Talking complexity and change: An interview with Roshan Paul

As we try and learn how to make change happen in complex systems we are seeking out the stories, experiences and advice of other pioneers (and there are lots of them). So over the next month or so we thought we would share some of our conversations with others in the form of short, personal interviews.

This week Hamish met with Roshan Paul, the founder and CEO of the Amani Institute. Roshan has been challenging the status quo since he turned down a fancy graduate job in pursuit of tackling some proper, complex problems. In 2011, having decided the global university system required a serious overhaul, he helped establish the Amani Institute with the aim of equipping professionals with the practical and leadership skills for tackling the world’s most pressing social problems –  all at the same time as radically reducing the cost of education. He has published articles, a novel, has a busy blog and recently gave his first TED talk – and last week he talked change and complexity with Hamish. Here are the highlights.

An interview with Roshan Paul, co-founder of the Amani Institute

Hamish: “So how do you go from would be cricketer to social entrepreneur?

I was in my last year of university in the US when the 9/11 attack happened. The same year, there were terrorist attacks in my home country of India, riots between Hindus and Muslims and, of course, a war in Afghanistan that was just about to start. At the time I was about to launch into my first job with a big consulting company and, at the age of 21, faced the prospect of earning as much money as a graduate than my father was at the peak of his career. It just felt wrong.

There were so many challenges in the world. Why would I, how could I, spend my time helping an oil company sell more oil, or an insurance company generate more profit? Nothing I could see in the private sector was as compelling as ending poverty, or tackling hunger, or building peace.

So I never started the job. And ever since, I’ve worked in the social entrepreneurship sector.

Hamish: “So what is it that drew you to taking on the higher education system? And what’s your vision for the change you want to create?” 

My experience of higher education has been like so many others. So many have left university feeling underprepared for a world of complex challenges, burdened with crippling debts or frustrated by a lack of meaningful opportunities. And it’s been at the heart of my interest in reforming the education system. In helping prepare people to have an impact on the world.

Hamish: “A big part of making change happen in complex systems is finding the right point, and the right time, to intervene in the system; a time and place where there is some momentum for change – so why now?”

There is a global wave of change happening all around us. More people are entering the workplace with new expectations. Old ideas of a steady job or getting rich are no longer enough for more people. More people are looking for both meaning and impact in their work. This is a movement, a wave that is happening right across the globe. Just look at what happened with Escape the City, an idea created in 2010 to link people to new job opportunities around the world. Now it has over 250,000 members across 100 countries. More people are demanding more meaningful work. And this will fundamentally change the way that employers and educators operate.

Hamish: “How do you see the Amani Institute contributing to system change, rather than just being yet another cool project trying to do its own thing?”

So at Amani we are asking ourselves – how do we ride this wave? How do we respond to the zeitgeist and serve this movement towards careers of purpose? Where are the leverage points that will change the system? Initially we thought our role was to run programs for universities. But we realised that trying to change a system that has been around for 300 years is not easy. And you have to realise that universities were never created to help people find jobs, so we are asking them to do something that they were never designed to do.

But what social entrepreneurs around the world tell us is that they need more high quality staff. So if we can provide the next generation of talent, then we can help them meet their mission. If we do that, then we can help generate pressure that will change how universities and employers operate.

Hamish: “When I look at what it takes to create change at scale I think that there seems to be something about creating a ‘tipping point’ where suddenly lots of independent people, organisations and so on start working in the same direction – do you think we can engineer  such tipping points?”

I don’t think you can engineer a tipping point. But you can create the conditions for one. The most inspiring example I can think of is Wikipedia. Think of it, their biggest competitor was Encyclopaedia Britannica – an institution that had been around since 1768. And yet in just 10 years, Wikipedia ran it out of business. Why? Because it democratised knowledge. It showed us that a whole lot of people know a whole lot more than a small group of isolated scholars and that people are happy to share their knowledge for free.

Their response to the problem of accessing knowledge was simple. Just like other disruptive changes like Uber, AirBnB, the iPhone… they have an insight into human behaviour that is simple, but revolutionary.

The response to a complex problem doesn’t need to be itself complex. It needs to be targeted and leveraged to create maximum impact. And you can’t predict or forecast the tipping points. But you can help create the conditions in which some change might tip the balance. So the bet we are placing is that we can develop professionals who create social impact, we will fundamentally affect the way employers and educators work.

Hamish: “One of the other key aspects of a complex system is ‘emergence’ – that the sum is greater than the parts and that the nature of the problems we try and tackle change as we tackle them. This makes it really hard to make long term, firm plans, to be precise about how we will intervene and the impact we will have. Is that something you recognize and, if so, how do you and the Amani Institute respond to that?”

Of course Amani is part of the system we are trying to change; we are both an employer and an educator. But the system is vast, full of established traditions and vested interests. It is a question of scale, but it’s not as though we have told ourselves we need to reach some precise number of people. Our ideas about scale are still fuzzy and in development. And we are still trying to figure out exactly how we can serve this movement. So rather than set out a particular quantifiable target, we are testing a number of hypotheses and will keep refining our approach as we learn more about what is working.

It’s a constant work in progress. I’ll keep you posted!

To learn more about the Amani Institute:

Here’s a little bit more about Roshan:

Raised in Bangalore, India, Roshan holds a Master’s in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, a Bachelor’s in International Political Economy from Davidson College (a degree he self-designed), and a certificate in Creative Leadership as one of the founding participants of The Amsterdam School for Creative Leadership. He has guest-lectured at over twenty universities in the United States and Europe, including Harvard, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins SAIS, and HEC Business School Paris; and has served on the Advisory Boards of several organisations working in peace building and education. He delivered the Commencement (graduation) speech at the University of San Diego in May 2015 and a TEDx talk at TEDxAmsterdamEd in April 2016. His writing has been published in Forbes, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MIT’s Innovations Journal, India Today, as well as in the recent book, Dream of a Nation.

Roshan has studied and worked on every continent (aside from Antarctica, where he hopes to travel next) and is a cricket junkie. He is the author of the novel Such a Lot of World.