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.