On my mind for 2015: behavioral economics, design, complexity, and more

Last January, I kicked off the new year with a surprisingly popular post on the “hype cycle” in development. The conceptual framework looked something like this:

Hype Cycle for Development Ideas

And I took a stab at placing development concepts along it; check out the original post for more.

For 2015, I considered an update. However, for better or worse, I’m not sure it’s changed dramatically enough to bother.

In its place, here are a few of the things that seem important to the development discourse at this juncture in time. This comes with the big blaring caveat that my methodology (such as it is) consists of reading development blogs and reports, talking to other people in the field, and then writing what seems plausible to me. Take from it what you will.

So without further ado, what’s on my mind for 2015:

1. Behavioral economics and user-centered design principles are being mainstreamed in development approaches. Increasingly, I see old and stodgy development institutions talking about these approaches (e.g. see the recent World Development Report). And they are often talked about together, which makes sense from one perspective: they’re both about understanding the intended beneficiaries of aid as real living people with needs and thoughts and cultural norms and capacities and constraints and all those other nuances that make us human.

But there’s a tension here too: behavioral economics aims toward the universal (using RCTs, statistical analysis, etc. to articulate lessons and mechanisms that work across contexts) while user-centered design aims towards the particular (using ethnographic and qualitative approaches to craft solutions for a particular problem or user group). Even while motivated by similar values—both could be called “human-centered”—they have very different toolkits.

Looking forward, the trick will be combining these two approaches in a deep way. I’m not convinced anyone has done that yet. But if you can build a better methodological mousetrap… Well, you’ll spend half your time just trying to explain it, but you’ll be onto something.

2. Complexity demystified, but also underutilized. The ideas of complexity science have found purchase in a wide range of fields, from evolutionary biology to computer science to military strategy. These ideas have started to creep into development thinking, most notably in the form of a book and a few financing mechanisms. I can’t turn a corner without hearing a problem described as “wicked” or system described as “complex adaptive”. I’m as big an offender as any.

Yet despite this, I don’t see ways that complexity science has dramatically changed development thinking beyond a few general insights. I could attribute this to ossified institutional structures that generally resist change and new thinking, but I think there’s a deeper problem of fit between the methods of complexity and the context/constraints of development. That’s not necessarily insurmountable—complexity concepts express themselves quite differently in each field—but it suggests a need to indigenize the tools to our sector’s challenges and needs.

3. The values of adaptation and tailoring to context are becoming operationalized at institutional levels. Between the Doing Development Differently manifesto and the Global Delivery Initiative, several pockets of smart people at large donors and development organizations are trying to figure out how to improve the way those institutions design and run their programs. I’ve been lucky enough to join a few of these conversations, which might inflate my perceptions of their future impact. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic.