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Photo: iStock

Opinion | Devolve corona problem-solving to local ‘communities of practice’

Groups with common routines and goals tend to develop expertise in identifying challenges as well as solutions that work

The covid-19 epidemic will not be the last problem to become a global crisis. The world is bound to face more such problems in the future. What is the key learning from the present crisis that we should keep in mind while tackling similar challenges that may arise?

There are different types of problems in the world. These can be classified on the basis of two parameters. One parameter of evaluation is whether the key behaviours causing the problem occur in a continuum from our private space to the public space. The other parameter for consideration is whether the problem is caused by an individual’s behaviour or by group behaviour.

Based on this framework, most problems around the world can be classified as those occurring because of individual actions in private spaces (example: marital infidelity), individual actions in public places (example: open defecation), group actions in a personal space (example: loud partying in a flat) and group actions in public places (example: the spread of communicable diseases).

When a problem happens in a private space, caused by an individual action, then its solution lies with the individual. As the problem moves along the continuum from private space to the public domain, and from individual action to group action, it becomes less of an individual problem and more of a social problem. Policymakers rarely take this process of transition into consideration. This shortcoming has been evident during the present pandemic too. It is quite clear that it was aggravated by the irresponsible behaviour of clusters of individuals in public places. But policymakers have been trying to solve the problem by targeting individuals.

A belief seems to prevail among citizens that the moment a problem is considered a social issue, the State will take care of it. The State mostly tries to generate behaviour change through enforcement and legislation. During the present crisis too, the State used the same strategy. It did work to some extent. But was this the best use of State resources? Is there a better way to solve these social problems?

In their book, The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism, urban experts Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak reveal where the real power to create social change lies. According to them, power is shifting in the world: downward from national governments and states to cities and metropolitan communities; and horizontally from the public sector to networks of public, private and civic actors. The book tells the stories of a few cities that are at the vanguard of problem-solving by using the new-found power of localism.

The concept of solving problems at a local level has been taken to a different level by cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave and educational theorist Etienne Wenger. They introduced the concept of Communities of Practice (CoP). A CoP is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. They tend to develop expertise in identifying their local community’s key challenges and selecting viable solutions. A recent paper, Supporting Communities of Practice: A Journey to Effective Problem-Solving by Christina Hanschke and others published by Gates Open Research, proposes a framework for systematically understanding the stages that a CoP may go through as it develops its capacity to identify and solve problems and implement good practices.

If we look at the covid-19 pandemic through the lens of CoPs, we realize that the real problem is not singular. The key problems each community is grappling with are different. Medical experts are focused on understanding the novel coronavirus to develop a vaccine for it. For school authorities, the main problem is all about conducting examinations and adjusting to digital teaching. Shopkeepers are desperate to keep their businesses alive. It is not possible for the State to directly solve the problems of all these groups and communities. The members of each community understand their own problems the best. So each community is best equipped to come up with solutions that work in the local context. When solutions are made closer to home, people tend to become more engaged in the process and are thus more invested in the outcome.

During the covid-19 crisis, safe behaviours like the wearing of masks and maintaining social distancing norms, etc, are enforced by the State from a remote centre. If these safe behaviourial codes were positioned as essential to solving the key problems of a community, its members would have taken the responsibility of enforcing those. As various CoPs work towards solving different facets of a larger problem, social capital—as embodied in mutual understanding , empathy and reservoirs of goodwill—accumulates. This social capital is the fuel that drives behaviour change at scale.

What is the downside of such a community focus? Each CoP will naturally try to maximize its gains. This could lead to conflicts between various communities. This is where the State has to step in to create a larger vision of solving the problem among different communities and ensure that they do not grow too far apart.

The next time we face a new social problem, it might be more prudent to trust various Communities of Practice for a variety of solutions.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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