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--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.

[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.

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.

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.

Our goals are to strengthen capacities in . . .


Theories and practices of social-ecological systems, complexity, and resilience.


Knowledge sharing and building distributed agency; building networks.


Navigating complexity, bureaucratic structures and processes, emergence and innovation, the SDGs/Agenda 2063, and wicked, transboundary problems.


Contextualising all of this in Africa, informed by African knowledge systems.


Understanding the changemaker’s role and journey in complex systems, and specifically, ethics of change and public sector accountability - and engaging in both an inner and outer journey.

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 change makers 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.

  • Sessions with facilitators in very small learning pods, with the opportunity to go deep with the material

  • 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.



What is systems thinking and why is it important? Here, we cover topics such as: the adaptive cycle; the difference between simple, complicated, and complex contexts; identifying root causes; wicked problems and wicked questions; and systems mapping.



What does it mean to think transformationally? We grapple with defining transformation; understanding the Anthropocene and planetary boundaries; emergence; and what it might mean to transform our development practices and our approach to the SDGs.


We know that resilience is critical if we are to thrive in the Anthropocene. We explore the differences between persistence, adaptation, and transformation; resilience-building vs. resilience thinking; the role of complexity; and living in surprise.



Reflection is critical to learning, and never more than when we seek transformation. We interrogate our assumptions; learn reflective practices; and employ journaling and mindfulness to increase our reflective capacity.


We are part of the systems we seek to change, and they are inside us. What does this mean for us as change-makers? We explore this through interactive exercises and through the lens of the adaptive cycle and panarchy. Systems archetypes can also help us see how we interact with the systems in which we are embedded.



Seeing from multiple perspectives is critical for transformative change. We explore ways of seeing and knowing; the concept of the powerful stranger; healing and reconciliation; and how all of this relates to generative capacity.


We are all embedded in organisations. We look at organisational dynamics and transformational potential, communications skills and facilitation skills, how to bring along others within your organisation (our team-based coaching approach keeps this in mind), and methods such as peer consulting to support each other.



We look at building system entrepreneur skills and the distributed agency amongst different kinds of systems entrepreneurs that is required to shift systems. We think about how to deploy these skills in different contexts, how to build teams with complementary skills, and how to connect with others in the system to create the range of skills needed.


Networks are key in a deeply interconnected world. Here, we look at understanding, exploring, and building networks; working across disciplines and scales; keystone and shadow networks; and how networks can help to build an ecosystem for change agents.



What does scaling mean? Scale is critical for change-makers, but it may not be in the way we usually think about it. There are several types of scaling we need to think about, and we need to know when each is needed. We explore scaling up, out, and deep in order to shift policies, practices, and paradigms.


What does the research say about successful experimentation and innovation? We explore practices such as bricolage and the adjacent possible and learn about opportunity contexts--and what innovation means in opaque, hazy, and transparent organisations.