An Ecosystem Approach For Cultivating Capabilities: The Case Of An Innovative Youth Development Project
I apply complex systems thinking to investigate the inner workings of an innovative urban youth leadership program to reveal how development organizations can create an ecosystem to cultivate “change”. The global “youth bulge”, globalization, and a lack of opportunities leave young people without work and skills to survive in a complex world. New approaches, labeled social innovations, focus on finding transformative ways to solving systemic issues through financially sustainable, system-focused, holistic solutions. My dissertation entails a mixed-methods case study of a US-based development organization and program. I bring together trends in international development and youth development, complexity thinking, and the emergence of social innovations to examine how “change” can be cultivated. “Change” in this context refers to intentional advancement of individual capabilities, observed through the Capabilities Approach, and the concepts of “hard” and “soft” skills. The complex systems lens brings attention to the feedback loops (mechanisms), and how the elements and mechanisms come together to form an “ecosystem”. My findings explain how change happens through an ecosystem approach. The ecosystem consists of “Real Talk”, “Real Work”, and “Real Accountability”. These mechanisms work to reinforce each other to cultivate “leaderly” change in youth through a system of feedback loops. I introduce the term Leaderliness to capture the enhanced capabilities in the “soft skills” of self-confidence, interpersonal communication, self-efficacy, experience and understanding of a professional work environment. Specific individual cases of youth reveal the independent, unique experience that each individual pursues through the program. Diverse youth experience their own pathway to change, influenced by various personal factors. Diversity is an important element of the ecosystem, introducing differences for youth to learn from. Relationships encourage leaderly growth in youth, through interactions with peers and with Crew Leaders. The natural environment sets the scene, working to advance youth capabilities through the sun, heat, rain, insects, living plants. The cultivation of living plants in the hot, thick southern air provided meaningful, relevant work for youth. My research study contributes to the field of international development, social innovation and youth development, but also add to others looking to create positive a culture of “change”.