Learning from Chaos: Embracing Uncertainty for Stronger Autonomous Community Development

Evan BloomDevelopment Revolution

It’s no secret that social change work is complex, multifaceted, and difficult to define, address and solve. Why then does conventional wisdom so often lean towards providing structured, predictable community development interventions? What if we’ve got it all wrong? What if we should be embracing some levels of chaos and uncertainty to foster genuine, lasting change?

At Root Change, our recent experiences with collective action campaigns and our Malawi social lab initiative have led us to a surprising insight: embracing uncertainty and disorder can accelerate autonomous community development.

Over 15 years ago, when we introduced the Capacity 2.0 framework, we challenged the normative styles of capacity strengthening that relied on predefined “best practices” and standardized models. We were committed to promoting more adaptive, context-sensitive, and locally-driven strategies.

However, we now recognize that there’s more to the story. The tension arising from ambiguity and the disorder associated with operating within complex systems are not just inconvenient realities; they are indispensable conditions that must be built into effective program design. By bringing ready-made program solutions to communities, we unintentionally deprive local actors of the opportunity to experience the volatility, randomness, and stressors that come with working in complex systems.

When we bring ready-made program solutions to communities, we’re unintentionally depriving local actors of the opportunity to experience and react to the volatility, randomness, and stressors that come with working in complex systems.

This is where Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of antifragility becomes relevant. Antifragility refers to systems that not only have the ability to withstand shocks, stresses, and volatility but also have the capacity to thrive and become stronger as a result. While resilience implies the ability to resist or recover from disturbances, antifragility suggests an even greater capacity to grow and improve from them.

Our Malawi social labs and Cluster-Anchor approach for collective impact exemplify how embracing uncertainty and disorder can foster local capacity. The process deliberately incorporates volatility, randomness, and stressors from the beginning, enabling participants from diverse backgrounds to confront challenges and adapt accordingly. This fosters real-time feedback and growth in the flow of work situations, leading to valuable outcomes.

Strengthening Advocacy and Civic Engagement (SACE) project in Nigeria

In the context of our social lab initiatives, we found that micro shocks and stressors, such as group formation challenges, accountability and communication struggles, skills gaps, and activity design problems, play a crucial role in fostering autonomous local development. These stressors and uncertainties are not just obstacles to overcome; they are essential components of the process.

So, what is the main takeaway from this? Embracing uncertainty, volatility, and stressors can lead to more effective, community-driven initiatives. As change agents, our challenge is to design processes that encourage controlled levels of randomness, disorder, and stress. This is how we can foster an antifragile mindset, where program activities not only tolerate disorder but actively benefit from it, promoting resilience and adaptability within communities.

To promote antifragility, consider the following suggestions for your programs:

  • Embrace action-taking: Make experimentation and iterative learning central to your program design, focusing on trial and error in real work situations.
  • Encourage adaptive problem-solving: Create experiences where project participants discuss local challenges, assess their relationships and trust levels, and democratically choose which problems to tackle. If you already do this, don’t let your own preconceived ideas about what matters most get in the way of participant choices.
  • Promote non-predictive approaches: Trade in your annual plans for three-month learning cycles. When we close the time gap between program choices and measurable consequences using three-month learning-cycles, we are learning antifragility.

By embracing uncertainty, volatility, and stressors, we can design more effective, community-driven initiatives that promote resilience and adaptability within communities.