In the last post I wrote about systemic change as the conditions or structures that hold a situation in place. I introduced the six conditions for systems change by Kania, Kramer and Senge and showed the little inverted triangle that puts the conditions in neat boxes and a clear hierarchy – the deeper ‘down’ the condition, the more influential over the system. I also introduced again the systems iceberg, which has a similar hierarchy and logic.
These two things – the neat boxes and the implied hierarchy – kept bugging me. I know that in complex systems things are never that neat and never linear causal – there is not one thing in one box that leads to another thing in another box or to an observed behaviour. Reality is messier. I also missed the dynamics in these diagrams – how are these structure created, how do they persist, how do they change? So I want to follow up on this in this post.
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 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).
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?
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.
One thing I have to admit is that I am not much into doing sports, never have been. I know that it is part of a healthy lifestyle to keep yourself fit, but I’m struggling to put this into practice. The one sport I have tried to keep up is running, because of its simplicity – all you need is a pair of running shoes. But also with that, I have been struggling. For a while I do it fairly regularly, then I drop it again for the one or the other reason. I often struggled to convince myself to go out running during the day, particularly if running competed with reading a book or writing a blog post! So it has all been quite frustrating.
In personal development and self-improvement, using an approach that is based on habits seems more promising for most people than an approach that is based on goals. Just think about the many New Year’s resolutions that were never achieved. I tried to put this advice into practice and it seems to work. By making it a habit, rather than by setting a goal of running a half-marathon in six months time, I am now running relatively regularly, which is good for my health. But would this also help us when we approach systems change? Can we think of certain institutionalised behaviours in systems as good or bad habits? This thought I had while running this morning seems worth exploring.
Two years ago, Zenebe Uraguchi of Helvetas had a conversation with Rubaiyath Sarwar of Innovision Consulting on how fixation on chasing targets leads programmes in development cooperation to miss out on contributing to long-term and large-scale changes. In March 2019, Zenebe met Marcus Jenal in Moldova. Marcus thinks a lot about how complexity thinking can improve development.
This blog is a summary of their dialogue on three thoughts that development practitioners who apply a systemic approach need to consider when measuring success in terms of contributing to systemic change.
Recently I started a series on the development of a typology of systems change (the two previous articles are here and here). In this post, I want to introduce the concepts of ‘scaling out’, ‘scaling up’ and ‘scaling deep’ developed by scholars of social innovation. I want to link these concepts to my earlier thinking around the systems change typology and update it based on the new insights from this literature. At the end I will also voice a little critique on innovation-focused approaches to systems change.
‘Scaling out’ refers to the most common way of attempting to getting to scale with an innovation: reaching greater numbers by replication and dissemination. ‘Scaling up’ refers to the attempt to change institutions at the level of policy, rules and laws. Finally, ‘scaling deep’ refers to changing relationships, cultural values and beliefs.
In my last post I shared my thinking around a possible typology of systemic change that could help us come to grips with the different concepts and ideas that are connected to systemic change. I have received some feedback on the post and I have done some more thinking that I would like to share in this follow up post.
Concretely, I want to share my thoughts about the usefulness of systemic change as a concept on a more fundamental level, based on the obvious fact that systems change anyway, also without purposeful interventions.
Systemic change has been a frequent topic on this blog – as it is in my work. After running after the perfect conceptualisation of systemic change for many years, this post is inspired by my realisation that there may be different ways to look at systemic change – all correct in their own right. I have discussed systemic change with many colleagues and friends and I have always tried to reconcile different views on the concept, only now realising that they might not be reconcilable. So here an attempt of a typology of systemic change (initially differentiating two types) – nothing final, just trying to put my thinking down in writing.
A warning in advance. This article is rather conceptual and I’m introducing some models that might be new to my readers (but then again, I have done that before). I’m trying to sort through recent reading in my mind to better understand the types of systemic change. This should not stop you from reading it of course! I would be happy to discuss this with anybody!