Agents of change: How actors can change systems together

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Marissa Kimsey studies organisations and systems change at the University of Oxford.


Agents of Change: How actors can change systems together

There is growing recognition that we need ‘systems change’ in order to address the big problems facing people and the planet - like the Covid-19 pandemic and its intersections with inequalities and the climate emergency. But despite many calls for systems change, there is less talk about the work of organising to make that happen. What does it take for organisations to contribute to systems change? The 2021 virtual Skoll World Forum took on this question in the workshop 'Agents of Change', where Professor of Organisations and Impact Marya Besharov and Systems Change Postdoctoral Researcher Paulo Savaget shared research findings and facilitated a conversation with four changemakers: Marcelo Behar, Jeroo Billimoria, Frank Hajek and Skeena Rathor. Here are three takeaways from the workshop.


#1. Find points of convergence.

To find points of convergence during collaboration, it helps to understand the landscape of actors in a system and their different interests and capabilities. Many point to collaboration as key for systems change. To work, it is important for organisations and individuals to understand their partners’ interests and capabilities. New research from Saïd Business School accordingly develops a framework distinguishing the repertoires of different types of agents of change, which includes:

  • Individuals - tackling exclusion by ignoring conventions and being resourceful
  • Companies - tackling unmet needs by searching for efficiencies
  • Civil society - tackling ignored issues by leveraging and exposing contradictions
  • Private funders - tackling common issues by allocating money
  • Government - tackling expectations of citizens through inclusion
  • Networks - tackling wide-scale challenges by attending to diversity.


Understanding the repertoires of different kinds of actors may help would-be collaborators seek out more appropriate partners and come to collaborations with more appropriate expectations. At the 50-year-old beauty group Natura &Co, Marcelo Behar is not only concerned with the cosmetics supply chain to move toward carbon neutrality. Marcelo and his team also recognise the unique power of government to raise the bar for corporate relationships with the environment across Brazil, where Natura is headquartered. As a result, they have put time and energy into advocating for new national-level legislation. 


At the same time, the work of systems change also happens in the in-between spaces of existing categories - including within mission-driven businesses like Natura that combine aspects of typical companies and civil society.


#2. Success is a journey with multiple endpoints.

Some organisations may seek to create change within the current system. When Jeroo Billimoria co-launched Catalyst 2030 last year, it was with the vision to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 through mobilising social entrepreneurs, partners and resources at scale as a network. Accordingly, Catalyst 2030 acts boldly, while also working within established mainstream goals.


Others may seek to dismantle and replace the current system. When Skeena Rathor and fellow activists assembled in London to announce their declaration of rebellion in 2018, they sought change outside the mainstream. Now Extinction Rebellion operates as a global movement utilising non-violent civil disobedience with the aims of stopping mass extinction and mitigating the risk of social collapse - and in the process undoing existing systems of oppression like colonialism and patriarchy, and learning what they call co-liberation and powerfulness.


Today’s big problems facing people and the planet call for systems change with multiple endpoints, both within and outside current systems. When Frank Hajek considers his own experience leading Nature Services Peru - which helps build a parallel alternative system through the regenera programme that compensates for companies’ environmental footprints through conservation and restoration - Frank also notes the importance of the journey as well as the result: We may take care to live out our values along the ride of pursuing systems change, not only at the end.


#3. Change often happens gradually through partial and distributed action.


Building on the agitate-innovate-orchestrate framework, new research from Oxford supported by Mission 2020 on the future of climate action points to three key activities for change:

  • Highlighting - which creates public awareness and establishes evidence as a basis for action (like Skeena Rathor and Extinction Rebellion bringing attention to ecological breakdown).
  • Orchestrating - which curates partnerships, convenes actors and allocates resources (like Jeroo Billimoria and Catalyst 2030 improving connections and transparency among social entrepreneurs with an eye to the Sustainable Development Goals).
  • Operationalising - which develops and implements solutions (like Marcelo Behar and Natura learning to produce beauty products made completely from recycled and green plastic).


Not all organisations can or should undertake all these activities at the same time. For systems change, it helps to understand what activities are called for to address a particular problem and suited to a particular actor - that is, to find the fit. Often big change does not take place overnight, and it is necessary to join a movement larger than oneself, to participate in distributed and coordinated action over time. For example, Frank Hajek has been enriched by regular conversations with a group of sustainability leaders in Peru who understand different aspects of the Peruvian context and bring perspectives beyond his engineering purview. Frank also was keen for Nature Services Peru to become the first certified B Corp in the country - and thereby join the regional and global B Corp movement of mission-driven businesses.


The 'Agents of Change' workshop at the Skoll World Forum brought forward cutting-edge research shared by Professor Marya Besharov and Postdoctoral Researcher Paulo Savaget as well as the frontline insights of changemakers Marcelo Behar, Jeroo Billimoria, Frank Hajek and Skeena Rathor. Yet of course there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for organisations seeking systems change. Systems change calls for many kinds of actors to work together across multiple kinds of activities with multiple aims. Doing so is often difficult because of habits of thought and action and differences in power. But organisations and individuals can and do work together, overcoming mismatched assumptions about how change happens and unlocking resources together.