Rob D. van den Berg
Visiting Professor, King’s College London

My experience with complexity and systems in evaluation has been in the nexus between development and environment. From 2004 to 2014 I worked as evaluator at the Global Environment Facility (GEF), that financially supported many projects and programs throughout the world focusing on how environment and development could become a win-win situation, leading to more sustainable systems and innovations that would lead to transition to greener societies and economies, safe biodiversity and prevent climate change. My overall message from that experience is the importance of scale. Many of the investment programs supported by the GEF were great and could have been the steppingstone to preventing the current environmental crises, but these initiatives did not reach the scale needed to achieve that. That depended on whether societies, countries, the world would take over the examples of how transformation could take shape. And we know the world did not do this… So the problem of scale to reach transformation to a different system is a challenge that we need to face if a transformation is needed to prevent disasters. Gradually we started to introduce this in our evaluations, but noting the challenge of scale is as far as the power of an evaluator to change the world goes…

A second issue that gradually emerged for me is uncertainty. Complexity almost always means that what you study is to a large extent unpredictable. Complexity calls for multi-actor and multi-layered programs, that aim to influence a complex system through a range of activities. A typical environment/development program would have: a governmental/policy/regulations layer, supposed to prevent negative outcomes and promote and regulate positive ones; a civil society component, interacting with people to encourage them to change behaviour; a private sector component focusing on new ways to do business; and capacity development to promote the knowledge and capacities to move these components forward. In almost all cases the interactions between these components and the sovereign decisions of stakeholders brought huge uncertainty to the program, and only flexible and adaptive management would be able to turn surprises from obstacles to enabling factors for change.

The third issue concerns risk. Gradually I became aware that evaluation is not risk oriented. For many of us, this was self-evident. Evaluations look at the past, and the risks are no longer alive; they have come to pass or not, and about the only issue evaluators were involved in is whether risks were identified well during the implementation of a program. But this is a very different perspective than facing risks and uncertainty in the future. Evaluating programs that aim to transform a complex system inevitably means that as evaluators we need to adopt a forward-looking perspective in addition to our usual assessment of “what happened”. The main instruments of forward-looking science are scenario-building and risk assessment. Both have a long history in science and in many areas of work, amongst them insurance, pension schemes, to name a few financial and socio-economic ones. The Earth sciences (geography, climate, biology, etc.) have done a lot of work to integrate the forward-looking perspective in the research they do. The most famous is perhaps climate science, which models and calculates developments in climate and identifies risks for our societies and economies and life on planet Earth. In my time at the GEF we made the first tentative steps in this direction, and for me it is clear that evaluation needs to adopt deeper knowledge of these issues and approaches to move forward to support transformational change that would bring us a sustainable future.


2 thoughts on “Scale, Uncertainty and Risk: A Complexity Perspective

  1. Nice piece. Makes think of the pandemic as an exercise in complexity, though I’ve yet to see anything written on it yet.

    Sent from my iPhone


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