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.
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.
In one of my recent articles I asked the question ‘Should we fix wrong behaviour?’ The article has had great resonance with the community. In particular, it sparked an inspiring exchange among colleagues at ACDI/VOCA, which they shared on their own blog. They gave me permission to repost the article here but given its length I will just link to it – do read it if you have the time. Below, I have drawn out a couple of quotes that I found particularly interesting and insightful and I am also adding some follow up thoughts from my side at the end.
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.