Observations are a live library of ideas to help you get unstuck. We talk to social development innovators, doers and thinkers and ask them to share their thoughts. These are some of their insights, served as small, refreshing nuggets of wisdom. Please, grab a bite and nurture your imagination!

Illustrations: Ivana Čobejová

A beautiful mess called the world

How do we use contexts to interpret the world in a different way? How do we make sense of messy, tangled-up systems? How do we understand problems in the development sector and frame challenges that communities – and humanity as a whole – are facing?

A boar, a piece of coal, a snowfall, an alarm clock: we’ve collected four objects – four stories – which may help you discover new contexts and see things from a different perspective.

A disruptive accident

My dearest son, […]; so begins the Admonitions – a precious medieval collection of moral and political precepts that King Stephen I of Hungary, according to legend, compiled himself for his son Emeric.

Apparently, the old king was truly worried about leaving his kingdom in good hands. He had his son educated by a Venetian monk in a strict and ascetic spirit, then he composed the Admonitions to ensure that his heir faithfully followed the political path of his father. All predetermined; all thoroughly planned.

Only things didn't follow those plans. In the year 1031, Emeric – aged 24 and not yet king – was killed in an unfortunate encounter with a wild boar while he was hunting in the woods. King Stephen survived all of his children, and his death was followed by civil wars which lasted for decades.

Memo for the next Admonitions: add a chapter about the disruption of major political systems, institutions and narratives. How do we deal with those when our plans go south?

How many times do we “snooze” it?

In the UK alone, the snooze button is pressed an impressive 50 million times every morning. The stats count both those who hit the button once, and those doing it countless additional times.

Scientists, however, almost unanimously agree that the effects of the snooze button are really unhealthy. Despite its harmless appearance, the snooze button messes up our REM cycle and confuses the brain, which erroneously starts secreting the neurochemicals that cause sleep.

How many times do we collectively hit the snooze button when confronting complex challenges? Kyoto, Copenhagen, Paris: governments are failing to meet their own pledges on decarbonisation, which were themselves acknowledged to be inadequate.

Most of the people working in development are feeling disoriented, just like our brains in the morning. We have hit the snooze button too many times. Should we quit?

The beauty of a complex snowfall

In 2021, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi for their early work on complex systems. Complexity was first described by physicists in the twentieth century to better understand a series of concrete phenomena we experience in our life: for example, how does the height of a surface grow during a heavy snowfall?

A complex system is a system where the components and their continuous interactions are so numerous – and so very interdependent – that it is impossible to predict its future behaviour. Complex systems are messy and random. The human brain, global climate, tropical rainforests, ant colonies, immune systems, economies, cities and energy infrastructures are all good examples.

You can’t really control such systems, and this easily brings humans to despair. Incidentally, this is exactly what’s happening right now in the development sector: challenges are tangled up in messy contexts, multiple crises converge and interact, targets become blurry, direction is lost. And this can be overwhelming.

However, even though complex systems are non-controllable, they are also adaptive, with an incredible capacity to change by learning from experience. And they can be marvellous too, like an unexpected snowfall or a flock of starlings flying above the city.

The Jevons Paradox

In eighteenth-century England, the demand for coal soared rapidly. Curiously, it happened just after James Watt had introduced his new steam engine which largely improved the efficiency of coal use compared to Thomas Newcomen’s first design.

The fact was observed by economist William Stanley Jevons who, in his book The Coal Question, described what came to be known as the Jevons paradox: improvements in a resources efficiency tend to increase (rather than decrease) the resources use. “It is wholly a confusion of ideas,” he wrote, “to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

Even if the Jevons’ effect cannot be considered a universal rule, it reminds us of a very important lesson: sometimes the proposed solutions may not work as we expect. What do we do then?

Happiness in misery

The world is messy, and so are the contexts of development challenges. Very often our efforts have little effect, or may even trigger more problems. It's normal to feel overwhelmed.

But it's also important to know that difficult doesn't mean lost. What if we change the way we perceive and narrate the contexts of our reality? What if we begin accepting that we can’t control everything, that we may fail, but that communities can still evolve and adapt to change?

Where do we go from there?