,

Accelerating Systems Change: Making Possibility Real

Panel on stage at the Skoll World Forum

Each year the Skoll Centre invites a small number of Oxford students to the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. Each year they share their unique perspectives of the sessions and events that unfold during this magical time in Oxford.

It’s hard to deny that social issues are becoming ever more global, complex, and interdependent—‘systems change’ embraces this.  As Peter Drobac (Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship) explained in the Skoll World Forum’s Opening Plenary: ‘social entrepreneurs treat the system, not the symptom’. 

Expanding on this, the panel moderated by Sally Osberg (Past President and CEO, Skoll Foundation) explored the theme ‘Accelerating Systems Change: Making Possibility Real’.

For those of us still confused about what systems change actually means, Marc Freedman (CEO and Founder of Encore.org) probably nailed it, responding with a laugh: ‘I didn’t realise I was working on systems change before arriving at the Forum’.  Freedman’s organisation addresses the societal shift—more people over 60 than under 18 now than ever before—as a systems problem.  He describes that ‘the needs and the assets of the young and old fit together like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle’. 

Social entrepreneurship may not try and complete the whole puzzle, but it fits some key pieces together with a view of what the puzzle or system itself may look like.

This systems approach, however, doesn’t come without risks.  As social entrepreneurs and philanthropists engage with problems where government was once the only actor struggling to achieve change, at least one risk is clear.  How do independent actors engage in systems change without being accountable to, or representative of, the people? 

Safeena Hussain (Founder and Executive Director, Educate Girls Foundation) noted with reference to development impact bonds, ‘these are sharp tools’, ‘ceramic knives’ even.  Their design and use can lead to unintended and potentially cutting consequences.  Becoming divorced from ideas of social justice and equity in the sole pursuit of easily measurable objectives is one of them.  As Hussain continued, ‘who decides what is important?’

Olivia Leland (Founder and CEO, Co-Impact) commented that the key, for philanthropy at least, is to listen.  To work with all other participants in the system to ensure that these developing tools of social intervention have only positive impact.

But social entrepreneurship can also create accountability as Ma Jun (Director, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs) exemplifies. 

China’s economic advancement over the past forty years has come at a cost to the environment in particular (and the environment’s effect on health).  Identifying a piece of the puzzle, Ma Jun developed a way of substituting China’s limited ability to enforce environmental regulations with disruptive transparency.  The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs believes that although ‘transparency seems subordinate to regulation, it is of greater importance’. 

Sourcing and reporting pollution data from almost 1 million factories Ma Jun’s Institute has engaged with thousands of factories and changed behaviour through replacing regulatory enforcement with shame and blame. 

Most excitingly, this approach is globally (and cheaply) transferable.  Data monitoring (even in real time) and transparent reporting of pollution is low cost and can be expanded across the world with ease.  As manufacturing shifts from China to less regulated countries with more limited enforcement capacity, protecting health and the environment through disruptive transparency can follow.  This solution, even if inadvertent, can apply across a global system to prevent continued environmental damage.

Mr Freedman spoke for many of us – we didn’t realise we were working on systems change until now.

About the author

Christian Habla

Christian Habla is currently undertaking the Master of Public Policy (MPP) at Oxford to pursue his interests in people, complex societal problems and the systems they exist in. Upon completing the MPP, Christian intends to apply his studies and his professional experiences – advising and investigating major global companies and governments as a lawyer, and co-founding youth suicide prevention initiatives in community building, investments, education and strategic advocacy – to social impact.

Photo credit: Skoll Foundation