What is systems change?

The Systems Change Observatory (SCO) is one of several recent efforts to discuss how to map, understand, and potentially steer systems change practice to achieve positive social and environmental impact.

Here, we report comments and vignettes from our initial discussions with academics, practitioners, and other stakeholders associated with the SCO.  They speak to core challenges including ways to understand systems change and then how to shape and promote systems change. We present their varied experiences and practical understanding of systems change.

Please note that comments from our participants are anonymous and represent only their roles and the sector they work in.

Understanding Systems Change

There is a plurality of definitions for the term systems change reported in literature and our initial respondents mirrored this multiplicity. It is important to note that the term can mean different things in different cultural contexts.

One prominent understanding focused on the objective of systems change – to shift the state of a system that is generating negative outcomes for its participants into a more desirable state.

“Systems change is about studying problems as an existing equilibrium that isn’t working, which has a negative environmental or social impact and then imagining an end state that would not have that negative impact as an outcome of the system’s configuration.” – Academic and Venture Partner in the Social Entrepreneurship space

Another participant framed systems change as a new paradigm of social entrepreneurship.

“ [Systems Change is] at a very macro level doing away with the need for a term that says social entrepreneurship. Social enterprises are evolving into businesses that cause social impact and [are] changing in a way that they don’t have to do something special, or feel like you have to make some sort of concessions because you are an entrepreneur. The core value doesn’t budge.” – Social Entrepreneur in the technology sector

A critical focus of these discussions is what kinds of changes are in fact changing systems. They stated that system change tends to be located at the intersection of an institutional shift in regulations, economic configurations and cultural assumptions that better enable and equip the capabilities of individuals.

Along these lines, one contributor referred to the capability approach developed by Nobel Awardee Amartya Sen: “Poverty is not just lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as human being” to explain the expectations of systems change. According to this participant, a system is only changed if social, political and economic configurations are transformed in a way that preserves individual autonomy and empowers people to flourish.

How to shape, promote systems change

In context of how to create systems change, two key views emerged in the comments of our participants:

1. Collaborative action: Interviewees emphasised that multi-sector coalitions can pursue pathways to build the field and solve identified problems instead of focusing solely on scaling the impact of a single organisation. The focus here, therefore, shifts from a single organisation to a collaborative network.

“Systems change is the first step of convening, not just one organisation, usually an alliance or a process of bringing different actors from different sectors together”.  – Professor and Academic Director, Entrepreneurship Centre, university-based business school, UK

One of our contributors runs a collaborative coalition trying to solve a problem that affects over a billion people. The technology used to address the problem has existed for a long time, but the sector was not deemed investible. They started by bringing the public sector in as a delivery platform, influencing policy at the government level for distribution. They also worked to make the sector more investible and to prioritise the problem area as an issue in global development. This approach requires one to be a good listener and open to experimenting with multiple solutions to tackle the problem. Illustrating key skills necessary for systems leadership.

2. Evaluation and design: Interviewees suggested an approach which identifies an existing system generating negative social or environmental change and an end state that does not generate this negative impact as an outcome of the system’s configuration.

Based on this, an intervention must be designed in a way that perennially changes the dynamic of the system. This intervention is then expanded, with the objective of achieving a permanent shift in the configuration of the system.

“Day to day systems change is about building lasting relationships in the system and that requires time, a sense of self awareness and influencing skills.”Social Innovation Expert, UK

For example, if we identify a lack of information flow between coordinating agencies as a hindrance to the effective functioning of a system, we could design an intervention to change how information flows between different actors and change the dynamic of the system itself, leaving a self-sustaining legacy.

SCO Initial observations and further questions

In our work and the early moments of the SCO, we have already come to understand that people draw from a range of definitions for systems change. This plurality is not surprising and may well be a resource.  This initial insight is shaping our research and pointing at directions that are worth exploring further.  What are the available conceptions of systems change evident in the work and support of global funders? How are social ventures pursuing systems change on-the-ground? How do their approaches, vary depending on the nature of the challenges they try to tackle? What strategies should be prioritised by stakeholders in different locations in the system space? How to best connect their efforts and explore synergies?

These questions open possibilities for both research and engagement with the field of change-makers committed to tackle the world’s most pressing issues.

SCO – Initial Convening

Latest blog update from the Skoll Centre’s main research initiative, the Systems Change Observatory.

In March 2019, we had a daylong session that integrated in-person attendance with contributions from participants around the world. This meeting incorporated opinions from previously conducted unstructured interviews to identify the most relevant issues and concerns regarding systems change among this first round of Observatory contributors.

The discussions raised were far from exhaustive. The value of this study lies in starting an exploration of topics that have not yet been systematically studied and understood with practitioners who, despite sharing similar concerns, are approaching problems differently.

Emergent themes

From our discussions, four key themes emerged:

  1. Definitions and conceptions of systems change
  2. The intersections of systems change, social entrepreneurship, and scaling solutions
  3. Implementing systems change
  4. Measurement and evaluation of systems change interventions.

The first two refer to the connections between systems change, social entrepreneurship and scaling-up an intervention in the social impact space.

Graph showing the top topics from interviews.

The last two themes consider the principles for designing and implementing systems change activities and the challenges in setting up measurement and evaluation instruments for system change interventions. Given the diverse experiences of our interviewees, our findings highlight different mechanisms, challenges and prospects to positively drive and evaluate system change. We will share snapshots on these themes to map relevant issues and spark deeper conversations.

Looking ahead

One of the salient issues in systems change work is the relative lack of over-time data on ventures that pursue a systems approach to social innovation. This limits our understanding of how system change is conceived and pursued to address a wide range of challenges. Beyond this initial study, the SCO intends to explore what happens in the life-course of these ventures, shedding light on aggregate patterns across ventures and over time.

The SCO can contribute by providing key outputs on systems change in action. This includes identifying the skills required to engage in systems change, approaches and pathways to change that organisations follow over time and their experience with implementation. This can help entrepreneurs identify what skills to build and activities in which to engage.   

The ambition of the SCO is to add value to the field by keeping in mind the relevance of our research for our stakeholders. We intend to offer value by leveraging our academic skills to undertake translational research in order to produce, compile, and disseminate knowledge that can be useful for academics and practitioners in the field of systems change.

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