Every time I have been asked to contribute a blog for ACDI, my mind rested briefly on the idea to write about ASSAR, and then swiftly moved on each time. It is rather strange, to have waited one-and-a-half years – the time I have been managing the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) project – before being able to say something about it. And yet, it is maybe not that strange.
How can you conceptualize clearly what it means to be coordinating a project implemented by sixteen different organisations, located in four continents and across more than ten time-zones? How can you hope to be exhaustive in your descriptions of the cultural, gender, racial, north-south, urban-rural and academic-practitioner barriers that you attempt to overcome on a daily basis, as you deal with the diversity of partners and individuals? How can you speak to the misunderstandings that can occur when even a word as simple as "institutions" has a different meaning for social scientists versus laymen? And how then can you talk about the challenges involved in reaching agreement about priorities, approaches and their strategic implications, when your team is composed of climatologists, gender and governance experts, economists, natural scientists, policy advocates and a range of other specialists, all leaders in their fields? And what about the tensions that are latent between the academics – whose success and advancement in their career is measured by the number of journal articles they produce – and the project funders, who expect to see research uptake in policy and practice, and real improvements in the lives of the most marginalised? How can you hope to satisfy all partners, when there is no lesser expectation than to develop and implement a research project that yields comparable results across four regions and seven countries, and where personal and institutional research interests and priorities should bow down to the bigger picture that is the "consortium's research agenda"? That very same agenda which took about the entire time I have been working on the project, to reach agreement on – and oh, I just mean the 13 research questions and 40 sub-questions across three research lenses and two cross-cutting themes that ASSAR is focusing on. For agreement on the methods, we may need another year...
How do you motivate such a diverse set of actors – some of whom only work on "my project" 5% of their time – to feel that it is more worthwhile and important to attempt to produce a joint output with other eight researchers, spread across the world – who perhaps work on ASSAR 4% of their time – rather than focus on the other 95% of their priorities? But come on, how can you not be motivated, when we meet in person once a year – if that – and the rest of the time the main way we communicate is through a weekly digest packed with deadlines and links to documents you have never heard of? How can I spark your interest to contribute to the monitoring and evaluation of the project, to deal with the funder's reporting requirements, to think of what lessons we are learning or how we may want to track the impact we are achieving? How can I get you to want to dedicate some time to explaining what the project really looks like in your country, when I am thousands of kilometers away, I am so removed from your daily work load and reporting lines, and in any case your internet is not great?
It is a challenge. It is such a challenge... and I feel I have not even begun to talk about what it really is like...
But I have also been lucky to come across some wonderful people through this process and project. And through some inspiring conversations and recently reading Zaid Hassan's book "The Social Labs Revolution" I was even luckier to get a glimpse of light and the "possibilities of what may be" a few weeks ago. Zaid Hassan talks about the increasing occurrence of “black swan” events – which are unpredictable, yet more and more common, and often tragic (the recent Paris and Beirut bombings, the global financial crisis, etc.), but which can result “in changes – in how we think, in our practices, in our policies, and in the world” which would have never been otherwise imagined. According to Hassan, innovation itself is a black swan – "an event which can create new possibilities" – brought about through ruptures in the system, and which goes against traditional business as usual and highly planned, scientific approaches.
This concept can bring about a complete shift in one’s perceptions: if one is able to see complexity, difficulty and crisis as an opportunity, rather than as a barrier that cannot be overcome or that we want to shy away from, the way we approach our daily reality can change. It can also start to open up an endless list of possibilities and opportunities for innovation, which could have never even been imagined, unless one had firstly experienced some pain. Remaining in unchallenging situations or with the status quo, will therefore never allow us to rise to our full potential and create something bigger and better. In the current times we live in, where uncertainty and complexity predominate, a new species of people needs to be created. Hassan calls these the "agilistas", who are able to respond in a timely manner to such unplanned events, in an iterative, flexible way, developing prototype solutions that can be immediately used and tested, while creating instant value in the process.
I may be deluded, but my hope is that ASSAR will make me stronger and able, in the present and future, to deal with the challenges we are confronted with more and more often today. For the answer, look out for my next ASSAR ACDI blog in one-and-a-half years’ time!
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the ACDI, or any other entity affiliated with the ACDI.