Designing Ecosystems Together

By Tracy Wareing Evans VIEWS 2

On the heels of our annual Harvard Health and Human Services Summit, partnerships, including those across the public and private social-serving sectors, is at the top of my mind...


For those of you unfamiliar with this annual event, for seven years health and human service leaders from all levels of government and from the social-serving sector, in partnership with Harvard’s Leadership for a Networked World and Accenture, have been gathering in Cambridge about issues surrounding the Human Services Value Curve. Each year, our members and partners have the opportunity to step away from their daily demands and spend a weekend together “getting on the balcony” to see patterns and the bigger picture of what is happening in our communities and in our nation. The summit also provides an opportunity to zoom in on the enablers and barriers to achieving better outcomes for children and families.


After this year’s summit, I am convinced, more than ever, of the value that cross-sector collaboration means to our collective work and believe that finding the keys to “generative partnerships” is at the heart of the system transformation we all seek.


While I cannot possibly capture the richness of the discussion at the summit or illuminate the many ideas sparked by the case studies in this brief post, I can share the following four insights on how TOGETHER we can reimagine our current systems and create a new, modern ecosystem that supports all children and families to reach their full potential.


Well-being is at the heart of our collective efforts. Those of us working in the human-serving sector, as leaders in health, social services, education, law enforcement, or criminal justice—from public systems, social-serving organizations, or social enterprise—we all share a core belief that everyone should have the opportunity to live healthy lives and be well. We must frame the work of the human-serving system to be consistent with the recognition that we all need support at times along the way— throughout our lifecycle—if we are to achieve wellness and reach our full potential. This is a shared narrative we need to embrace across sectors.


We can create more permeable boundaries across sectors. To do so, we need a more systematic understanding of enablers and barriers of the current ecosystems— recognizing the complexities within them and how deeply the cultural roots are embedded. We need to get at the right questions—some of which we now know (e.g., the social determinants of health), and others we have yet to discover. As Susan Dreyfus, president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, noted: “This is our moment. We must get at the art and science of shared governance with our neighbors.” As leaders, we must be the stewards of this adaptive journey and keep ourselves true to whether we are actually doing it or simply continuing to admire the problem.


Design matters. Putting the family at the center of our work is more easily said than done. As leaders, we must recognize where our current constructs—law, policy, fiscal, and practice—limit our thinking, both about what a productive ecosystem can be and what is possible for people to do. Across sectors, we need to work together to create a modern, thriving ecosystem with a clear set of rules and norms that do not place artificial limits on our customers or workers. As one summit participant noted, it is about “Fidelity to our vision and not fidelity to our profession.” Another remarked that “We cannot just see the hope—we have to act to support health and wellness for everyone in our community.” To assist with the redesign, we need the opportunity to “fail fast” in order to innovate more quickly. This means taking risks and having “chutzpah.”


We have to be two things at once—aspirational and practical. As Professor David Agar helped us see with his compelling case study, “leadership is about painting reality and giving hope." We have to be thinking in the short and long term at the same time. We have to constantly re-evaluate how we are doing. We have to understand when are we innovating whole cloth and when we are simply tweaking. We cannot hold back out of fear that the journey is too long or hard, nor can we ignore that there will be roadblocks along the way. In partnership with each other, we need to assess what it will take to get us there.


As I shared with participants at the closing summit session, the ecosystem metaphor is a powerful visual for our collective journey. Imagine hiking along a clear path from the bottom of a high mountain to the top. During that journey you move seamlessly from one ecosystem to another. You might begin in the grasslands at the foot of the mountain, and then move into and through a forest, passing through an aspen grove, and then moving higher, to an area with reduced vegetation and, ultimately, to the volcanic ash where little grows. The path is the “constant,” guiding you seamlessly through different ecosystems. That is what we imagine for all people; that each of us has the opportunity to live well and that the ecosystem of health care/early learning/education/housing/employment/human services guides us seamlessly through our lives.


A heartfelt thank you to our many members and partners who made the summit such a powerful reminder of why we do this work and what it means for all of our families and communities.