By Elizabeth Eckert (RTI International) with Marcus Jenal (Mesopartner)
It's not every day that a group of development practitioners from around the world get together to discuss complex systems theory. In late April 2018 during the Market Systems Symposium in Cape Town, South Africa, we were offered that opportunity. On a daily basis, a group of participants met to discuss and unpack the concept of “self-organization” and how it can be of use to implementers of market systems development projects. This blog seeks to capture this robust discussion while also serving as a platform for future discussion around this topic.
So, what is it?
Self-organization, in systems lingo, is also referred to as “spontaneous order.” An important feature of self-organization is that the process is not controlled or driven by agents outside of the system itself, or by anybody, really. Rather, self-organization arises within the system naturally. In thinking about market systems, a topical example would be the seeming black box of the informal market – traders at varying levels know how to set their prices; information about new market opportunities emerge through unexpected relationships; informal rules influence who sells products at which locations and at which prices – and all of this without a central designer or authority. The organization of the informal market is not written down or codified -- it is known through repeated patterns of behaviors and continuous interaction. Feedback loops, some that are reinforcing, and some that balance out new factors (internal or external), are essential to maintaining the coherence and nominal order of the self-organized system.
For some in our discussion group, self-organization is a useful conceptual framework to help understand and map the complex relationships of informal market actors; particularly information and transaction flows; spoken and unspoken norms or “rules of the game;” and the formal laws and regulations that informal market actors are navigating. This allows us to subsequently develop strategies to influence and shift these norms and rules so that the system is more equitable and inclusive. For others, self-organization speaks to spaces for engagement or convening power such as after-school committees, pick-up football matches, and community advocacy groups. Finally, some members of our discussion group emphasized that self-organization is not only important as a way of understanding change, but also as a way of framing the change we expect to see. For example, introducing new technologies is one of many possible tactics to shift how a system self-organizes so that it generates more desirable behaviors and results.
What is it not?
One sticking point within our group discussion was the confusion around the term itself: many kept jumping to the idea that we were talking about organizing groups. In our field, there are entire methodologies, approaches, and tools around organizational development (producer organizations, marketing cooperatives, savings and lending groups, etc.). This is not what self-organization is talking about. Rather, those existing organizational structures are part of the multitude of actors that make up the broader complex system. However, this doesn’t mean we cannot work with already formed organizations. In fact, we can use approaches discussed in the next section of this blog, to encourage new patterns of interaction and behavior of these formal organizations. In Senegal, for example, the RTI International-implemented, USAID-funded Feed the Future Senegal Nataal Mbay project employs a unique approach toward influencing producer groups to use evidence and data for their own advocacy. The project focuses on building data fluency as an entree to finance, insurance, and improved contracting. This intervention has catalyzed new relationships between these farmer groups and buyers, financial institutions and local government.
How might we use this this concept in practice?
Our group discussed a number of ways in which development practitioners can harness self-organization for market systems change:
Regardless of how we influence change in a self-organizing system, our interventions should identify leverage points that can 1) trigger a ripple or multiplier effect, and 2) create changes that are lasting and self-reinforcing, rather than short-term reactions. MSD projects should identify and activate leverage points and observe the resulting ways in which market actors react in groups or individually. Which leverage points increase healthy business cooperation and competition? Which shift roles, rules, or norms towards a more inclusive system? It is also crucial here to understand that actors’ self-organizing is unpredictable if a constraint is changed or a catalytic intervention is introduced. Therefore, we need to tread carefully and be ready to remedy unintended negative consequences should they occur.
Final thoughts around our role in market systems development
Our last big discussion point as a group was on our role, as market systems practitioners, vis-a-vis self-organizing systems. Development projects, as we often know them, err toward tight control to achieve specific milestones and targets while adhering to a predefined logical framework. A big take-away of our group exploration on self-organization is that we may need to let go of some of that control. Rather than acting as project managers, the system we are working with is better served if we act as influencers, enhancers, space-creators, risk-reducers, and learners. In doing so, we recognize the internal logic that self-organizing market systems have – we can then build upon that logic, moving the system toward increasing inclusivity.
We look forward to additional feedback from the MSD industry on our exploration of self-organization, and to future discussions on this subject at the annual Market Systems Development Symposium.
Erik Derks, of The Canopy Lab, also contributed to reviewing and providing input to this blog.
 Miller, J. H., and S. E. Page, Complex Adaptive Systems: An introduction to computational models of social life. Princeton University Press, 2007.
Derks, E., Field, M. and Sparkmen, T. Practical Tools for Measuring System Health. Leveraging Economic Opportunities Brief. USAID.
 Cunningham, Shawn, Ph.D. & Jenal, Marcus. Rethinking systemic change: economic evolution and institutions.” BEAM Exchange. 2016