What is 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 space
Another participant 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 technology sector
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 synergies?
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.