June 20, 2010
June 20, 2010
June 23, 2010
Systems Engineering Constituent Committee
15.188.1 - 15.188.24
Applying Systems Thinking for Realizing the Mission of Technology-based Social Ventures in Africa
There are many university initiatives that focus on technology-based solutions to address the needs of marginalized communities. The technology-based solutions are intended to be economically and socially sustainable. These endeavors are usually well-meaning, creatively designed, and enthusiastically deployed, but do not achieve the sustainable impact envisioned at the outset of the projects. To addresses these shortcomings, at The Pennsylvania State University we are applying three key tenets of systems thinking to our humanitarian engineering and social entrepreneurial ventures: 1) employing regulation via feedback to ensure that the system is actually working; 2) defining systems by their interactions and their parts; and 3) understanding that systems exhibit multi-finality. The concept of multi-finality refers to (designing) a system where the individual actors (inputs), the subsystems, and their interactions, all meet their own goals while the system as a whole also meets its goals. In this paper, we lay the framework for the application of specific systems thinking concepts to increase the probability of success of global development ventures. We provide simple yet compelling examples from two different ventures to illustrate the power of systems thinking to train innovative problem-solvers and increase the probability of success of technology-based social entrepreneurial ventures in Africa.
Introduction: Need for Systems Thinking
There are many university initiatives that focus on technology-based solutions to address the needs of marginalized communities—the poor, the underserved, i.e., those at the “Base of the Pyramid”. The technology-based solutions are intended to be economically and socially sustainable. These endeavors are usually well-meaning, creatively designed, and enthusiastically deployed, but do not achieve the sustainable impact envisioned at the outset of the projects. On the macro scale, the history of development efforts to assist marginalized communities in a sustainable fashion has been fraught with peril. In 2004, the African Development Bank judged 78% of its funds disbursed were for projects that were not sustainable.1 The Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), the World Bank’s private sector arm, examined the performance of 627 projects under implementation between 1996 and 2006 and discovered that over 40% of all projects were unsuccessful at generating positive development results. It is even more distressing to learn that, when assessment of such projects is broadened to encompass a timeframe beyond the immediate completion of projects, the number of favorable assessments falls considerably.
Peter Senge2 explains that “Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots’...Today systems thinking is needed more than ever because we are becoming overwhelmed by complexity. Perhaps for the first time in history, humankind has the capacity to create far more information than anyone can absorb, to foster far greater interdependency than anyone can manage, and to accelerate change far faster than anyone’s ability to keep pace.”
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