jeph mathias

complexity?          

Thinking, particularly western thinking, exalts logic. This mysterious blue green planet and the seven billion humans we share it with confound logic. There's the rub! 

In billiards, by inputting the velocity, position and energy of every ball, we could mathematically solve the positions of all the balls after every shot. A complicated equation perhaps, but soluble. Great billiard players do it. Modernity's great promise  was the possibility of reducing the world to a billiard table and every dimension of life to its essential ‘billiard-ballness’.  Introducing even one or two extra balls makes the equations exponentially more complicated but like the modern-day cavalry computers arrived to model and compute multivariate rational problems. We can still dream that ultimately everything  is rationally accessible, definable and soluble. Humanity's massive dams, vaccines against polio and rockets sent to the moon prove how powerful modern thinking and practise can be.  Evolved during modernity's heyday in the '50s and '60s development still thirsts after that modern mirage.  

Smooth and solveable 

Smooth and solveable 

But we don’t live on a blue baize billiard table,  uniform, smooth and two-dimensional. The interaction of a few macroscopic elements (e.g. planets or billiard balls) can be solved with complicated equations and huge numbers of microscopic elements (e.g. air molecules) are amenable, via clever statistics, to other complicated equations. However on our blue-green planet most of life and I say all of development lies in the badlands between solvable macroscopic and statistically accessible microscopic. Many middle sized, unpredictable interacting elements can’t be reduced, defined and solved.  In place of spherical, unchanging billiard balls, development works with messy unpredictable humans and their surprising interactions on an endlessly variable planet. We need more than logic.

If our messy, variegated ball of humanity confounds logic and predictive science where does that leave us? We were taught scientific hypothetico-deductive reasoning  is the only valid way to think. If that can't solve our development challenges then what do we do? Actually the answer is easy- the problem is not with the world, it is with our idea that scientific, hypothetic-deductive thinking is the only valid way of thinking.   Development makes us find other ways to think, other axioms from which to act, other ways to measure change. The good news is that those methods exist. Complexity science and new development methodologies offer us ways into this real, messy world.  That's my work.

 A mela in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, India. No billiard balls here, just unpredictable interactions on an endlessly variegated surface. 

 A mela in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, India. No billiard balls here, just unpredictable interactions on an endlessly variegated surface. 

This is relevant to those who work in development and equally to those hold the power to grant or withhold funding from them, demand reports, approve project designs... Much of what I do is finding new ways to work through issues,  new ways to contribute to change when cause and effect are not directly linked and ways to communicate such complexity to head offices and funders.