Blogs, Systems Thinking



Summary: Blue Marble Evaluation is at the leading innovative edge for evaluation for the times we live in. Drawing its name from the first photograph taken of Earth from space in 1972, the power of this approach to evaluation lies in taking a global systems “whole-Earth” perspective, helping to design and support transformational efforts by generating insights for adaptation and enhanced impact. As a trans-disciplinary profession, evaluation has much to offer global change interventions that work toward a sustainable future across national boundaries, sectors, and issues. The book – Blue Marble Evaluation: Premises and Principles, by Michael Quinn Patton – was launched today in Minneapolis and places evaluation at the center of this context.

I have the privilege of being the world’s first Blue Marble evaluator and the joy of developing it at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food (GA). The role has been one of the most transformative breakthroughs in my career, bringing about two important turning points in my own thinking and practice as an evaluation consultant.

I was first interviewed for this position by the Global Alliance’s Monitoring and Evaluation Committee shortly after finishing my PhD. In that PhD, I struggled with how evaluation is often restricted to just adding up metrics in the search to understand changes. This narrow approach did not seem to take advantage of how evaluation can – and should – meaningfully support action during interventions. As such, I felt something was wrong but, at the time, I did not have the answer. Since then, Blue Marble Evaluation has emerged as the way to address these concerns and limitations. Realizing that this approach is a better way to support and shape the deep systems changes that we urgently need today was an important shift for me.

The second turning point came with the reminder that evaluation, in general, is distinctly more than developing an endless set of tools, methods or simulation models, as is common with other more linear forms of thinking. In contrast, Blue Marble centers on the questions you ask first, and then – and only then – about the methods you use to try to answer them.

Historically, the practice of evaluation has helped support other forms and units of change. But now, from the smallest to the largest interventions, it needs to step forward and support the urgency of systems transformations. To best support the interventions that promote transformation, evaluation must pose meaningful questions that, in turn, are used to inform and facilitate transformation processes.

The idea is to ask questions that help us get deeper, to critically assess, to establish connections across scales, siloes, disciplines and issues. Questions must help us understand how context matters and how boundaries matter, how relationships work within (and outside of) a shared context. These interventions can all be perceived in many different ways, with many different consequences, especially at a time of constant change and flux. That’s the beauty of this approach.

Although the field of Blue Marble is relatively nascent, it is already becoming a transformative framework for the Global Alliance. It is helping the GA frame how food systems transformation is understood in a different way, to understand the context, and how the pathways to transformation are conceptualized, developed and evaluated – for learning, improvement, adaptation and accountability purposes. And to recognize how an organization can engage with others in seeking these transformations. Applying Blue Marble Evaluation is transforming how an organization conceptualizes, develops, evaluates, adapts, learns from and fosters its own role and work.

Crucially, the contribution of Blue Marble Evaluation to the GA isn’t about building up something new from scratch; it is about creating a tipping point. By taking a “whole-Earth” perspective and adopting a “set menu” of guiding principles, articulating its vision for the future of food — and by putting people, concepts and ideas together in practice — the GA has recognized and embraced the need to connect different networks in order to realize its theory of transformation. This way of acting and being is part and parcel of what Blue Marble is about.