Currently there seems to be a lot going on around systems change, particularly driven by a few organisations that have picked up the topic and drive it forward, including large philanthropic funders that so far have mainly focused on social entrepreneurship and social innovation. They seem to have raised that with simply scaling social enterprises or social innovations, systemic change does not happen and that a systemic view on change is needed. So they have started to put together research projects on figuring out what systemic change is. One thing that emerges from these initiatives is hopefully a wider agreement on what is meant by systems change, which all systems change practitioners could profit from. I’m happy to see that the way I have been thinking about systems change seems to be largely aligned with that emerging consensus.
The definition of what systemic change or systems change (I don’t think there is a difference between the two) is converges around changes in structures that shape the current situation. A very simple but useful definition of systems change comes from the Social Innovation Generation (SIG) in Canada: shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place (quoted in Kania, Kramer and Senge 2018. This is in line with what I called transformative change – a transformation of the system’s structure. We do not just have to solve the problem but we want to transform the conditions that are holding the problem in place.
Last week we published the 7th episode of the Systemic Insight podcast (get it from Libsyn or Apple Podcast or you can also find it on Spotify). It features Dr Toby Lowe of Northumbria University and his work on why outcome-based performance management doesn’t work – and what to do instead. In this blog post, I’m sharing some quotes from Toby and some insights I took from the conversation.
The discussion in the podcast touches upon why outcome targets distort rather than enhance performance, why they lead to gaming becoming a rational strategy, and what the alternatives are for people who work in complex contexts. As outcome-based performance management is still the prevalent method to manage the performance in many fields, this discussion is highly relevant and pertinent.
This episode is packed with ideas and quite challenging thoughts! In this blog post I am bringing together a number of quotes from Toby and some comments from my side.
So, where are we in this discussion? What are the challenges around transitioning ideas from complexity into projects and programmes? To answer these questions I have reached out to Arnaldo Pellini, founder of Capability, to hear about his experiences working with development initiatives and discuss some of the open questions we are yet to answer.
Last week I was facilitating a workshop with a group of very bright and experienced Market Systems Development (MSD) practitioners. As happens so often, at some point we discussed the concept of systemic change. This particular discussion reflected quite well the problem of the wider field of MSD: the group could not agree on how to assess whether a change they instigated has changed the system they are working in. While during most part of the discussion I was in the role of the facilitator and tried to keep my own thoughts out, my passion for the topic made me at some point step out of that role and bring in some of my own thoughts. I’m using this blog post to further clarify my point of view. Indeed, I am making the case that we should finally stop discussing about what systemic change is and move on to focusing on how to measure and communicate about it. In order to be able to do that, I’m suggesting a conceptual understanding of systemic change that I think is quite powerful and that I hope will enable us to put the discussion on what systemic change is to rest.
The discussion we were having last week was around four criteria that the group had decided were essential to assess whether a change was systemic: scale, sustainability, inclusiveness and transformation. Some of the questions the group was discussing on a very high level included whether we need all of these criteria or if we can collapse two into one (transformation into sustainability or the other way around), or whether some are more important than others (scale and sustainability for some, transformation for others). The group was also not clear on their definition of transformation, which is when I stepped out of my role as a facilitator and presented the systems iceberg to define transformative change. For me, change is transformative in a system when it changes the structural level, the constraints that shape the patterns of behaviour (see here for an explanation of the iceberg).
In my last post, I wrote about why institutions matter for economic development. I also highlighted that the theories of institutional economics and of complex systems actually come to very similar conclusions about how institutional structures, underpinned by basic beliefs or paradigms of how the world works, shape relatively persistent patterns of behaviour, which can be both beneficial for, or holding back development. In this post, I want to share a model that describes the dynamics of institutional change. It is largely based on Douglas North’s book ‘Understanding the Process of Economic Change’ , but uses the systems iceberg as a canvas. If you haven’t read my last post, I recommend you head over there and read that one first.
We have just launched a new episode on the Systemic Insight Podcast. In this episode, I discuss with Shawn the concept of competitiveness. The chat was inspired by some reading I had been doing that condemned competition to be part of the driving force that makes our society so extractive and unequal.
In particular, I am using two quotes from Daniel Wahl’s book ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’ to exemplify the argument. To contrast this viewpoint, Shawn and I explore the positive aspects of competition and why competitiveness and in particular systemic competitiveness in the way it is used by Mesopartner and others still are and will remain important concepts in economic development – and why they can indeed also be forces that drive a positive transformation of society towards a more sustainable future. We also asked Christian Schoen to share his opinion on competitiveness in development.
Prompted by some work for a client I dived back into the literature on institutions this week. It was a fascinating journey and I have discovered some other the things I have known before and confirmed many of my suspicions with the project at hand. Indeed, the reading confirmed my view that most market systems development projects pay too little attention to the institutions in a country, given their massive importance in shaping economic development. There is too much focus on finding solutions to fixing problems in the short term.
What I found fascinating while reading is that the insights from the theories on institutions and on complex systems actually overlap really neatly, with maybe slightly different ways of approaching change but in a coherent and complementary way.
Can we as individuals change anything about climate change, given that we are so strongly entangled in a social-economic system that it sometimes feels we don’t have any free will whatsoever? I ask myself this question very often. Can organisations change things? I recently listened to a radio programme where environmental activists demanded that car manufacturers stop building large SUV cars. But why should they if the market (read: individuals) is still demanding these cars and it is legal for the manufacturers to produce them? How is change happening on the level of whole societies? Where are sustainability transitions happening? On the level of the individual, organisations or society? When reading up on sustainability transitions, there are discussions going on on all these different levels. There is the ‘macro’ level discussion that talks about transition dynamics on a societal level – this includes for example the move to non-fossil production of electricity or electric cars. Then, there is the level of discussion about changes on community and organisational level or on the level of social movements – where groups of people come together to change things or demand things, like the Fridays for the Future movement. Thirdly, there is the level of the individual with discussions on how to live a meaningful life in an era of transition or how to become a ’systems leader’. When I read through these different bodies of literature, I feel that the discussions on these different levels are often disconnected and sometimes seem unaware of each other. Sometimes they even seem inconsistent in their arguments or suggested strategies, even though they supposedly follow the same purpose to foster a transition towards a more sustainable society. What can we do to better link the different levels and to become more coherent in our strategy to change systems?
For most of my colleagues in market systems development, the dominant questions are about how to create more new jobs for young people, lift more poor people out of poverty or empower more women to start a business or improve their economic stance. These are all important and noble goals. Yet, I think we are loosing the focus on the bigger question: how do we transform our global society so we can live on this planed in a sustainable way – i.e. without overexploiting the resources and over-polluting the environment. In an earlier blog post that I wrote for the BEAM Exchange (which has now also been published on USAID’s MarketLinks), I accused the field of too strong a focus on fixing problems in the current systems instead of reimagining how we could transition these systems to a better way of organising our economies and societies. Personally, I am keen to shift the focus of my work more towards the question of how economic development actors can contribute to large-scale transitions towards a more sustainable, regenerative economy.
Market systems resilience connects systemic change and sustainability
Resilience was one of the central themes at the 2019 Market Systems Symposiumin Cape Town, where I recently had the pleasure to interview Kristin O’Planick, for a Systemic Insight Podcast (subscribe wherever you download podcasts). Kristin spoke about a new framework for assessing market systems resilience being designed by USAID.