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I’ve  just discovered the work of Marc Ventresca, his recent talk on “Infrastructure for impact, the work of system building” and a previous, complementary  talk called “Don’t Be an Entrepreneur, Build Systems”. I feel connected to his ideas, because his analysis makes sense of various issues I’ve been struggling with for years.  I’ve put links to the videos below my main post, along with some notes and quotes that give a quick flavour of the video contents. These are some of the reasons I connect with his ideas.

I’m taking the label of “system builder”

For years I’ve struggled to know how to introduce myself. Now I’ve decided to adopt Marc Ventresca’s label of “system builder”.

I’ve known that my approach to what I do is influenced by what I learned during my studies with the Open University (which introduced me to systems and systems thinking) but I was reluctant to describe myself as a systems thinker. My studies were all so long ago. I don’t remember the details of the theory, but I repeatedly recognise ways that systems thinking impacts my reflections and my actions.(see My Thanks to the Open University )

Yes, what I do is related to systems.

Yes, I’m a practical innovator.

Yes, my innovations are more likely to make sense to others if I describe them as systems building – even if the systems I build are best understood as prototypes of parts of the system that I’m building.

It’s a complex system

I have a complex mental map of the systems, and sub-systems, and overlapping systems that I’m working on (and in). I’ve been working in this area for the last fifteen years (within the constraints of my resources).

I won’t try to define the area. You’ll find out more as I tell you about the practical work. If you want some idea in advance then the following tags give a flavour –  nigeria, london, rural-development, face-to-face, distance, collaboration, Internet, cultural-mediators, communication-channels-and-bottlenecks, local-global, equal-respect-relationships, teaching-learning-and-knowledge-creation, integrated-community-development, needs-led, communication-gaps, top-down-systems-and-horizontal-systems, deep-sytsemic-change-in-an-increasingly-connected-world.

A changing role – and a better description

Before today (and having the idea of calling myself a system builder) I’ve often described my role as UK-Africa Connections.

My original involvement with Africa was nothing to do with systems. I got involved in what I’m doing through friendship and because I had skills that were useful to one project. Through that I became visible (and useful) to another project. The useful skills that I had related to education and ICT (information and Communication Technology), not systems. These skills were made use of when I went to Nigeria on working holidays.

I live in London with 24/7 electrical power supply and good internet access.  When I was at home I developed a role as a communication channel on behalf of my “bandwidth challenged” friends and contacts in Nigeria (and in other parts of ‘bandwidth challenged” English-speaking, sub-Saharan Africa).

UK-Africa Connections is a reasonable description of what I do to help my Nigerian friend John Dada and his team at Fantsuam Foundation, and others, but the label UK-Africa Connections ignores what I’m thinking about as a result of what I do, and how that thinking feeds into system building.

System building and networking

System building involves networking, and working across existing boundaries. It means seeing connections that other people don’t see yet, and working to close the gaps. In practice, for me, this often means turning up at events where I’m not an obvious good fit, learning more about the perspectives represented there, and working to find points of connection with some of the people.

It’s easier to build connections with people than with organisations.

Marc Ventresca emphasises the need for system builders to build networks and cross existing boundaries. I appreciate his affirmation that as a systems builder my wide networking is understandable and relevant. Other people don’t see its purpose, they think it detracts from the work I’m doing with John Dada and Nikki Fishman and they tell me I lack focus. I lacked the words, and the confidence, to explain that my focus is the wider system that I’m building.

Practical projects and the wider system

I look at things on at least two levels. On one level I’m interested in doing what I’ve been asked to do for its own sake. These are individual practical projects. On another level I’m interested in how what I’ve been doing, on any practical project, fits into the system I’m building. That interest in the whole system can cause confusion.

I have gradually come to recognise that the “reflection and analysis” part of what I do is alienating and confusing to many people, but until today I didn’t have a clear way to describe the confusion. Now I can describe it in terms of my interest in systems building.

I have known that it is easy for people to see what I’m doing regarding something practical and related to UK-Africa Connections, and to think of it as “helping John and his project” or “doing voluntary work”. There’s truth in that, but it’s only a partial truth.

It is harder for people to see the “invisible” aspects of what I’m doing. They are often surprised if I enthuse about my interest in what I would now describe as systems building. When I do start enthusing about things on a systemic level it causes confusion, partly because I haven’t been using the right language, and partly because there is no reason for people who are interested in my work with John Dada and Fantsuam Foundation to also be interested in deep systemic change.

Existing systems and disruption

From a systems building point of view  my work in Dadamac with John Dada and Nikki Fishman is a prototype for a new model of international development. It demonstrates and explores the importance of cross-cultural mediation in online spaces. It challenges the inbuilt power imbalances of existing “international development” systems. It demonstrates elements of power shifts and deep systemic change enabled by the Internet and our changing relationships with information and with each other.

I won’t go into the details of what we are exploring in terms of information flows and the technical and cultural barriers that need to be overcome, nor will I explain about our vision for the Dadamac changemakers club, the need for a critical mass, and the development of an “information commons” to challenge the norms of the existing top-down systems.

I appreciated Marc Ventresca’s comments about the inertia of existing systems, relationships with them and the point about “Unbuild and co-opt legacy systems”.

System building and infrastructure – we’re doing it right

We’re right to create Dadamac Foundation with its focus on people working with people, and the cultural context of UK-Africa collaboration and development. ICT (Information and Communication Technology) for Development isn’t just about the technology. (see Dadamac Foundation )

Marc Ventresca refers to “Important recoupling of meaning, cultural models and ideas to pure technology. Recoupling all the soft stuff, the social institutions, to what is arguably the more available materially manageable notion of infrastructure”

Marc Ventresca’s emphasis on cultural infrastructure is encouraging and gives us the words to explain our approach. There is so much emphasis  (on the Internet and in enterprise hubs)  on the tech and “apps to solve all ills”. I sometimes feel like a digital dinosaur when I question the value of  “solutions” that solve “problems” that strike me as only having a superficial relationship to “culturally true situations and challenges”. Now I begin to have some language to explain why, in Dadamac, we value the equal-respect relationships we have in our UK-Africa connections, and why we try to hold our assumptions lightly, on the UK side and keep exploring differences between our perspectives and those of the locally embedded projects. It also reinforces some of our feelings about the under-recognised importance and challenges of working with “the soft stuff”- the “people getting on with other people in order to do things” stuff.

Entrepreneurship is not the same as system building

In both videos Marc Ventresca touches on the limitations of the mind set of “entrepreneurship”

His talk on “Don’t Be an Entrepreneur, Build Systems” explains this in more detail. it has opened my eyes to why I hover on the edge of groups that support entrepreneurship, and why I’m intrigued by, but not part of, the world of “social entrepreneurship”. I’m interested in what people are doing and the approaches they are taking, and I learn from them…. but I don’t really “fit in”. I just “connect” and “overlap”. Now I understand why.  It’s because my focus is different, and wider. My focus is on building systems. 

P.S. After this I wrote a related post for Dadamac Foundation

Writing this post helped me to think through some ideas about Dadamac Foundation.  For Dadamac Foundation 2015 is a year for new direction and clarity. Previously all the posts on our website have been about work in Africa. Now I have way to explain why our contribution on the UK side is also important. This is the post –Dadamac matters – building a system that brings things together – UK-Africa


The videos that influenced this post

Infrastructure for impact, the work of system building | Marc Ventresca | TEDxOxBridge

Published on 26 Jun 2015

Marc speaks about the role of infrastructure in transforming Ideas to Impact. He explores how big spaces of the world become organised and then reflects on how infrastructure can be thought of in new ways.


My notes from his talk

Mark Ventresca is interested in how large distributed systems get organised..

institutions, innovation, infrastructure….

new ways of thinking about infrastructure…

he works in organisational and institutional sociology.

He started with the example of how electricity systems developed in the 19th century

A slide said:

System builders”… forge unity from diversity, centralise in the face of pluralism, [thread] coherance from chaos… often involves destruction of alternative  [existing] systems.”

Systems building:

  • Rethink existing value chains
  • Assemble resources, capabilities across incumbent boundaries
  • Invent new solution and means
  • Broker expertise
  • Build capacity and infrastructure
  • Harness an ecosystem
  • Unbuild and co-opt legacy systems

More notes

How the understanding of “what electricity is and what it offers” took time to develop and how the development of the electrical power systems reflected local cultures and “ways of doing things”

The invention and entrepreneurial ideas are important but there are also system builders who move across different areas, network, create new ties, and develop new models of how to do things – and this often involves unbuilding legacy infrastructure.

4.55 into video – network diagram with Edison at the centre – new coalitions and funding models

6.05  – importance of institutional politics, intentions, complexity  and the idea of unexpected consequences

Off-grid example – in Tanzania

7.23 – Work of ex-students – Off grid:electric – Bringing electricity to the village level in Tanzania and later more of Africa. Connecting with other actors  – new technology, mobile money, mobile phone community and others.

Some similarities with national grid systems, but more local.

It’s never the technologies alone. It’s the sensibilities that enable us to work with current technologies, and turn them to new purpose. There is an inbuilt inertia in systems that have been established for fiftly or a hundred years. New ideas have to contend with the legacy systems.

9.50  – The idea of system building as a more powerful, richer term than entrepreneurship that helps us to understand what entrepreneurial activity accomplishes.

11.05 – The idea of infrastructure is often too unhelpfully linked with ideas of technology. Linked incompletely to culture, meaning, belief systems and available models

Another slide

Why cultural infrastructure?

  • Key issue in the smart grid debate is how we create an intelligent infrastructure for sustainable use of resources. [For] smart grid, buildings, vehicles and computing we can’t just focus on whiiz-bang widgets.
  • Rather we need to investigate cultural infrastructure that will enable us to create, deploy, and scale yp these innovations… bigger then tech… Right tools in place, but we also need thoughtful allocation of capital, appropriate regulation, grants and incentives, and change of mindset.
  • If we don’t get our cultural infrastructure right, we’ll have a very hard time transforming our actual infrastructure – technology alone won’t fundamentally change our relationship with natural resources.

More notes

11.20 – Important recoupling of meaning, cultural models and ideas to pure technology. Recoupling all the soft stuff, the social institutions, to what is arguably the more available materially manageable notion of infrastructure.

12.15 – His work now – digging into the notions of belief systems ad  and cultural models, in a sense channelling what we think is important and how to act.

12.33 –  If we stay with imagining that electricity has to be delivered through national grid systems then we’ve given up on the opportunity and possibility for the rest of the world. If we say off gird is the way to go its uncharted space. Takes adventurous and courageous people.

The recognition that technology on its own will never be enough.

His other video – TEDxOxbridge – Marc Ventresca – Don’t Be an Entrepreneur, Build Systems

I like this. I have hovered on the edge of “entrepreneurship” for many years. I know that in my UK-Africa work in Dadamac I have been building something. I believe it is “of value” (why else would I invest so much of my own time and resources?) This explains to me many of the things that were confusing me, it describes elements of me and my approach and the kind of value creation I’m doing and why I’m an innovator but not an entrepreneur.