“The whole is always more than the sum of the parts” The Complexity Funnel & The Social Transformation Workshops: A Model for Sustainable, Holistic Change

We had the privilege to meet with Camilo Andrés Navarro Forero during the University of San Diego’s recent Master’s International Course on Peacebuilding and Social Innovation, which we have highlighted in recent posts. We believe that his peacebuilding application of the social change “Complexity Funnel Model & The Social Transformation Workshops”, has wide sweeping implications for educational change and leadership efforts. Below we share his process from an Engineering Education perspective, centering on key lessons that are applicable across sectors.

Professor Camilo Navarro sharing his ideas with graduate students

As an industrial engineer specializing in organizational management and community work, I have become increasingly involved in engineering efforts for social justice and change. Through my work with Engineers without Borders, Colombia, since 2013, and as a professor who teaches systems thinking, systems dynamics, and project management, I have worked alongside students to support vulnerable communities across Colombia and internationally. Some of these projects have included co-designing water resources and green business projects, and working with Venezuelan migrants in Colombia and Syrian refugees in Canada. 

In 2016, around the same time that Colombia signed the Peace Accords, ending 60 years of war, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. I was interested in contributing to efforts to weave new social tissue across communities that had been deeply affected by this conflict from an engineering perspective. Since there was no such thing as a Ph.D. in Peace Engineering, I decided to pursue a Master’s program in Peacebuilding and Social Science. My goal was to learn how engineers have been involved in peacebuilding processes, and the most effective engineering tools in these spaces. I knew that I wanted to create engineering projects alongside the community which would respond directly to their needs and support their agency to ensure sustainability. Yet, I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it.

I drew from engineer Michael Jackson’s work on Critical System Thinking and the Management of Complexity(2019), which blends project management and systems thinking. He argues that the engineering tools you use depend on the unique characteristics of the social complex system you are in. Yet, most engineering curriculums focus on teaching how to use a tool, but not necessarily on how to analyze the context. In contexts such as peacebuilding, there is often conflict and many actors who are unwilling to cooperate. It’s necessary to adopt the tools to respond to the complexities of these spaces. Inspired by Jackson, M., Midgley, G., and Ackoff, R.’s work, I started developing a new model called a “Complexity Funnel Model” dissected in different “Social Transformation Workshops”. This model seeks to reduce the complexity in social systems by creating a safe space that gives voice to all actors involved. By generating this dialogue, we can map the context, conflict, and the discrepancies that exist in a particular space. 

What I have found through four years of research, is it takes three times as long to solve a conflict than a discrepancy. Conflicts require acknowledging the perspectives of other actors, understanding the disagreement, and being willing to make compromises. When I am able to address a discrepancy or conflict, the system then changes. The systems I work in are not static, they are dynamic and evolving. Therefore, while implementing a project, I have to be aware that the system I started with is not the same as the one I am working with later on in order to adapt my approach and even the tools I use.  

So how does the model work in practice? First, we have to reach a common long-term goal between parties. This reduces the complexity of the system (hence the funnel), and aligns everyone to work collectively. This process is often time intensive, yet saves time months later when someone raises their hand and says “what about me and what I want.” The community legitimizes our project, which ensures its continuity. Then, we can start to use robust engineering tools, such as statistics and modeling. Without input from all actors to create an accurate representation of the whole system, it is harder to succeed. As Aristotle said, “The whole is always more than the sum of the parts”—we need to look at things holistically. 

A project I did with the Mayor’s Office in Cartagena, a Caribbean coastal city offers an example of the failure to do necessary prep work. They wanted to address the overpopulation of Lionfish by incentivizing fishermen to fish more and restaurants to buy more Lionfish. While in the short term our intervention succeeded in controlling the overcrowding issue, a year later the population rebounded and there weren’t enough fishermen. Many had switched jobs due to lack of income. Because we had not done the necessary preparatory work to legitimize our model with all of the actors, we wasted a lot of time and resources. Applying this example to peacebuilding, if we do not take the time to work with all actors from the get go, we could end up with a bigger issue than we started with.

Given this concern, I wanted to first try out the Complexity Funnel Model & the Social Transformation Workshops, in less sensitive environments to hone my methods. So, I started working with private companies, moved to public companies, and then to communities in Colombia, Mexico and the U.S. Engaging in these diverse contexts taught me important lessons, which prepared me for more complex contexts. In January of this year, I began working on this process with peacebuilding communities. I will be working with one of the 35 ex-territorial spaces called “Population Centers” that the Colombian government and the UN created to support the FARC and guerrilla forces’ disarmament. Over the past four years, these spaces have also become independent communities with more than 7,000 residents, which have begun projects that benefit from the support of professionals such as engineers. 

Our plan was to start these common goal dialogues with the leaders of the community projects in March 2020 (now postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis), and to invite professors, students, and researchers attending the 2020 International Peace Building and Social Justice conference in Colombia to visit these communities and see the peacebuilding process in action. We hope that by documenting the implementation of the Complexity Funnel process and the Social Transformation Workshops in this context––as well as the lessons learned from other contexts noted above––that we can contribute to a broader global discourse on social change and sustainable design thinking. 

We thank Camilo Navarro for sharing his thoughts and process with us. While we know from his work that a model created for one particular context cannot be successfully implemented in another, we believe the guiding principles are of use across sectors and of interest to the Global Ed Leadership Community. Please stay tuned to learn more about the Complexity Funnel and Camilo Navarro’s leadership efforts for Engineering Educational change.

Thanks for reading!

Maxie and Paula