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Why public sector innovation?

Today, complexity and uncertainty are the norm—they are contexts, not just risks.”[1]

We all work in very complex social-ecological systems. But when it comes to complexity, those working in the public sector face some unique challenges. Services must be delivered on a continuous basis without interruptions; yet systemic changes involve disruptions. Accountability is an essential principle for public services and this favours risk aversion; yet responses to complexity demand experimentation—and thus, sometimes, failure. Predictable, measurable changes are requirements for public institutions; but instead, complex systems offer emergence and paradox. Transformation usually requires long timelines; yet immediate outcomes are needed. This is to name just a few dilemmas.

Public sector workers must create the conditions for consistency, regularity, and order in conditions that range from the complex to the chaotic. At the same time, they are being asked to support innovation, manage transitions, and respond to unprecedented challenges—to which the answers are unknown. COVID-19 looms large in this picture.

The public sector works with problems that cross many domains. For example, health or well-being is not a function only of healthcare. 

It is affected by food systems, agriculture, climate change, education, livelihoods, employment, cultural practices, gender dynamics, and many other factors. But organisational structures are not built with dense and ever-evolving interconnections in mind. In addition, for decades, social, ecological, and economic issues have been approached as if they are separate domains; but of course, there is no economy or society without healthy ecosystems from which we draw everything we use; the three are dynamically and inextricably linked. 

Understanding how complex social-ecological systems work and how to intervene is critical for good public sector policy and action.

This disjuncture between public service needs and structures has been called the complexity gap[2]. We seek to help bridge this gap by strengthening the capacities of public and civil sector workers in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to understand and engage in complex social-ecological systems, and to share their learning with their colleagues.

The SADC countries are: Angola, Botswana, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

[1] Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges, OECD, 2017.

[2] Defined as the mismatch between the increased complexity and uncertainty of the world and the established governance arrangements and institutions of society. An Introduction to Cybernetics, W. Ross Ashby, 1957.

Programme objectives

We are guided by our high level vision of a just and thriving people and planet where connections between humans and nature create virtuous cycles of regeneration.

We aim to strengthen understanding and capacities in . . .

  • Social-ecological systems, complexity, and resilience.

  • Innovation to address wicked, transboundary problems (including the SDGs).

  • Building distributed agency and networks, and dealing with collaboration and conflict.

  • Decolonising knowledge and practices, including contextualising all of this in Africa/African knowledge systems.

How are we doing this—and with whom?

We will bring together 30 participants, drawn from a diversity of sectors and projects, who want to explore how to transform change.

We seek participants who: want to learn how to think and act systemically; are interested in disrupting toxic systems and building healthy ones; are, in some way, working on Agenda 2030; have a desire for people and planet to thrive together with a keen interest in transforming development practices; work with diversity and try to break down silos; are engaged in an ongoing, honest struggle with their own biases and understandings; and recognise that effective changemakers are constantly engaged in both inner and outer journeys. Both are integrated in this programme.

We will include participants' teams in the learning journey - for example in coaching calls - so that learning will reside not just in individuals, but in their wider organisations.

The programme is a joint learning journey - participants, facilitators, and partners - we are all learning together. We create conditions to challenge our models, assumptions, and processes through elements such as:

  • On-line modules.

  • Inter-modular learning and work on ongoing projects.

  • Coaching.

  • Sharing, presenting, and analysing each others' work.

  • Module design and delivery which is responsive to participants' realities.

  • Activities designed for both the inner and outer journeys.

  • Learning both theoretical foundations and practical tools.

Uniquely, module one of the programme is part of the recruitment process. This allows participants and their organisations to really get to know what the programme is about and whether it's a fit for them. And, even for those ultimately not accepted into the programme, we hope that offering the first module broadly in this way, will provide learning and value to all who go through module one.


Catalysing Change is a learning journey that goes inward to learn about self as a systems entrepreneur and outward to learn about organisations, networks, and the global context as parts of a dynamic, interactive whole.


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