Net-Mapping the Water-Food-Energy Nexus in the Upper Blue Nile in Ethiopia

When dealing with the challenges of a country like Ethiopia, focusing just on water, or food, or energy is a tall order already. Given how one influences the other, it is, however, not focus which is needed but integration – of issues and also of those people dealing with them. My colleague Christian Stein shared his research on the issue with me. Below is the summary and here is the full paper he wrote, together with Jennie Barron, Likimyelesh Nigussie, Birhanu Gedif, Tadesse Amsalu and Simon Langan for the International Water Management Institute:

Ethiopia is currently undergoing rapid development, heavily reliant on its natural resources such as water and land. The government’s Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) and its Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) strategy set ambitious targets in a variety of sectors including water, food and energy. In order to avoid trade-offs and create synergies between different development agendas, integrated planning and cross-sectorial coordination is crucial. The so-called ‘nexus approach’ is a recent way to frame the interconnected challenges in water, food and energy with the ambition to align policies for sustainable development.

This study fills a gap in the nexus debate by focusing on concrete actors and the nexus challenges they struggle with, instead of on abstract systems and the resource flows between sectors. Based on participatory, visual network mapping and focus group discussions, the paper illustrates three interdependent challenges of the water-energy-food nexus in the Upper Blue Nile in Ethiopia. First, it points to the central role of biomass-based energy resources and the need to balance national ambitions for hydropower and immediate energy needs for rural communities. Second, it identifies agricultural water management as a critical issue where linkages across sectors and scales need to be improved. Third, it highlights the need to strengthen actors working on environmental sustainability issues, and generating political support for their objectives, by making available evidence on the value of nature for development.

The findings of this scoping study show that participatory network research can facilitate dialogue and colearning among researchers and a range of actors on the interconnected challenges of the water-energy-food nexus. Such collaborative learning processes can play an important role in moving toward better coordination between key actors and improved development planning within the Upper Blue Nile.”

Guest Post: Net-Map in cultural development in Germany

German culture Net.Map

First time-use of a Net-Map-procedure in a culture development process

The recently published study on behalf of the Institute for Cultural Policy

offers new ways for the coordination of action for the pilot region in South

Thuringia (central Germany)

©Patrick S. Föhl & Robert Peper

With the decision to perform a network analysis, the Institute for Cultural Policy entered new territory within the framework of cultural development processes. During the process it was planned to highlight previously unknown communication and conflict structures between different stakeholders from politics, administration, arts and culture as well as economy, tourism and civil society. Additionally, so-called white spots (“structural holes”) between representatives of various sectors should be identified. Stakeholders of all relevant domains would be interviewed in order to implement effective coordination structures within the two counties Hildburghausen and Sonneberg. In order to achieve these goals, the Institute for Cultural Policy engaged Robert Peper, a PhD-student from the Leuphana University of Lueneburg, who is trained in visual social network analysis.

By using Net-Map, the network structures between actors of culture, politics, administration, business and civil society could be traced in a very participatory process. In the beginning of the interviews respondents were asked to recall the last three months of their daily interactions with other stakeholders with regards to their cultural work. They were then asked to draw actors on a network card using a large sheet of paper and pens. For this process, standardized name generators were used. In the course of the conversation ego-alteri (connections between interview partner and others) and alteri-alteri relationships (connection between two others, not involving the interview partner) were depicted in the network map. The visualization displayed both the flow of communication as well as the conflicts and future relationships between the actors involved. In order to highlight the most influential actors in the decision making process, the interviewees were asked to mark the influence of individual actors by heightening the respective tokens.

The evaluation of the network analysis, which included 14 Net-Map-interviews with politicians, tourist officers, artists, museum directors among others, revealed surprising findings. Key players and core interactions were identified that were previously unknown but are crucial for the future cultural development of the model region. A regional tourism association appeared as an extremely well-connected node and as an important potential strike for cultural operators in order to obtain access to the business sector. In addition, the regional mayors turned out to be the lynchpins of the collected network, which comprises a total of 167 players. Missing relations could be located e.g. between artists and schools. Many local actors spotted developing a denser network between cultural and educational sectors as the most important task for the future.

The advantage of this Net-Map-based network analysis lies in the possibility to highlight the most important formal and informal interactions of cultural governance processes and to identify gaps in the network structures that need to be closed in order to pool resources and to strengthen communication and decision-making processes for the cultural field of a whole model region. These expectations were fully met with the results of the recently published report. The study served as an important additional tool for the whole cultural development process (which also involved many other tools such as expert interviews, structural analyses, workshops etc.) and was presented at the occasions of different cultural workshops. The process ended in April 2015 and can now be seen as a good example for a modern approach with regards to cultural development planning.

Dr. Patrick S. Föhl, leading project manager of the cultural development processes, sees great possibilities for the use of network analysis – also in other regions: “There is a lot of potential. Participatory social network analysis will play a crucial role in future cultural development processes. In the model region Hildburghausen and Sonneberg it already works. The results of the analysis are an important milestone in the cultural development process and clearly demonstrate the existence of comprehensive networking.”

For further information about the process please visit the following websites:

german culture Net-Map two

Can you make it more playful and more serious?

picture by Donald Zolan (and, by the way, not my child)

picture by Donald Zolan (and, by the way, not my child)

What? Everything.

Keith McCandles of Liberating Structures asked me this question when I shared my instructions for the use of network pattern cards with him. He proposed to make it more serious by inviting a group to explore a shared problem and to make it more playful by asking: “What is the pattern you would need to choose if you really wanted to mess this up?” And only after that the group would pick the pattern they think will make them succeed. This follows the idea of the liberating structure TRIZ.

His question stuck with me – way beyond the concrete discussion of how to facilitate a group experience. Now it has a place of honor on a post-it on my office wall: “Can I make it more playful and more serious?” How would my life and work be, if I made it more playful and serious.

When I am with my kids, could I have more playful openness and laugh more about things that just aren’t that important AND have the mindful focus of someone who knows that this is serious, that these few years of closeness run by quicker than you think and that every moment matters.

At my work, what would happen if I played and improvised more freely, inviting myself, my colleagues, our clients to use play for experiencing the changes we aim for in an nonthreatening environment – it’s only play after all. And what if at the same time I was much more serious about my aspiration, much braver about naming and claiming the changes I really care about, allowing myself to really care about them?

What are the things in your life that could be transformed by being more playful and more serious? Are you taking steps in that direction already?

Network Pattern Cards

network pattern cards with copyright a

By relating their own experience to prototypical network patterns, groups can get a deeper understanding of how they work together (or not) and what the opportunities and challenges of each of the different patterns of self-organization are. Also, these patterns give group members a language to talk about how they experience collaboration, what they appreciate or struggle with and what kind of network structure they prefer. In many cases this will be more of an exploration and an exercise to understand other’s preferences better – because every pattern carries challenges and opportunities, there is no one perfect solution for the group to discover.

These cards can be used in many different ways – and the patterns are far from complete. Please find detailed instructions for one exploratory exercise with groups here (inclusive of an easy to print version of the patterns). And don’t hesitate to contact me with questions, ideas for missing patterns, examples of how you used this etc.

network pattern cards with copyright c

network pattern cards with copyright b

Rare opportunity: Learn Net-Map in the UK!

How about hanging out at the beach, learning Net-Map and meeting about 1000 highly intelligent social network analysis experts of every discipline, who do everything from crazy complex quantitative stuff to anthropologically observing network development on the ground? The Sunbelt Conference of the International Network of Social Network Analysis (INSNA) is an inspiring event, whether you are a beginner or a full-blown SNA genius and one of the great things about it is that it always starts with two days of training workshops, before the three days of 700 talks in parallel start. A great way of learning for example some of the complex software, which is painful to learn alone at home. Ah, and another great thing is that they insist on always finding a location close to the sea. They alternate between the US and the rest of the world and this year the conference will be in Brighton, UK.

This year Net-Map will be present there in a three hour hands on training in the first part of the conference and we will have two sessions for applied network knowledge which will be heavily leaning toward Net-Map. Though my talk will not be about Net-Map but about the new network pattern cards which I am developing. I would love to see you there. The last time I have taught Net-Map in Europe was the Summer School in Italy, and that was in 2011. A few spots are still available for the Net-Map training workshop, so if you are interested just go ahead and sign up and I will see you there. Together with a whole bunch of other Net-Mappers.

The risks of making it look too easy

Is it as easy as child’s play? (image by

I  always try to speak about my work in a way that everyone can understand me – whether they are experts in my field or not. Because I want to make sure that what I do matters to others – and if it does, I should be able to explain it in a way that they will understand. But recently I am wondering if this approach has backfired in unexpected ways.

When I developed Net-Map more than eight years ago, my driving force was this: The basic concepts behind network analysis are all common sense (“It’s not just what you know but who you know”) – yet the language with which they are often explained is so abstract that it is hard to even take the first step in understanding them. Why can’t I develop a way of speaking about and using network analysis which is immediately useful for lay-people, without translation by an expert. So, I developed Net-Map and have gone on using it in African villages, with children (as young as 3), in fortune 500 companies and community groups. And all along I have tried so speak plain English (or German or French) – so plain, in fact, that one early advisor said: “You have to use more difficult terms, if you want to be taken seriously.” I didn’t. But the comment was still very valuable, because it made me understand that I fit much better in the world of practical application than that of abstract research, so I started my long and winding road away from research.

Yesterday though,  I had a conversation with my fellow Net-Mapper Amit Nag and we started wondering: Are we making it look too easy? Are we inviting people with a smile, telling them that this will be all smooth sailing and then they are not prepared for the hurricane ahead? And, by doing that, are we preventing them from really benefiting from the method in full?

A pattern that we have observed in our recent work is this: We present, in simple language, with colorful examples and five easy steps, how to do a Net-Map. Then we guide a group through the experience of drawing it around one of their issues. Then they are excited and run off to start using it in their own work.

A few weeks later we might see the results and… well. They did follow the five easy steps. But still, the mapping has not been as powerful and useful as it could have been, because of one or more of the following:

  • They didn’t ask a good guiding Net-Map question – to the map doesn’t focus on the core question.
  • They didn’t invite the right people in the room.
  • When there were disagreements, the group forced itself to agree instead of digging deeper and understanding more.
  • There was too little time to have a conversation, so the group just rushed to get the mapping done. Or, they got so lost in conversation, that they never finished the map.
  • No one took useful notes, so it is impossible to understand the map if you were not at the table.
  • They intended to use the map for action planning but didn’t know how to develop actions out of the map.
  • They asked about links that are not clearly defined, or not relevant for the issue.
  • They failed to connect the Net-Mapping to the bigger context of what they are doing.
  • Once the map was drawn, all they saw was a bowl of spaghetti diagram and no one helped them untangle it.

All of the above are my observations and maybe also just best guesses, because I was not in the room. In summary I could say: They didn’t get the full value out of Net-Mapping, because they were led to believe that knowing the five steps (categories of actors, actors, links, goals, influence towers)  is enough to know how to Net-Map.

So my question is: How can I invite people to confidently learn, play with and use Net-Map while at the same time clearly communicating that, in the end, it is not as easy as it looks? How can I help them learn the less straightforward and more tacit – or more academic – aspects of Net-Mapping? How can they understand that being a participant in a well facilitated Net-Map session is very different from being able to facilitate a Net-Map session well. I would love to hear from you, because it seems like this problem cannot be solved in the same mindset which has produced it. Any advice is welcome.

Maybe they get annoyed because you are more successful than you look

Cancer Survivor’s Artwork Travels the World as an Inspiration to Others

Someone who looks like you should not be invading our space (image by Cindy Faust)

I just had an interesting conversation with a friend about a very specific kind of uncomfortable interaction we experience as we move forward in our career and become more successful. And that’s the push-back you get for being more successful than you look. What do I mean? Well, she described a number of very impolite encounters as a younger looking African American woman (three status reducers in a row… wow – how lucky that she is also extremely bright and resilient). And I had to think of a friend who got into a leadership position in a large organization before growing any grey hair.

As long as you are among your supposed peers (in terms of external visual factors as in age, gender, race, social background) and filling a role that is similar to other people in this group, you might rarely experience these behaviors. People are decently nice to you, you feel like we have arrived in the 21st century, achievements are based on merit, not external factors… And then, all of a sudden, just as you are feeling like everything is going right professionally and you are moving from one success to the next, you get all these reactions from people that look and feel like racism, sexism, any kind of -ism and all they are saying is: “Someone who looks like you should not be here. We are people of status and success and what on earth do you think you are doing here.”

What I found interesting in this conversation was to understand that it is easy to go through experiences like this and completely misunderstand them: Instead of thinking: “How come that all of a sudden society has become much more backward and hostile than it was a few years ago?” You might be thinking (once you can let go of the pain and disappointment): “This pushback is a sign of my success – of the fact that I am moving far beyond what others would expect of someone who looks like me and that makes them nervous. They feel like I am getting in their space and are insecure, fearing what would happen if there was an invasion of their space of privilege by people who look like me.”

While the second thought also doesn’t change the fact that you are having annoying encounters, you can feel the power. And you are not a victim.


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