Let’s put systemic change to rest

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).

Change is systemic when it is transformative

The main argument I’m making here is that change is systemic when it is transformative. So after having discussion after discussion with practitioners what systemic change is, I think I am at a point where I want to stop talking about systemic change and just talk about transformative change – because I think this is much easier to explain (if maybe not to measure). This is not to say that the other criteria are not important. Scale can be an important measure to assess transformation – if placed in the right analytical or conceptual framework to make it meaningful (not scale for scale’s sake).

The framework that I think is most useful to think about the type of systemic change that we are trying to instigate through market systems development is the multi-level perspective that stems from the body theory of socio-technical transitions (I have blogged about it here). It essentially describes three levels that can be conceptualised in socio-technical systems [1]: 

  • The niche level, where small networks of actors come up with and support new ideas on the basis of what they think people need. This is where a lot of learning happens, both within organisations and between organisations, which eventually turns into innovations that have the potential to become transformative. There is a whole body of literature that describes the level of niches and how they can most effectively be managed in order to stimulate innovation.
  • The regime level, which is the level of the predominant way of doing things. It is built up of a dynamic equilibrium where industry, policy, technology, culture, society and markets work together in a more or less seamless way to produce the things and experiences that make up the biggest parts of our daily lives. It is about the things we are used to and the way we expect people to behave.
  • The landscape level, which is an exogenous level that shapes what can happen in a system. It includes physical features like the topographical landscape or the weather and climate, but also the influence of other, larger systems and cultures. For example when the system we look at is a city, part of the landscape level would be formed of the country around the city as well as the global level, both of which we cannot directly influence but have an influence on the city.

In this framework, the simplest way to describe a transformative change would be an innovation that comes from the niche level and is mature enough that it can enter the regime level at a specific point in time given the right opportunity and either enhance the regime by becoming part of it or indeed replace the regime – or in other words enhance what we deem normal or replace what we deem normal. Examples that are often used are the automobile that replaces horse carriages as the normal way or transportation or the steam ships that replace sail ships for freight shipping overseas. While these two new technologies replaced the existing regime as they required quite different social arrangements and organisation, technologies like electric cars have just been added to the regime of transportation, as they are not (yet) disruptive enough to make other modes of transport obsolete.

The literature of socio-technical transitions describes a number of pathways of how innovations can enter or replace the regime (I want to blog about this later but if you cannot wait, read [2 and 3])

Re-interpreting systemic change criteria: scale, sustainability and inclusiveness

Coming back to the criteria that I discussed with my group, how do they shape up in this framework? The easiest one to start with would be scale, which becomes a measure of whether an innovation has left the niche level and made the step to becoming part of the regime. But again, it is not about scale for scale’s sake, but about understanding when an innovation has reached a critical scale to enter the regime. This is best described by the literature on innovation diffusion, particularly the work of Everett Rogers [4] and his bell curve of innovation diffusion.

Sustainability is a tricky one because there are essentially two different ways (and maybe more) to define sustainability and I don’t like the predominant ways of how it is used in many parts of development: the perpetuity of a solution that is introduced by a project. As I wrote in a blog post for the BEAM Exchange: current views on sustainability seem very much about trying to ensure that the plasters (band-aids) we put on stay on as long as possible. Or in other words that a fix that a project puts in place (a new business model, a new service, etc.) will be continuously provided also when the project stops funding it and, ideally, forever. I’m more in favour of using sustainability as a concept in its original meaning: how we can live on this planet happily in a way so future generations will also be able to live happy and fulfilled lives. That is a whole different challenge, which is, I believe, not taken into account enough in market systems development. The big question there is how we balance social, environmental and economic sustainability, without seeing these as trade-offs (I have a book on the history of sustainability on my pile of unread books and hope to get to that one soon as it sounds really interesting).

Finally coming to inclusiveness. For a long time I saw this as a purely moral ambition (which is not a bad thing). But I now believe that it is more than that. Inclusiveness has become an important principle in the creation of a better off society and as such is backed by various strands of research. Recently, I read ‘How Nations Fail’ [5], which makes a strong case that inclusive political and economic institutions build the foundation for the wealth that developed nations have created over the last centuries and are not just nice-to-haves.


Systemic change is for many people still a difficult  concept to understand as it is very abstract. The consequence is that, at least in many projects I work in, there is a lot of confusion around and misinterpretation of what is and what is not systemic change. This is unnecessary as we do have ways to explain systemic change: systemic change is a transformational change in the structures and mindsets in a system that leads to changes in the pattern of behaviour of the system actors. A change becomes systemic when it enhances or replaces the regime (as described in the multi-level perspective). What I suggest to stop talking about systemic change and talk directly about transformative change, because that is what we want to achieve. So let’s put systemic change to rest.


[1] GEELS, F.W. 2002. Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research policy, Vol. 31(8-9):1257-1274.
[2] GEELS, F.W. & SCHOT, J. 2007. Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy, Vol. 36(3):399-417.
[3] GEELS, F.W., KERN, F., FUCHS, G., HINDERER, N., KUNGL, G., MYLAN, J., NEUKIRCH, M. & WASSERMANN, S. 2016. The enactment of socio-technical transition pathways: a reformulated typology and a comparative multi-level analysis of the German and UK low-carbon electricity transitions (1990–2014). Research Policy, Vol. 45(4):896-913.
[4] ROGERS, E.M. 2003. Diffusion of innovations. 5th. Free Press: New York.
[5] ACEMOGLU, D. & ROBINSON, J.A. 2013. Why nations fail : the origins of power, prosperity and poverty. Profile: London.

1 thought on “Let’s put systemic change to rest

  1. Bhav

    The three levels remind me of the parts, whole, greater whole model from Human Systems Dynamics, and another post you had reminded me of the CDE in the same body of work. I have a feeling you would like their stuff!


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