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Systems Change requires new ways of thinking and doing

Carlos Blanco is a 2019-20 Oxford MBA student and participant on our co-curricular programme, Impact Lab. He reflects on one of the Impact Lab Masterclasses taught in Michaelmas term, an ever growing and popular discussion by social entrepreneurs, systems change.

An organisation in Pakistan that enables smallholder rural, off-grid farming communities to meet their farming and household needs using livestock as currency. A network of entrepreneurs built up in the favelas of Brazil. An NGO skirting anti-abortion laws by providing access to safe procedures in international waters. A private company building a new business model that monetises fuel efficiency while introducing more sustainable fuel sources. What do all these examples have in common? According to Dr Paulo Savaget and Professor Steve Evans they represent different ways to achieve Systems Change.

A solar powered water system in Pakistan
A solar powered water system in Pakistan

Systems change is hot stuff right now. Across organisations trying to create sustainable impact the new holy grail is to affect large-scale systemic change. But what is a systemic problem? What is Systems Change? And how do we affect Systems Change? On Tuesday 12 November Paulo and Steve provided a masterclass on Systems Change through the Skoll Centre for Entrepreneurship that touched on each of these questions.

There are many ways to conceptualise systems change

Paulo started by highlighting the characteristics of systemic problems. They can’t be solved by a single organisation, have no single solution, are bound within a system that is greater than the sum of its parts, are poorly specified, are self-reinforced and are interconnected.

Paulo then outlined early insights from the Skoll Centre’s System Change Observatory that identified seven ways Systems Change is conceptualised:

  1. Disrupting the status quo
  2. Influencing chains of cause-and-effect
  3. Empowering agents
  4. Coordinating agents better
  5. Scaling change in numbers or scope
  6. Scaling institutional or cultural change
  7. Scaling an organizational model

There are three pathways to action

According to Paulo and Steve there are three pathways to affect systems change.

Intervening in the configuration and features of a system

Paulo highlighted from his research (Sustainability Hacking: conceptual development and empirical exploration) on sustainability hacking to bring this pathway to life.

A sustainability hack is an unconventional solution that deviates from embedded institutions, i.e. the rules of the game, to address a systemic problem. Sustainability hacks work around the ‘rules of the game’ to accomplish ‘good-enough’ results promptly. Paulo went on to present the five ways sustainability hacks intervene in the configuration and features of a system: emulating value flows; repairing missed value; exploiting a loophole; mirroring feedback loops; reformulating the logic.

Getting the best out of interdependencies

Steve outlined that this pathway requires systems thinkers to first search for connections within a system, particularly those connections that are not obvious or seem illogical. If you can’t find those connections, you then need to expand the boundaries of the system and make the problem bigger to find the variables in the system people ignore.

Looking beyond the organisational-level

The final pathway involves understanding the four failed value exchanges among multiple stakeholders (e.g. investors, employees, suppliers, customers, the environment or society) across a business network:

  • Value missed – I give but don’t get a return
  • Value destroyed – I give but you don’t want
  • Value surplus – I have too much
  • Value absence – you want but I don’t give.

Steve argued that when organisations map each of the four failed value exchanges across their broad set of stakeholders they uncover new value opportunities that redefine the system in which they operate.

Systems thinkers and leaders need to reframe systemic problems and recognise their limits

Steve challenged the room to change how each one of us thinks about systemic problems. Instead of setting targets and objectives, he challenged us to influence the systems around us by reframing systemic problems with ambitious visions for the future. Paulo then reminded us that systems thinkers need to recognise their limits and understand that in complexity, we can’t find a solution, only ‘manage messes’. Most importantly, systems thinkers and leaders need to be humble and recognise the extent of their ignorance to affect Systems Change.

Author bio: Carlos Blanco is an Oxford MBA 2019-20 student. For the past five years he has worked with the not-for-profit, government and private sector in Australia to drive systems change. He is increasingly interested in building broad coalitions of government, not-for-profit and private sector organisations to address humanities most pressing systemic problems.

5 Guidelines for MBA Programmes to Support Impact-MBAs

2018-19 Impact Lab student, Puja Balachander, spent the summer of 2019 assisting with the development of our Impact Lab programme. As a participant of the inaugural cohort and with a background in design, she helped the Centre to improve on what had been successful, ensuring that future MBA students would get the best out of Impact Lab. She shares with us her methods for improving impact-focused programming. 

Before I came to the MBA, I was a service designer and user researcher in public sector innovation labs at the White House, World Bank, and later the City of Austin, working on making public services more user centered and user friendly. I came to the MBA at Oxford to complement my design skills with the business and operations skills I needed to take my prototypes to scale. 

When I got to the Saïd Business School, I joined the small but mighty group of “social impact” MBAs looking to take our work to the next level with business skills. Over my year as a student, and now as an intern at the Skoll Centre working on impact talent development, I’ve learned a few lessons that I think apply to any business programme hoping to support their social impact students: 

1. Understand your “impact-MBA” personas, and design programming accordingly

There are a lot of us that get lumped together as social-impact focused MBAs.

This includes;

  • the impact-curious who are looking to enter the field
  • those who are committed to impact but looking to move into a new sector
  • and those who want to accelerate their careers in their sectors

The same support doesn’t work for everyone. 

A lot of MBA programming around impact assumes that we need to be convinced that social challenges are worth caring about and working on. That is effective for the impact-curious, and converts some who are on the edge, but it doesn’t cater to the impact veterans who are already convinced.

That’s why one of the key, but more difficult choices we’ve had to make at the Skoll Centre this year, is to focus the Impact Lab on those who have deep impact experience. This might feel exclusive, but in fact, it ensures that different impact MBAs with different needs and expectations get what they want and need out of the programming. The more we realize there isn’t a single, one-size fits all “impact-MBA”, and design programming that serves more niche needs, the more meaningful students’ engagement will be. 

2. Look beyond impact investing and impact consulting

Just as there are different impact MBA personas with different levels of interest and experience, there are personas that bring different skills, experiences and interests within impact. There are former policy makers hoping to bring back a business perspective, software engineers looking to lend their skills to a social tech firm, marketers wanting to help rebuild trust in business… the list goes on. Yet, the MBA impact career pathways can tend to mirror those of the broader MBA, and overemphasize finance and consulting. 

It’s important that all MBAs, especially the broadly impact curious who might be convinced to pursue a career in impact, see that they have a place and role in the impact ecosystem. Impact investing and consulting are each fulfilling and prestigious careers, but they certainly aren’t for everyone, and don’t begin to cover the breadth of options and needs in the impact space. 

Keeping this in mind, this year the Skoll Centre is collaborating more closely with the careers team at Oxford Saïd to help MBA students navigate through the many different pathways and careers in impact. We’re particularly focused on engaging our incredible network of impact MBA alumni working in every sector from government to NGOs, tech companies, and marketing agencies to banks and consulting firms to share their learnings and advice with the incoming MBA class of 2019-20. 

3. Don’t let us lose sight of the humans

There’s the danger that when students are taught frameworks and tools for impact, they come out bordering on technocratic. It’s hard not to drink the kool-aid and believe that an impact consulting framework, or a human-centered design sprint could help us fully understand and solve the problem. Or that using rigorous financial and impact analysis will certainly help us identify the social innovations that will scale. And when we’re sitting in our future jobs sending fancy PowerPoints or building elaborate models, it has the risk of reinforcing what’s happening really is this simple! The optimism of the MBA is great, but it’s important to keep us connected to the humans at the core of all the challenges we want to address. 

This is where the Skoll Centre is looking to deepen its ties to our community. Oxford has a tradition of walling itself off, and we’re working on breaking this down and connect with the community. A great example was through Map the System. When my teammate and I analysed the system that caused inequality in early childhood in Oxfordshire, we found through our research with a local community organization, the Oxford Hub, that promising solutions never made it to implementation because impact reporting frameworks didn’t match the phase of solutions. It’s easy in a classroom to be convinced that impact measurement is important (and it is!), but the nuance comes from interactions with the real world. Creating those opportunities leads to understanding (and employability!).

4. Help us be as rigorous about our personal impact as we would be about an organization’s

As a school focused on responsible business, Oxford Saïd’s theory of change is to pump out business leaders who can create change from within even the most “traditional” companies. But these leaders can’t live up to this vision unless they’re critical about their organization’s and their own activities and intentions.

The same theory applies within impact as MBAs join impact organizations like the United Nations, development banks, and corporate sustainability teams. These traditional players are the natural and prestigious next steps befitting an MBA, and it’s certainly possible to make significant change through these positions, but it’s important that we’re as rigorous about our impact and intentions going into these (or any other) organizations, as we are about our actions as a responsible leader working for an investment bank or consulting firm. 

That’s why in Impact Lab over the next year, we’re putting a finer point on developing a critical perspective on different themes within impact. With every activity, our objective is to help leaders to challenge their assumptions and ask themselves and others the critical questions necessary to ensure they are having the impact they promise. Importantly, we’re extending this perspective to being self-critical, so that students examine the biases and privilege they’re bringing into this work, and how they can overcome and utilize them to help create a fairer, more sustainable and prosperous world.  

5. Mainstream impact

Finally, the most important thing that a business school can do to create a fairer, more sustainable and prosperous world, is not only to support students that are interested in impact, but also to mainstream impact within the broader business curriculum. Oxford Saïd did a great job of this within the core accounting course this year. Each week, our professor had a group of students research, critically reflect and present on different themes within extra-financial accounting and reporting. The school also organized a mandatory union debate that examined the merits and limitations of mandated sustainability reporting. It was exciting that ESG factors and sustainability were thoroughly mainstreamed within our curriculum, and eye-opening (at least to me) to see how most corporates are thinking about sustainability and impact. Students were able to leave the accounting course, not only understanding the basics of accounting, but understanding the current state of extra-financial reporting, and how we might build on this progress in our careers. 

It would be great to see similar mainstreaming in other core courses like analytics, corporate finance, and technology and operations. The school already offers elective courses and co-curricular activities like the Skoll Centre’s Impact Lab for those who are interested in impact, but it’s all too possible for students who don’t come in with this interest, to avoid any content and reflection around impact at all during their MBA degree.

If we want to support every student to become responsible leaders and to pursue purposeful careers, a critical, human-focused, impact education is key for every MBA student.

Head shot image of Puja Balachander
Puja Balachander, Oxford MBA 2018-19 student.

Puja Balachander is an Oxford MBA 2018-19 student. She is also the co-founder of Devie, a trusted digital service platform that guides parents on their journey from pregnancy to parenthood, equipping them to become their child’s best first teacher.

Getting to the root of the problem: The myth of “AI for good”

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.


“We have to move beyond talking about AI for good and AI ethics. We simply cannot build just, equal, and fair automated systems on top of corrupt toxic sludge.”

Tanya O’Carroll

Tanya O’Carrol’s mic-drop statement at the end of her talk brought on a raucous round of applause at the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Human Rights panel at the 2019 Skoll World Forum. She had just addressed the major elephant in the room: the very business models of extraction of personal data at any cost that have brought on an age of surveillance capitalism need to be challenged.

The AI and Human Rights panel at the 2019 Skoll World Forum brought to light some incredibly pertinent insights surrounding the intersection of technology, society, and business. First, there was a questioning of “AI for good” and a plead for nuance while looking at what has already been done in human rights when discussing AI ethics. Second, there was the challenging of the capitalist structures in place that have even created a need for “AI for good”. Lastly, as is the optimistic nature of the Skoll World Forum, there were examples of the power of collective genius in addressing challenges of human rights in the digital age.

The problem with “AI for good” and “AI ethics”

The current discourse around “AI for good” and “AI ethics” stem from an understanding that left unchecked, new technologies can wreak havoc in society. However, the general consensus at Skoll’s panel was that AI is not that special — much like any other tool or technology, it can be used for good, for bad, have intendended and unintentended consequences. Furthermore, many corporate ethical codes for AI try to reinvent the wheel, without looking into existing human-rights based codes of conduct. Dunstan Allison-Hope of Business for Social Responsibility argued that “ human rights based methodologies offer a robust framework for the responsible development and use of AI, and should form an essential part of business policy and practice”. He continued on to say that the current conversation around ethics and human rights in technology only include tech companies, and that we need members of other industries weighing in on conversations surrounding human rights in the digital age, especially as AI and other technologies become a dominant force across sectors and geographies.

But why do we need AI for good or AI ethics in the first place? Promoting AI for good startups and regulating AI ethics don’t necessarily answer some of the most pressing questions that come with the rise of tech’s frightful five: Who is collecting our data? Where is this data going? What does consent look like? We need to look at the root of the problem: the big-tech business model.

Dissecting the big-tech business model

Shoshana Zuboff, an academic at Harvard, coined the phrase “surveillance capitalism” to explain power and information asymmetries that have enabled a new economic order that make those who hold our data far more powerful than us. Companies such as Facebook and Google have what she calls a “behavioral surplus” of digital data that allows them to be monopolists and market leaders in the trade of behavioral data. Everything we do online is tracked and able to be monetized. The monetization of this data is especially profitable in the aggregate, and as is Zuboff’s core argument, this data is far more valuable to the aggregator than to the individual.

The data that is extracted from us as we use tech products has such a disproportionate value to corporations that immense inequalities in power have emerged. Tanya O’Carrol of Amnesty International lamented at the Skoll World Forum that the way data is exploited and harvested is one of the biggest existential threats to society today. We need ethical codes for AI and organizations working on AI for good precisely because the tech business models of today prey on the raw material of our digital personhood. We need to challenge the system of data extraction that exists today.

What can we do? The power of collective genius

Systems change does not happen with an individual. It comes with the collaboration of a variety of different actors. Elizabeth Hausler of Build Change illustrated at the panel the need of collaboration between actors in her work in addressing infrastructure and architectural inadequacies resulting from natural disasters. Her organization uses AI to quickly assess buildings and rapidly come up with engineering designs that can then be implemented by builders and engineers with homeowner input. She also indicated that AI alone would not be the solution; we still need government officials to make the tough decisions to allocate resources to solve the right problems. Similarly, Babusi Nyoni, an AI evangelist from Zimbabwe discussed that without proximity to the perceived beneficiaries of an innovation, many technology projects fail. Communities and context can help determine which data is and isn’t useful.

Communities, governments, and businesses must bring together what Megan Smith, founder of Shift7 and moderator of the panel, calls their collective genius to challenge the existing power structures in the tech industry. Whether it is breaking up monopolies, pushing for an adherence to human rights conventions, corporate tax reforms, or accelerating positive community-led innovations, we must stop working in silos to challenge the status quo. Megan ended the panel by quoting William Gibson, “the future is already here, but just not evenly distributed”. Collective genius (and action) can help change that distribution.

About the author

Tulsi Parida

Tulsi Parida is a Pershing Square scholar at the University of Oxford, where she most recently completed an MSc at the Oxford Internet Institute, studying the implications of mobile learning technologies in emerging markets through a gender and political economy lens. She is currently pursuing an MBA at Saïd Business school, where she is focused on responsible business and impact finance/investing. In previous years, she has led teams at start-ups in the US and India working to reduce digital divides in literacy. Tulsi is committed to reducing digital inequality and promoting responsible/inclusive tech. 

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