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Designing ‘moments’ to progress complex problems – A look at nuclear weapons


18 June 2019 at 8:26 am
Elise Harper
Like many modern social problems the threat of a nuclear weapons attack has no single cause and is constantly changing. Elise Harper explains why looking at the problem through the lens of complex adaptive systems, could hold the key to mobilising people at scale to affect systematic social change.


Elise Harper | 18 June 2019 at 8:26 am


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Designing ‘moments’ to progress complex problems – A look at nuclear weapons
18 June 2019 at 8:26 am

Like many modern social problems the threat of a nuclear weapons attack has no single cause and is constantly changing. Elise Harper explains why looking at the problem through the lens of complex adaptive systems, could hold the key to mobilising people at scale to affect systematic social change.

When we seek to move the dial on a complex, multifaceted social problem, how can we identify the best way to act, right now? When there are so many things that need to be done, how can we prioritise one possible intervention over another?

This is one of the challenges we’ve been working through while addressing the complex topic of nuclear weapons.

What’s the problem?

A nuclear weapons attack is as likely today as it was 50 years ago, but far more powerful. Currently, there are more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in existence, each one far more powerful than those used in Japan in 1945 – 1,800 of these bombs are always on high alert.

The effects from the detonation of a nuclear weapon would stretch across time and place  – killing indiscriminately and widely, and having a profound effect on our existence on earth for decades. The impact on humanity would be catastrophic.

How are we approaching it?

The continued existence of nuclear weapons is underpinned by deep societal structures and power: military agreements and alignments, a vast market fuelled by emerging technology and funded by mainstream banks and superannuation funds, and increasing social and political instability across the globe. Like many modern social problems, this problem has no single cause and is constantly changing.

Our approach is to look at social problems, like the threat of a nuclear weapons attack, through the lens of complex adaptive systems. We seek to find areas where the system is ripe for disruption or has the capacity to flex. We look to where power sits within a social problem, and find ways to support networks of people to mobilise and disrupt this power.

What does this look like in reality?

There is no recipe for designing change within complex systems.

We use the framing of “movements” and “moments” to help us define and interrogate the long-term problem to be solved (the movement) versus a short-term opportunity to create progress (the moment). Multiple, diverse and often self-organising moments will be required, over a long period of time, to reach a tipping point in the broader movement.

For this topic, broad research into the economic, social, political, financial and technological context sitting around nuclear weapons helped us to define the movement.

The problem? The likelihood and potential impact of a nuclear weapons attack is increasing. What’s enabling this problem to exist? Legal and socially-accepted financing, political and social instability, and low public salience around the issue.

Diving deeper, research, particularly into the market of nuclear weapons, helped us to get closer to defining a moment, and guided us to a design challenge: how might we harness the power of people to disrupt the financial supply of the nuclear weapons market?

To begin designing around his challenge, we hosted a two day co-design workshop in Melbourne, facilitated by the social mobilisation experts at Purpose. We were fortunate enough to bring together a room full of diverse perspectives, including Nobel Peace Prize-winning nuclear advocacy organisation ICAN, Deloitte, Essential Media, University of New England and Foundation for Young Australians (FYA). We are incredibly grateful for the time given by our friends in these organisations.

Tips for the road

We covered huge ground over the two days, and tested a number of lessons that continue to inform our practice (and this project specifically).

A few of those lessons for the road:

  1. Let go of any “good guy/bad guy” thinking. Bring together knowledge and experience from across different disciplines and spheres of influence, including those people and organisations who currently enable the problem to exist.
  2. Seek to find flex points in the system: areas ripe for disruption. Look for trends in associated movements that indicate something broader you can capitalise on. For example, could we connect the nuclear disarmament movement to the growing climate change movement? How might we capitalise on ethical consumerism?
  3. Use different types of knowledge to build a theory of change: data, stories, norms, beliefs, case studies from across disciplines. It is a theory to be tested, not a formula.
  4. Resist the temptation to find the panacea: the one intervention, initiative, campaign or partnership that will “solve everything”. It does not exist. Be open to finding a set of actions that could all create progress.
  5. Constantly prioritise. Which audience group is most primed to act? Which pre-conditions are needed before progress can happen? Which actions can someone else do better? Which possible intervention could achieve scale?
  6. Place insights as a central goal. Because there is no panacea, the only way to consistently move forward is to learn deeply from each action or test, to inform the next one.

About the author: Elise Harper is a social innovation professional, curious about emergent models of cross-sector action and mobilisation for scalable social change. Elise is a project lead of social change projects in new futures design team REDxFutures, at Australian Red Cross.


Elise Harper  |  @ProBonoNews

Elise Harper is a project lead of social change projects in new futures design team REDxFutures, at Australian Red Cross. She was previously a senior consultant in social impact at Ellis Jones.

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