Growth

Is growth necessary for decarbonising the economy and how can it lead to growth? These two questions formed the basis of a multi-disciplinary team commissioned in 2011 by the German Ministry of the Environment. The goal was to reframe the European climate approach through the lens of German policy, which sees climate policy as an opportunity, rather than a threat. The report concluded that Post-crisis Europe can revitalize its economy by tackling the climate challenge. Raising the 2020 European climate target from 20% to 30% emissions reductions can open the way
towards higher growth and increased employment.

The results were presented to policy makers around Europe, as well as published in a report, various editorials and publicised through speeches.

“We have taken a complexity approach to the economy for Green Growth.”

Workshop design and facilitation

How often do we attend conferences and workshops that are less than satisfactory? When I first had the opportunity to define and organise global learning conferences at Shell, I resolved that they would be a memorable and learning experience, not an ordeal listening to mind-numbing panels, with inevitably cut short question sessions.

Workshops are terribly important, but they have value only if participants truly connect and engage. This takes careful design, a measure of social engineering and some creativity. One such example (designed with a team), is the Network of European Foundation’s forum on Seeding the Future of Europe, catalysing dialogue between 50 diverse European leaders. Another example is a conference at SwissRe’s Centre for Global Dialogue on applying resilience, blending corporate and academic experts.

“Is this workshop memorable and did you learn something?”

as humans, we are uniquely equipped to make decisions on the basis of ambiguous information - in fact, we do it all the time.