Of markets, dialogue and tough problems

I am aware that I have not been blogging for a while. One of the reasons is I assume well-known to everybody who has attempted to blog regularly: finding topics that seem worthwhile to share with others. Another reason is that I am currently going down quite an exciting rabbit hole on the concept of dialogue, but am not yet really sure about what it means, so it feels a bit early to blog about. I still want to share a bit of my journey here and I am therefore sharing what I’m currently reading that excites me.

Of markets (and resilience) …

Besides the rabbit hole mentioned above, I am also still active in my more traditional space, which is economic and market systems development. At the moment, I do quite a bit of work in a more conceptual space. I have worked on a number of programme designs, for example, and I have supported a client in taking stock of current practice in Local Economic Development (LED) and deciding if it was a potential approach in the agency’s toolkit for economic development. I’m also designing a learning workshop that brings together three projects that have worked on private sector development in a fairly fragile country over the last couple of years. There might be some really interesting lessons coming out of that one.

A few weeks ago I visited Cape Town and participated in the first Market Systems Symposium, organised by the brilliant Margie Brand with her colleagues from EcoVentures International. While the event focused on Market Systems Development and a lot of the ‘usual crowd’ was there, it was not a traditional conference where people mainly engage in navel gazing and sharing successes in the form of case studies. It was much more focused on establishing a dialogue between the participants around very practical issues and immediate challenges – accordingly the agenda was very flexible and emerged around the on-going discussions and articulated needs. I was positively surprised by the level of discussion around systemic change, our role as development agents and how we can get better at what we do (and know better what we have achieved). The level of jargon and dogmatism was refreshingly low – but not totally absent. Mesopartner had quite good visibility at the event and we were able to present some of our tools and approaches around systemic economic development like Systemic Competitiveness and Systemic Insight. A nice reflection on the event can be found in this blog post.

I’m also continuing to explore the relation between systemic change how we use and define it in market systems development and resilience and resilience thinking. As I have written earlier, I think the two are fairly closely aligned. But resilience thinking is closely linked to social-ecological systems, i.e. humans and how they interact with (and depend on) their natural environment. In our practice in economic development, this is often not a topic. Environmental sustainability still often seems to play a subordinate role to poverty reduction and job creation. Given that we are currently massively over-exploiting natural resources, this needs to change. To better understand what can be done, I’m currently participating in a MOOC on resilience thinking and development.

… dialogue and tough problems

But let’s get back to the rabbit hole (no, resilience was not the one I meant). A while back I read the book ‘On Dialogue‘ by David Bohm. It blew my mind. I was really drawn to the ida of dialogue as a way to bring people together and solve the tough problems of our time. In particular, I’m excited about it because I feel that we have been missing an important puzzle piece in how we move forward with some of the most intractable problems we have on our planet. Climate change, migration, poverty, diseases, etc. are not technical problems anymore, as Yuval Harari writes in his book ‘Homo Deus‘ – Harari sees them as political problems. I would rather say they are social problems. We need to find a way to actually use the technical fixes we have or we are about to develop to improve the situation of humanity as a whole (and, to loop back to resilience thinking, to save and stabilise our planet). We need to find a way to start opening up to each other again and work with each other in a constructive way rather than to shield ourselves behind ideology, dogma, fear and protectionism that divide us as humans. We need to overcome this divide and work together again to achieve more than the sum of what we can achieve individually. The world is not a zero-sum game.

The picture or image that this derivation [of the term ‘dialogue’] suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which may emerge some new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been in the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the “glue” or “cement” that holds people and societies together.


In a dialogue [as opposed to a “discussion”], however, nobody is trying to win. Everybody wins if anybody wins.

(‘On Dialogue’, p.7)

Some parts of Bohm’s book reads a bit utopian. He seems to believe that in a group everybody can suspend their own fundamental (and often difficult to even recognise and articulate) assumptions, make them known to the group and together find a way to come up with new ideas that are free of the constraints and path dependence given by these assumptions. I’m less optimistic that this works in more than a few exceptional people – in any case it requires a lot of practice and openness to engage.

Still, I’m fascinated by the idea of dialogue, which also attracted me to the work of Adam Kahane of Reos Partners. In his book “Solving tough problems” he describes his journey to a  way of solving tough problems peacefully by using open and constructive dialogue.

I think this idea of dialogue to peacefully solve tough problems is also important for my work in economic development. Kahane describes three ways of solving tough problems. Not solving them at all and being stuck, solving them by force, and solving them peacefully in open dialogue. Often, change in economies is mandated from the top down, i.e. economic problems are solved by force (and I’m by the way not talking about problems that can be ‘solved’ by the market – those are not really tough problems). If we want economies to become more inclusive, we need to be able to include more diverse perspectives into a dialogue about where economic development should go. Generating a common sense of direction in a society can only be achieved  by a dialogue that includes a diverse and inclusive range of perspectives on the current state of the system and its potential futures. Kahane quotes Quaker peace activist Gene Knudsen Hoffman:

Everyone has a partial truth, and we must listen, discern and acknowledge this partial truth in everyone – particularly those with whom we disagree.

(‘Solving tough problems’, p. 77)

This blog post is more thinking out loud  than aiming to say something specific. But it is as always an invitation to connect and create a dialogue around these issues.


1 thought on “Of markets, dialogue and tough problems

  1. jgzone25

    Thanks for sharing Marcus!

    I too have been interested in dialogue – or rather narrative approaches to understanding perspectives as they relate to different persons, or groups of persons experiences of the systems they live with and within. My interest was piqued when I attended a session at the American Evaluation Association conference a few years back. Though I have no specific experience with SenseMaker, the intention – identifying themes and patterns in personal narratives and storytelling as a way of understanding changes in social, economic, and political systems — really resonated with me.

    I am curious to explore how, and whether organic, exploratory dialogue can be as effective, or more effective means of both identifying patterns and minimizing bias, as more directed methods such as interviews, surveys, focus groups. While I recognize that SenseMaker is quite robust in regards to it’s analytical power, I also know it is quite expensive. Curious as to whether you have encountered any other tools or methodologies which might be a bit more accessible to those organizations – particularly local organizations

    As to Bohm’s thinking about suspending assumptions in open conversation – I tend to agree with you.

    1) There is a whole system of forces / mental models – some external, and I believe some deeply implicit in biology and psychology which prop up those assumptions.

    2) In order to suspend an assumption, one has to recognize the assumption exists. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with people developing theories of change. Helping people recognize the assumptions they have is the most challenging part of that process. Let alone, asking them to table them.

    3) My experience with working with people from different philosophical traditions is that my logic is often missed, interpreted differently, or just not helpful. I think the concept of an ‘assumption’ may not resonate with people from different philosophical traditions?

    However, this could also be an opportunity. Asking the question “What did people NOT say? What did they NOT talk about?” in a dialogue, could be just as insightful as what they did say. What are they protecting? Why? What does how they tell the story – in both focus, and omissions – tel us about their experience within the system(s) of interest? What are the mental models and institutions behind those things that are both said, and unspoken? I could see how triangulation with learning from other methods could actually help to better understand dialogues.

    Have you had any experience working in such a fashion?

    Thanks for the great post!



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