PDIA and Climate Change Adaptation

5 mins read

written by Tim O’Brien and Salimah Samji


We launched a pilot course entitled “The Practice of PDIA: Adapting to Climate Change,” in September 2017. This was our first attempt at customizing our free, PDIA online course to a specific theme of development problems. Our motivations in choosing climate change adaptation as an anchor for the course were:

  • A growing understanding that the impacts of climate change are increasingly making complex development challenges harder, and often presenting binding constraints to the growth of inclusive well-being in particular places;
  • A hypothesis that the tools and processes of the PDIA approach could be useful to address climate change vulnerabilities on various scales by empowering local teams and building local capabilities;
  • An observation that local vulnerabilities to climate change could present the kind of shared problems around which coalitions can form and capabilities can emerge for both adaptation and development;
  • An assumption that building resilience is rarely constrained by finance or technology, but often by a lack of shared knowhow to make use of these tools;
  • And a question of whether the development community’s toolkit for climate change adaptation might need to be less focused on discrete projects and “scaling solutions,” and more focused on building a highly-connected and adaptive global community of practice.

PDIA is a process of facilitated emergence focused around solving complex problems as opposed to selling pre-packaged solutions. Climate change adaptation problems, like most development problems, tend to be complex and context-specific. The fact that they are context-specific limits the effectiveness of “scaling” solutions, and the fact that they are complex means that detailed action plans will fail much more often than they will work. Our aim was to introduce PDIA to dedicated teams working on real world climate change adaptation problems, and in doing so, to explore if and how these tools can help to foster the emergence of new capabilities for adapting to climate change. 

During the two-week registration period, 23 teams applied to join the course. After a careful selection process, 20 teams were invited to participate. 18 teams (88 participants) logged in to the course website and 73% completed the first week of assignments. Despite a heavy workload of weekly videos, readings, team-based assignments (that forced teams to engage with their real world problems), and individual reflection exercises, 13 teams (47 participants) completed the 12-week course. During the final two weeks of the course, the teams began to take iterative actions on their problems, drawing upon all of the tools of PDIA. The teams worked on problems in 11 different countries, ranging from inadequate supply and access to potable water in Mexico City, to increasingly unreliable electricity supply in the Odessa region of Ukraine, to crippling human and financial costs of extreme weather events in Antigua & Barbuda, to the increasing vulnerability of farmers to floods and droughts in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, to impacts of climate change on the health system of the Philippines, among others.

Climate change was never the only cause of the problems faced by teams in the course. Instead, the local impacts of climate change (new types of flooding, prolonged droughts, more intense heat waves, ecosystem damage, loss of natural capital, new health risks, etc.) were exacerbating underlying issues (unsustainable water systems, weak electricity provision, ineffective health systems, a lack of disaster planning, disconnected rural communities, undiversified economies, etc.). The problems that the teams brought to the course tended to be observable and understood by large portions of society as a result of the suffering that they were causing. In a few cases, teams were concerned about risks that had not yet been realized or damage that was not easily observed. But in most cases, the gap was not with society underappreciating that there was problem but in figuring out what to do about it.

This was a first confirmation of the course. While climate change is a global problem that can seem obscure and distant, the local impacts of climate change are increasingly observable in many places. This makes identifying climate change vulnerabilities (identifying who is at risk of being negatively impacted and how) strong entry points for problem solving and for change. When teams had access to downscaled climate projections, it was often easy for them to build problem-based narratives with the potential to bring diverse stakeholders together.

Similar to our experience with the flagship PDIA online course, many teams in this course also began with their problems defined as a lack of a particular solution: for example, a lack of mobile-based weather information in the dry zone of Sri Lanka or a lack of energy efficiency measures by small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Odessa. When teams took a step back to construct and deconstruct their problems, they often found that they had been overly focused on one branch of a more complex problem tree. Teams reported that the fishbone diagram used within PDIA was an empowering tool. It allowed them to visualize diverse and interacting causes of their climate change vulnerability. Sometimes this led them to see the issue they had been working to solve as merely a symptom, causing them to re-define their problem and goals. At other times, the fishbone diagram allowed teams to understand a hidden cause that had been undermining their work. In all cases, it allowed for the construction of a stronger narrative that could engage more diverse stakeholders in problem solving. Climate change vulnerabilities tend to be deep problems that many people share and care about; the absence of a pre-packaged solutions is not.

Once problem construction and deconstruction were completed, teams learned to identify their change space to engage with their problem. The triple-A change space analysis used within PDIA allowed teams to think through acceptance, ability and authority to act on each of the causes and sub-causes of their problem (i.e. their particular vulnerability) – a step that few teams had ever tried before. Numerous teams reported that this structured tool that allowed them to break through the complexity of their problems and begin to act in new and strategic ways. Some teams reported that this step allowed them to understand and navigate roadblocks that had stood in the way of action for years. In the words of a participant, “building the fishbone diagram and doing the AAA analysis helped correct some in-built biases that I had regarding the construction of a problem, and built awareness about the need for several elements to be in place in order to have the space to actually effect some change.” 

In addition to the tools for problem construction and deconstruction and studying entry points, teams reported at the end of the course that they had gained a new appreciation for iteration and a new understanding of how to iterate. No team managed to solve their problem during the course. Rather, teams reported that they felt empowered by their emerging abilities to act strategically to reveal information and build authority, act again based on that information, and continuously build understanding, authority and momentum by iterating over time. Even within two weeks of iterative action, many teams reported that they had built significant momentum and discovered things that they would have never learned through their previous ways of working.

Although most individuals came to the course thinking they would learn about solutions to their problems from experts on climate change adaptation, what they actually got was a new way of thinking through complex problems and practice in applying real world tools. The only experts on climate change adaptation were the participants themselves. Most teams entered the course without much understanding of what they were getting themselves into, but they stayed anyway. By the end of the course, they left with a clear sense of empowerment to address the problems they care about. Even though the course provided very little content specifically on climate change adaptation, several participants said it was the most useful climate change adaptation course they had ever taken. 85% of the participants completed the evaluation and 100% of them rated the course as excellent or very good. In the words of a course participant: “Thank you for the incredible course – learned a lot, but also got even more ideas, confidence that facing problems and making mistakes is all part of the learning path, as long as it is integrated in the awareness of the problem.”


1 Comment

  1. […] Second, the framework of pragmatism proposes that, as climate adaptation problems become more complex and context-specific, a top-down approach that incorporates detailed action plans will fail much more often than they will work. So, while it is important for an international agreement to outline the necessary climate goal, regional and local institutions should take active responsibility to probe unique solutions through an iterative and adaptive learning process. […]

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