Economists of the world unite! How to apply solution designs for societal problems?

By Prof. Dr. Shyama V. Ramani

“The Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is however to change it” reads the tombstone of Karl Marx in London quoting one of his works. Of course, this applies not only to the worldly philosophers but to economists as well. And in homage to his call, most of our articles carry at least a paragraph on ‘insights for policy’ or ‘policy recommendations’. Usually our work also starts with some anecdotal evidence on the problem to which the inferences of the article could be applied. I was part of this mainstream and happy to blend in, but a series of random jolts shoved me to look into the scary beyond.

First, many (many) years back I was at an economist’s Mecca called the Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association and over the evening drinks, a colleague’s husband, assisting someone in the White House on economic matters, quipped: “I wonder if all your general musings on policy from your models… is going to have any impact at all? I wonder what would happen if we just burnt all the papers presented at the meeting? Would anything change?” We smiled weakly and attacked the snacks on the table. But, his questions never left my head.

The other jolts all occurred much later on when I joined UNU-MERIT, which is my testimonial that it’s a place which wakes up scholars. By that time, policy design had also become more Marxian in the sense that it had embraced the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as societal challenges towards which major efforts, including those related to science, technology, and innovation were to be channelled. Policy was more set in a managerial mode to achieve a set of diverse changes or sectoral targets, within a specified time framework, while recognising the importance of complementarities, externalities, institutional functioning and culture – factors which hitherto had been unmentioned or just given a nod.

I particularly enjoyed conversations with Rene Kemp, who has been exploring the world from an evolutionary institutionalist perspective. He showed me how transdisciplinary knowledge production can be useful to address how systemic transitions can be managed. This was interesting, because in reality in most universities, the sciences remain siloed in disciplinary compartments to make their distinctive contributions to society. Furthermore, with increasing knowledge production, disciplines are further divided into sub-silo specialisations that often do not communicate much. Perhaps, this is because there is only so much we can learn and do in life – given our professional performance targets of the year and the daily pressures. But there could be a grain of truth in what Aldous Huxley said: “The vast majority of human beings dislike and even actually dread all notions with which they are not familiar…”.

Thus, began my personal quest for interesting ideas beyond the standard economics of innovation literature, in management science, public administration and design theory, weaving together strands of common knowledge to propose an i-pod like design innovation of frameworks. Over the years, I have presented my ideas at diverse meetings and classes, taken a few hard hits, but more often received useful comments for which I am greatly indebted. The aim of this first brief (embedded below) is to simply present these frameworks and concepts I find interesting. Thereafter, I hope to apply them in future ones to address consequential problems, “that originate in the broader community, tend to be immediate or pressing and have current or potential impacts on broader society and the environment”, and to do so by being “problem focussed, contextualised and consultative …” (Wickson et al. 2006), like COVID-19, open defecation, climate change and violence against girls and women etc.

I end paying tribute to my muse, Marx, adapting his powerful words from The Communist Manifesto (my bits are in italics) and hoping he won’t mind as it is for a worthwhile cause! “Economists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose – but your [disciplinary]  chains!”

Download the policy brief here.


The blog is republished from UNU-MERIT webpage.