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Here are some quick thoughts on a new project that I’ve been wondering about – what do readers think?

The sheer complexity of social problems at local and national level can leave public servants, volunteer groups, social entrepreneurs and others feeling powerless. Of course there are a multitude of successful case studies, ‘best practice’ and promising ideas, but it can be difficult (arguably impossible) to adapt ‘solutions’ that have worked in one instance to new contexts with different characteristics.

Dave Snowden and Mary Boone argue in their 2007 article for Harvard Business Review (requires a subscription) that relying on ‘best practice’ is powerless to tackle problems in complex systems. They compare simple, complicated and complex structures and show that unlike the other two, complex systems are dynamic, and comprise large numbers of elements interacting with each other in unpredictable ways. Rather than imposing fixes, Snowden and Boone suggest that trouble-shooters in such a situation must step back and allow potential solutions to emerge.

Their paper is a persuasive argument against best practice and challenges the orthodoxy of ‘evidence based policymaking’ – but I don’t think it means public servants faced with tricky problems in complex systems must always start from a blank sheet.

For example, technical innovators often solve simple and complicated problems by applying past solutions, but also learn from the past in order to solve complex problems. However rather than directly deploying a known fix (likely to fail for the reasons above), they use abstract principles derived from past solutions. This allows past solutions to inform new ideas indirectly.

For example, databases of granted patents (which contain novel solutions to technical problems) were analysed to develop the TRIZ problem-solving system. Similarly, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language presents a typology of architectural principles that allow others to solve problems in the built environment. Design firm IDEO publish Patterns, recording recurring insights gleaned from past design projects as an aide-memoire.

So could a similar set of principles be devised to solve social problems across different contexts? Perhaps through a meta-analysis of policies, programmes and interventions that showed some success (with reference to the characteristics of the environment in which they worked), more abstract pointers could be developed that give public servants a starting point, or some promising lines of enquiry.

Good idea or a silly one? Perhaps such a database and set of principles already exists? Would the methodology work, or should it be done in a different way? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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