When I first started working with One Earth Future Foundation in the USA, we were a small team looking at how to suppress maritime piracy off the coast of Somalia. In the initial stages of our counter-piracy strategy, we and our international partners, were focused on deterring the crime. The emphasis was on keeping the lid on the criminal activity. However, it didn’t take long to realise that you can’t simply contain a complex social problem, you have to want to resolve it.

Now, this doesn’t mean that any of us were naïve or arrogant enough to think we were going to discover the solution to one of the world’s oldest crimes, piracy. But we knew we had to at least understand the root causes of piracy. Undoubtedly, there are many; a concentration of shipping vessels in one region, limited ability of fragile states to monitor the situation, some unsavoury fishing and resource exploration by several foreign countries, and more. You have to understand each of these factors, as well as, how they interact with one another, in often the most unpredictable ways.

One of our major areas of focus became alternative livelihoods. After running the first global analyses on the cost of piracy, we discovered that piracy costs the world economy about US$7 billion every year. A pretty significant figure relative to the economic productivity of Somalia and the region. We also found that (despite what the storybooks might tell you), most of these young Somali people didn’t grow up wanting to be pirates, an extremely risky and in fact, potentially fatal activity. Digging into the evidence, we hypothesised that one of the under-addressed root causes to piracy was the lack of alternative job opportunities within coastal communities. So we created the Investing in Somalia, or ‘Shuraako’ program. Shuraako now provides start-up capital and capacity development to dozens of small and medium sized enterprises in Somalia that are creating jobs. The basic theory being that every job created might reduce the likelihood a young man will be lured into piracy. The only reason the program stacked up was because we were married to the evidence base, every step of the way. We researched, we analysed, and importantly, we listened.

Along the same lines, a recent interview with Bill Lawson AM, who started the Beacon Foundation in 1988, really appealed to me. Beacon’s mission is to improve the lives of young people in Australia through access to employment, and especially helping disadvantaged youth make the transition from schools to jobs. Lawson is an engineer by training and, as he explained in the interview, engineers are trained to solve complex problems. While they might normally spend their time creating enormous bridges that seem to defy gravity, their understanding of the fundamentals of mechanical and structural design, actually has much to lend itself to complex social issues. Again, the key is understanding the root causes. As the Beacon Foundation website states, Lawson is driven by a commitment to “stop focussing on consequences and consider addressing causes.” This is why Lawson insisted that his staff look at the evidence on social challenges with the rigorous perspective of an engineer. Then he asked them to look at it again. And again. I couldn’t agree more. When we’re looking at complex social issues we have to approach them empirically, in fact, almost scientifically.

At Social Outcomes, we specialise in social innovation. We help organisations design and fund unique programs to resolve some of society’s most complex challenges. The only way to do this is to really understand the root causes of the issue, the complexity of the issue, the size and scope of the problem, who the stakeholders are, who benefits, and who loses. For this reason, we stay very close to the evidence base. Often, the evidence is surprising. For instance, we look at resolving chronic health conditions, and wind up designing programs that focus on meaningful employment. We look to reduce prisoner re-offending, and get drawn towards drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. We want to improve housing stability, and get drawn towards self-esteem and mental health programs.

Social issues also tend to occur in clusters, rather than in isolation, and they interconnect like a spider’s web. However, they are often researched and addressed in silos and not surprisingly, the program outcomes can be limited. At Social Outcomes, we work across a large number of social issues, and from this vantage point, are able to see these interconnections more clearly.

Of course, case managers, academics, and other specialists working on the front-lines of service delivery will recognise all of these connections. The problem is, they’re not always asked. Resolving our social issues is hard and complicated work, and the evidence base is an asset that we can’t afford to ignore.

This is why, when we look at any social issue, we’re trying to really understand how the problem reveals itself. What are the dynamics, and overlapping features? What hypotheses have been tested before? What trends are we seeing? Among the targeted cohort, why is it that a certain phenomenon keeps recurring over and over again? You’re working in a social laboratory of sorts.

In recent years, policy makers and social service agents have made a very positive pivot towards recognising that achieving social outcomes, is absolutely not the same as ticking boxes on outputs met, or the number of participants receiving services. The benefit of increasingly transitioning to outcomes-focused service delivery, is that it forces us to continually check the evidence base. Which also allows us to innovate. For example, under the truest forms of the Social Impact Bonds, service providers get paid only if and when they achieve social outcomes. This means they’re free to innovate around the programs as they wish, and adding in some of the more unusual service delivery models that will help them achieve their social outcomes.

We face challenging times. Across the country, inequality is growing, and our ability to fund resolutions to societal issues is diminishing. If we want to nurture a resilient and inclusive society, we’ll have to think differently about how we deliver social services. At the same time, never before in history have we had such access to information on what works and what doesn’t. The only way to create sustainable, long-term impact is if we nurture our inner curious, scientific, engineering selves – and dive deep into the evidence base.  

Anna Bowden is a Senior Associate with Social Outcomes. She previously worked for One Earth Future Foundation in Colorado, USA.