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
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
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
These questions open
possibilities for both research and engagement with the field of change-makers
committed to tackle the world’s most pressing issues.
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.
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:
Disrupting the status quo
Influencing chains of cause-and-effect
Coordinating agents better
Scaling change in numbers or scope
Scaling institutional or cultural change
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:
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.
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.
From our discussions, four key themes emerged:
Definitions and conceptions of systems change
The intersections of systems change, social entrepreneurship, and scaling solutions
Implementing systems change
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.
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.
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.
Sunday, 9 June 2019, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its
Global Final in Oxford for another year. Making it to the final six teams out
of 20 overall finalists, the University of Oxford team, No Means No, took 2nd
place, winning £3,000 in cash prize money. But the money and the prestige of
being in the top three winners only came 2nd to the incredible
journey of learning and discovery this team of five Indian students, four of
which were Oxford MBAs.
Oxford MBA 2018-19, Prerna Choudhury and teammate and Duke University Sandford School of Public Policy alumna, Tanmayata Bansal, tell us how they mapped the system of gender-based violence in New Delhi, India.
In early January, we came together as a
team with a common thread that is unfortunately part of the lived narrative of
most Indian women—we all had either been victims of sexual assault or known
someone close to us who had. In 2012, the brutal gang rape and death of
23-year-old Jyoti Singh brought the city of New Delhi to the forefront. Seven
years later, Jyoti’s parents, who have now turned activists feel that change
has not occurred and that justice in India has failed Jyoti and women like her.
Not only were we frustrated by the lack of
progress made to address the problem in our country, but we were also
passionate about wanting to be a part of the change. Map the System offered a
public platform for us to break the societal taboo we had dealt with our whole
lives, using the lens of systems thinking, which was particularly relevant to a
problem as complex as ours that involved a diverse range of stakeholders and
was multi-faceted in its contributing causes and solutions.
We conducted extensive primary and
secondary research to help us map stakeholders and develop a narrative illustrating
the interplay between these stakeholders. This ongoing interplay contributes to
perpetuating sexual assault against women in New Delhi. We read news articles,
op-eds, reports, and academic literature to help us understand the history and
quantify the extent of the issue. We identified 20 distinct stakeholders that
were either experiencing, contributing to, or trying to prevent the problem.
The second phase included primary research
which included 31 interviews across our stakeholder spectrum. We started by
reaching out to our internal network and gradually progressed to sending out
cold emails. We received an overwhelming response to our cold emails, which
further strengthened our belief that the issue needs to be discussed on a
These interviews further tied to our
secondary research and gave us nuanced perspectives on the issue. The process
also contributed to our final systems map which underwent multiple iterations –
from a linear process map, to a rather convoluted and more accurate depiction
of the problem and aspects related to it.
So what were our findings? We’ve outlined
and synthesized our research and findings:
Widespread change can only be achieved if
the city of New Delhi implements a concerted city-level strategy that targets
solutions in education, policy, law, technology, and infrastructure:
All our interviewees advocated for education as key to fostering long-term
change in mindset. Solutions targeting education taking the longest to make an impact
but yield the highest probability of bringing about a paradigm shift.
Implementation and enforcement of policies takes time and is key to success.
comprehensive legal structure already exists in India to deal with crimes of
sexual assault. Reform should focus on expedition, reduction of errors, and
placing the victim at the center of the case.
Use of mobile phone apps and SOS emergency lines have provided women with an
avenue to report sexual harassment. Social media campaigns have also enabled
Physical infrastructure such as lighting, or social infrastructure such as
networks help reduce the incidence of sexual assault.
& Levers of Change
A lack of
prioritization and implementation can be addressed by prioritizing gender
equality as part of the national agenda through policy changes such as reducing
investigation times or portraying women in empowered roles in Bollywood movies.
A lack of
sensitivity and support is mitigated through the creation of a safe and
reliable place for women to fight against assault, achieved through repeated
gender sensitization trainings and the building of strong social networks and
cohesion among female professionals.
in staffing and representation are countered by increasing the agency and
representation of women across sectors.
A lack of
knowledge, awareness and accessibility can be addressed by increasing educators’
awareness of the importance of developing emotional intelligence in students.
Our systems map was divided into three
that promotes gender equality: A map tracing the way in which gender inequality
is deeply entrenched in Indian society and promoted from birth.
that normalizes sexual assault: A map analyzing the ways society, the political
and legal system engage in victim blaming and shaming and enable the attacker
through his ability to exercise control through power and bribery.
models and underlying structures that support the system such as a deeply
entrenched patriarchy, an outdated and rigid educational system, caste system,
religious and cultural traditions, weak institutional support, and social
Map the System empowered us to speak about a topic that was deeply personal to all of us. Ever since the competition, we noticed programs and campaigns happening in the city of New Delhi increasing awareness on the issue. Most notably, a leading radio station has started a campaign to make Delhi safe, especially at night by creating a sense of responsibility among its residents and urging them to be more vocal and actionable if they witness sexual harassment. We look forward to collaborating with such efforts and disseminate our findings and report among our stakeholders and organizations to take our efforts forward.
Authors: Prerna Choudhury Oxford MBA 2018-19 & Tanmayata Bansal Masters in Public Policy Analysis at Duke University.
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
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
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 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.
Alexander Betts gave a guest lecture at the Saïd Business School entitled “Transforming a Broken Refugee System”. Audience member and Oxford MBA 2016-17 candidate, Sagar Doshi, shares the key takeaways from the talk.
When Professor Alexander Betts takes the stage at the grand Nelson Mandela Lecture Theatre at the Saïd Business School, he doesn’t waste time. He just smiles at the audience and lays out his argument. His first point is a shot across the bow to the mostly European audience before him.
“Europe is not the centre of the refugee crisis today,” he asserts.
What? Really? A casual consumer of recent news might find this suspect. But Betts backs up his statement. Yes, Europe has significant problems of migration, he says, but these are primarily political and social problems. The actual challenge of dealing with refugees in Europe, while difficult, is nowhere near as acute as elsewhere.
Imagine you’re a Syrian refugee, fleeing Homs or Damascus or some other place of conflict in the civil war. Generally speaking, you have three choices:
First, you could bring your family to a refugee camp, expecting stigma and stagnation.
Second, since you are likely an urbanite yourself, you could move to another city, facing limited rights to work and a potential life of destitution.
Third, you could commit to a dangerous journey over Turkey or across the Aegean Sea into Europe.
For years, many refugees—especially from Syria—opted for the third choice. Unfortunately, this occurred just as Europe’s political situation became increasingly delicate. As nationalism and xenophobia increased among European populations, refugee policies followed suit.
Famously, Germany, took a different path. But the environment, even for Germany, was caustic. By the time Angela Merkel gave her “Wir Schaffen Das” speech, she had to make her bold stand in a very muted way: “Germany will manage,” she announced to her people and to the world. She hoped, of course, that other countries would follow suit.
They didn’t. “There was collective action failure,” notes Betts. The UK, Denmark, Austria, and Europe as a whole took pains to limit refugees, so much so that by 2016, Merkel had to make an about face. Betts reminds us that although the door to Europe hasn’t completely closed today, “it’s very difficult to cross Turkey without the right documentation.”
So far, Betts is sharing a known story. It’s a sad and unfortunate story, but it is known.
But then Betts reaches the predicate to his lecture: “We need moral clarity about who we protect and how” he says. In other words, we need to understand what refugees really, actually need and provide that.
“I would argue that there is no moral right to migrate,” says Betts. “What’s needed isn’t migration per se, but rather a safe haven, where they can get access to their most fundamental rights.”
So what provides that safe haven, and what do refugees need? For Betts, those needs come in three categories:
Rescue – safe havens in host states, basic assistance
A route out of limbo – reimagined resettlement policies, updated visa systems, spontaneous arrival as last resort
Consider where refugees get to live. Today, many refugee aid regimes conceive of refugees as living in camps. Camps can provide rescue—though those on the Turkish side of the Syrian border might contest even that point—but they typically do not offer refugees autonomy or a route out of limbo. It’s not surprising that today’s refugees often opt to avoid encampment.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees —the international organisation meant to focus directly on this population—is struggling to adapt to this new paradigm. UNHCR is not present in urban areas, even though that’s where many refugees are . Take Turkey, which is host to more refugees than any other country in the world. UNHCR supports only about 10% of refugees in Turkey. Why? Simply because UNHCR is set up to support camps, whereas most refugees in Turkey are in what Betts calls “urban or peri-urban areas.”
So what are we to do? What can governments and aid organisations change to make these situations better? For one thing, all our assumptions should be checked. For instance, many refugees aren’t necessarily looking for permanent resettlement. A large number of Syrian refugees, for example, have tried to return to areas of conflict when their home regions appeared to quiet down. Indeed, when Canand’s Justin Trudeau offered a hand of welcome to refugees in the Gulf, his government targeted those in Lebanon and Jordan. Refugees were contacted by phone and SMS to ask if they wanted to resettle to Canada. 70% of those contacted declined. They preferred to stay close to their region of origin.
The refugees of today’s conflicts are distinct from those of the past. There’s a political implication here. Today, most countries have complex and differing notions of what separates a refugee from a voluntary migrant. The 1951 Refugee Convention that gave UNHCR its mandate doesn’t provide all the answers to today’s challenges. This could be updated to reflect more modern realities of the refugee experience.
And clarifying that refugee experience is critical. Sitting with many of these refugees, Betts found that a very small number are unemployed. Many, in fact, are self-employed. They have built their own forms of autonomy and have contributed to their host country’s economy at the same time. Even governments who are wary of allowing rights to work for refugees en masse might see the benefit of taking advantage of a skilled, available population of idle workers.
Could host country governments “help refugees help themselves”? By making the refugee environment as human as possible, governments can think of refugees as a resource, rather than as a burden. If host country governments are going to organise camps for refugees, and if many refugees do live in those camps, then at least governments should provide some physical connection to the rest of society. Some properly human, interactive environment for a micro-economy to thrive. That means offering rights to work when possible, even if only on a limited basis.
This is a complex problem, and Betts doesn’t claim to offer any simple solutions. Nor is he blind to the lessons of modern geopolitics that underscore the fact that the refugee crisis and the west’s new nationalism are intertwined. But that doesn’t mean that progress isn’t possible. The 65 million forcibly displaced people—and our own consciences—demand it.
Find out more about Alexander Betts’ research and other publications.