The Integrators: our future is in their hands

Forget all of this talk about “integration” in global development. What we really need is a conversation about “integrators.” Integrators are people who move fluidly between different worlds and who turn the unlikely connections that result into groundbreaking  solutions to intractable problems. Integrators are people who, through a peculiar mix of beliefs and skills, can float above the silos and sectors to see how it all might fit together; people whose vision and capabilities are so inspiring that they amass followers who exponentially multiply their impact across organizational, sector, and geographic boundaries.

These are the people who increasingly hold the future of the planet in their hands. If I was young, I would want to be one. I would want to bypass entirely that well-worn path with the fork in the road that leads to “specialist” on the one side and to ”generalist” on the other, and instead learn how to become an “integrator.”

But how to do that?

First, integrators are people who cultivate three basic orientations: (1) a non-negotiable, relentless clarity on big end goals with disproportionate benefits for the most vulnerable; (2) an obsession with data and evidence and a deep aversion to arguments based on ideology, anecdote, or analogy; and (3) a deep understanding of how technology allows us to bypass boundaries and build bridges so that we can solve complex problems.

Big goals, big data, and boundless technology

This shouldn’t be too difficult. The world has endorsed 17 Global Goals with breathtaking vision. If they are achieved, add ten years to your age, and imagine a planet without poverty, malnutrition or preventable deaths, powered by sustainable sources of energy that have enabled us to avert a climate-induced catastrophe. These global goals are a complex, interrelated network where action on one benefits progress on others, and vice versa. For example, improvements in education (Goal 4), will translate into health gains (Goal 3) and economic growth (Goal 8). Improvements in clean energy (Goal 7) will advance climate action (Goal 13) and responsible consumption and production (goal 12). And improvements in gender equality (Goal 5) will reduce poverty (Goal 1), income inequality (Goal 10), and conflict (Goal 16).

Integrators not only understand this interconnectivity, but they want to design policies, programs, and financing instruments that leverage these connections so they can drive progress to the goals faster and more efficiently. Specialists, on the other hand, prefer to stay firmly within the boundaries of a specific goal, even when they could achieve more with a different approach. Even though generalists can acknowledge the need for integration, they typically don’t have the skills or the incentives to make it happen. Integrators also understand that big end goals take time. After all, they are trying to alter reality for the vulnerable majority, not for an already-privileged minority. In this context, they don’t place short-term success ahead of long-term impact. Integrators base all of their big decisions on the very best data available. If the data is not there, as is often the case, they make it a priority to get it.

Integrators are most comfortable when they are in constant conversation with a wide array of data from many fields, including the sciences (natural, formal, social), humanities, and professions. They develop a command over the best quality data from each of these disciplines and a facility to combine insights in a way that shines a light onto new solutions. Integrators share a deep aversion to decision-making based on ideology or arguments from analogy (i.e. we should do y because that’s the way we did x).

Above all, integrators share an honest relationship with data. Data is never cherry-picked for marketing or advocacy purposes, but is used to provide a constant check on success or failure. Data that reveals failure is just as valuable, if not more valuable, as data that shows success. Open source, free access data platforms (like the spectacular Global Burden of Disease) are preferred, as integrators acknowledge that the long-term benefits of sharing information outweigh any short-term risks.

The world’s most powerful innovations have always come from people who transgress boundaries and straddle fields, or in Sue Desmond-Hellman’s words, people who “bridge worlds.” With technology our ability to do that has risen exponentially. The internet and the many platforms that have been built on it now offer vast digital playgrounds where people can collaborate beyond boundaries. The latest data on internet trends reveals a world on the threshold of global connectivity. There are now 5 billion internet users (63% of the planet) connected by devices whose processing power, storage capacity, and platform content are constantly improving. Add to that developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, and biotechnology and the probability of further breakthroughs keeps improving.

Integrators are constantly developing their mastery of these ever-changing technologies, are on the lookout for new ways to create value, and revel in the freedom technology offers to locate and engage new talent. Integrators are particularly adept at using technology to circumvent the complex set of special interests that typically lie between them and their customer/s. Observe the specialist at work and you will often see a primary loyalty to the groups that confer authority – typically peers or a scientific community or discipline. Observe the generalist at work and you will see a primary loyalty to the person or group who pays the bills – typically the employer or in the case of non-government organizations – the donor. The integrator is different. He/she puts the end-user first, every time. If you work in a company, it’s the customer. If you work for the government it’s the taxpayer or a subset of taxpayers. If you work for an international development organization, it is the citizen of another country, even if you don’t live there.

Advice to future development integrators

For integrators just starting out, there are several paths to take. You could go with the early adopters to advance an emerging field. If you like a steeper challenge you could target the development arms of the US, UK, Canadian and European Governments as well as the largest UN and development agencies (e.g. the World Bank, Global Fund, and Gavi) and bring them on board. And then there’s the new kids on the block – the Chinese, Brazilian, Indian, Russian, and South African governments. You could help them build integration into their emerging development efforts and leapfrog a lot of the mistakes other governments have made in siloing their development agendas. If you have a huge appetite for complexity and risk, you could work to bring together the leading integrators in the private sector with governments and non-government actors, or you could build your own organization and ultimately try to improve the game of the sector, squeezing the low performers out.

Where you decide to invest your energies will depend on the specific ideas you have. Some ideas will be better executed as businesses, others will require government policy changes within a non-profit framework, and others may depend on public-private collaboration in a shared value context. An integrator will always want to be agnostic about the business model – whatever delivers the greatest value, in the shortest time to the most people at the lowest cost should determine how you architect your effort. And for the most creative integrator it may not matter where you “officially” work because if you are using technology and data to pursue big end goals, your “workforce” could effectively be the x million/billion people you can engage on your platform.

Updated January 2024