‘Positive deviance’ and the power of outliers

Bloomberg Cities Network: “Groundbreaking solutions in cities are often the result of visionary mayoral leadership. But sometimes certain communities achieve significantly better outcomes than their similarly resourced neighbors—and the underlying reasons may not be immediately obvious to local leaders. Ravi Gurumurthy, CEO of the global innovation foundation Nesta, believes that this variation in quality of life at a hyper-local level is something worth paying a lot more attention to. 

“The fastest way for us to improve people’s lives will be to mine that variation and really understand what is going on,” he says.    

This concept, known as “positive deviance,” describes individuals or communities that achieve remarkable success or exhibit highly effective behaviors despite facing the same constraints as their peers. With a long history of use in international development, positive deviance is now gaining traction among city leaders as a source of solutions to stubborn urban challenges.  

Here’s a closer look at what it’s about, and how it’s already being used to uplift promising approaches in cities. 

What is positive deviance? 

Positive deviance first gained widespread attention because of a remarkable success story in 1990s Vietnam. Much of the country was suffering from a malnutrition crisis, and efforts to design and implement new solutions were coming up short. But aid workers landed on a breakthrough by paying closer attention to children who already appeared larger and healthier than their peers.  

It turned out these children were being fed different diets—leaning more heavily on shrimp and crab, for example, which were widely accessible but less often fed to young people. These children also were being fed more frequently, in smaller meals, throughout the day—an intervention that, again, did not require parents to have more resources so much as to differently use what was universally available.  

When these practices—feeding kids shellfish and making meals smaller and more frequent—were replicated, malnutrition plummeted…(More)”

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