Latest blog update from the Skoll Centre’s main research initiative, the Systems Change Observatory.In this section, we report on a series of ‘positions’ regarding how scaling up links with systems change. What is especially interesting: everyone has a view on this! And the views differ in ways that are both analytically useful and practical for policy and impact.
One recurring theme is funders stating they fund systems change while in practice they support an enterprise scaling the scope of its work or potential a class of enterprises doing so. The discussion on collaborative systems change strategies raised a salient question in the field: does scaling up a solution by one actor create change in a system vs implementing a strategy to change the system itself?
“There is a difference between a scaled solution and systems change. Affecting lots of people is not same thing as systems change.”
– Systems thinking educator working with a Foundation, USA
Members from the initial convening who work directly on designing social ventures stated that large-scale impact generation through the scaling up of a solution was not synonymous with systems change. This is where things become both complex and analytically interesting – and with substantial implications for policy and practice. From our interview process, our respondents stated that the following factors determine whether an intervention qualifies as systems change.
For many, systems change is understood to involve a permanent shift in outcomes generated by the system’s configuration. When scaling up a solution, the long-term impact of the intervention may be intended but is not always explicitly considered. What outcomes occur across the system when the intervention is completed? The more complex a system is, the more complex the outcomes of any specific intervention and its long-term impact.
“Inherently, [Systems Change] is a long-term effort, highly adaptive, no finish line, there is no point at which you say it’s done. Going from broken to fixed is not something we can answer objectively.”
– Academic and Venture Partner in the Social Entrepreneurship space, USA
Root Cause Analysis
Another starting is considering a solution that does not affect the root cause of a problem – it would not be considered a systems change intervention. This position opens up many intriguing and tough questions.
“[As] an example, suppose we used a boat to clean plastic from ocean gyres and collected millions of tons of plastic from the sea. This could create a lot of positive environmental impact. However, if the intervention fails to address the root cause of the problem, which is plastic entering the ocean from land, it would not qualify as systems change no matter how much we scale up the solution. Similarly, there are a lot of projects around the world that create a lot of positive social and environmental impact, but they do not necessarily have to be considered systems change.”
– Systems thinking educator working with a Foundation, USA
Large-scale Programmes vs. Systems Change
Respondents also points out a key issue: how the scale of the system that we want to address is shaped in important ways by boundary judgments by the funder and other stakeholders. The intervention itself can address the same problem at varying levels of scale, such as optimising the collection of food waste in a single housing unit versus implementing a national food waste collection programme. Simply undertaking an intervention at a large scale does not qualify it as systems change.
“There is a difference between a scaled solution and systems change. Affecting lots of people is not the same thing as systems change. That’s where things get muddy. [An] example would be giving people a mobile banking app. You could deploy that to address the need but it does nothing to exit poverty or stop more people from becoming poor. Even though it could affect people, it is not systems change.”
– Systems thinking educator working with a Foundation, USA
The issues and complex behaviours that need to be addressed in systems change require an approach that is quite different from quickly scaling a solution. It requires an implementer to be fully embedded in that system to understand the barriers to change and act accordingly. At the McConnell Foundation, this is referred to as “scaling deep”, which focuses more on long-term understanding the culture than creating an innovation that emerges from that context and that can be diffused elsewhere (Riddell et al. 2015).
‘Day to day systems change is about building lasting relationships in the system and that requires time, sense of self awareness, influencing skills. Scaling fast doesn’t work because you are not building relationships in the system.’
– Social Innovation Expert, UK
In summary, while scaling a solution and systems change can be concurrent and linked activities, this is not always the case. We can scale a solution without creating a permanent shift in the system or addressing the root cause of a problem. We can also create systems change at a small, local scale and focus on embedding people and solutions in the system to gain a deep understanding of the local context, something that is much more challenging at scale. These differences are essential and critical to understand types of 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
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.
Author(s): Nikhil Dugal is a systems change consultant with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. He is a Skoll Scholar, having completed his MBA from the Saïd Business School in 2018.
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.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Alex Fischer, DPhil Candidate at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment and member of the Water Programme at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment Water Programm.e He gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Systems Entrepreneurship: A How-To Guide for a New Action Paradigm”.
What does it mean to take a systems approach to problem solving and entrepreneurship? This question emerged in multiple sessions at the Skoll World Forum where delegates and speakers traded ideas framing several perspectives and components of systems thinking and complexity. A delegate-led lunch discussion focused on how to take innovations to system-wide scales, and specifically overcome barriers set by development funding structures and organisational capacity. A second delegate lunch discussion explored how to use system analysis and mapping tools to find leverage points in complex, dynamic systems, such as peacebuilding or the nexus of climate and food systems. The third session argued for a new action paradigm of system entrepreneurs or the coordinated collaboration of actors and funders to drive large-scale system changes such as malaria eradication or education reform.
Further arguing the need for a new approach of system entrepreneurs, Jeff Walker, the Chairman of New Profit, presented five elements for a practical guide to this new action paradigm. The argument, summarised in an article published the same day in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, opens with the provocation to set up problem-orientated coalitions:
“The message is clear: our focus should be more on solving problems through creative collaboration, and less on the establishment and perpetuation of new institutions. In addition, we need to develop and employ system entrepreneurs who are skilled in coordinating systematic approaches to addressing the complex, large-scale problems of our time.”
To achieve this Walker shared five elements in his approach to drive large-scale change:
Identify the issues and think in systems and start by asking “what is the problem”.
“Having a great idea for solving a social problem is just the beginning. You also need to identify the collaborators who can help you translate your innovation into real solutions for the real world.”
Invest in research and analysis to define the context and map the other actors.
“Engage in research and analysis to hone your strategy. Figure out what’s really needed—and what works.”
Continuous communication and awareness to convene partners
“The systems change model demands a high level of interaction and transparency between previously unaffiliated individuals and groups. If these links break down, or are never quite formed in the first place, it is unlikely that an effort will succeed.”
Engage with policy to change policy
“If you seek to change a complex system, you will often need to change the laws, administrative rules, and official practices governing that system.”
Measurement and continuous evaluation
“The most successful systems change campaigns create consistent and ongoing data assessments, and rely upon those findings to guide strategy and ensure accountability.”
One common agreement across the different sessions, reinforced by my own research on the role of disruptive information systems within water management institutions, was that success of this approach is contingent on robust data that describes entire systems, not only measuring sub-components, actors or specific interventions.
Dr. Raj Panjabi, CEO of Last Mile Health, posed the question how to set collective Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and related metrics that measure sector-wide successes, and how to incorporate that into the actor-specific evaluation structures. This left a wider challenge for participants to define what outcomes they would measure to provide at a system-level to incentivise collective action while still providing a platform for individual actors, and their funders.