Systemic change and system’s health – thinking out loud

As external development agents, we cannot create impacts with all the qualities we want them to have: sustainable, inclusive, gender-equal, etc. We can only work with and through the system, so these qualities become an inherent part of how the system does things. Let’s say we call a system ‘healthy’ when it is creating these qualities we would like to see (although I’m not sure ‘healthy’ is the best term, it sounds a bit judgemental, but it has been used by others before). The question is how does a healthy system look like that is more likely to deliver impacts with the desired qualities? And how can we improve the health of a system?

There are various bodies of knowledge, all rooted in systems and complexity thinking, that give us some ideas to help answer this question. They all answer them from a different perspective and some are clearly limited in scope while others claim universality. I want to introduce three sets of principles or maybe sets of favourable behaviours here.

Resilience principles

The first set is taken from resilience thinking. In this view, actors should be enabled to purposefully

  1. maintain diversity and redundancy,
  2. manage connectivity,
  3. manage slow variables and feedbacks,
  4. foster complex adaptive systems thinking,
  5. encourage learning,
  6. broaden participation, and
  7. promote polycentric governance systems.

These are the seven principles for building resilience. While acknowledging that this list might evolve with growing understanding, the scholars behind these principles claim a certain level of universality as well as primacy over other principles. The type of argument they use goes something like “if we want to be able to survive as a society of 8 or 9 billion people on this planet with its limited resources, we need to make sure that we follow these principles to build enough resilience.” So, the seven resilience principles are possible system health indications – even though they rather describe behavioural patterns than system structures.

Perspective, power and participation

A second set of behaviours observed in healthy systems was recently published by the Lankelly Chase foundation. The behaviours are structures along the three dimensions of perspective, power and participation:


  1. People view themselves as part of an interconnected whole
  2. People are viewed as resourceful and bringing strengths
  3. People share a vision


  1. Power is shared, and equality of voice actively promoted
  2. Decision-making is devolved
  3. Accountability is mutual


  1. Open, trusting relationships enable effective dialogue
  2. Leadership is collaborative and promoted at every level
  3. Feedback and collective learning drive adaptation

Healthier economies

Thirdly, and more focused on economic systems, I have co-authored a publication in which we have developed a set of seven principles

  1. Shift from changing allocation to enabling evolution. Refrain from designing solutions – shift to enabling self-discovery of what is possible from where the system is now. 
  2. Shift from market failure to market fitness. Markets are enablers of a decentralised search and discovery process to find ideas and solutions that work in a society. 
  3. Strengthen variety by embracing diversity. Variety strengthens the evolutionary process by providing ideas to choose from. The ability to create variety strengthens resilience. 
  4. Create and maintain situational awareness. Create and maintain a cognitive map that allows for joint sense making, and adapt strategy and operations based on insights. 
  5. Manage the complicated and explore the complex. Complicated can be managed, planned and sequenced; complex must be explored through learning and adjustment. 
  6. Strengthen organisations that encourage and support self-discovery. Local institutions must be enabled to better adapt to the specific context and capabilities. Development facilitators can support processes and enable learning and adaptation. 
  7. Continuously link top-down and bottom-up development. Working meso organisations combine expressed bottom-up demand with top-down strategies. Development facilitators can help to better connect and integrate top-down control and bottom-up demand. 

Comparing the principles

The three sets of principles are clearly coming from a different background. Yet, they show interesting similarities. Lankelly Chase’s set of behaviours that should be aspired to in a healthy system sounds in a way a bit less abstract and conceptual than the resilience principles, while maybe lacking some of the deep ideas of how complex systems work like feedback loops and slow variables. Yet there are still strong similarities, for example around the need for participation and what in the resilience principles is called ‘poly-centric government structures’ and is here more simply formulated as ‘decision-making is develolved’. But both sets add their unique perspectives to our understanding as they also originate from two quite different worlds. The Lankelly Chase set is a result of practical work in place-based social change in the UK, while the resilience principles are strongly based on academic work.

These seven principles for healthy economies are equally not to dissimilar to the resilience principles, as I have written here. Yet they pronounce more strongly an evolutionary understanding of economic change based on creating variety through processes of self-discovery, enabling markets to select appropriate designs and amplifying them.

How behaviours in a system come about

Maybe as a qualifier and to clarify language here: the system as such does not have agency – it is the actors in the system who act in a certain way and whose actions follow certain patterns, i.e. have certain qualities (e.g. women are not treated equally, the poor are marginalised, etc.). And they are responsible for their actions. Yet the system as a whole – its emergent structures – shapes the way in which actors act. In social systems, the structures of the system are called institutions and include laws, rules or social norms. These structures are, in turn, shaped by fundamental paradigms and mental models (remember the systems iceberg). Each system has a certain disposition, i.e. a “character” and a corresponding propensity to deliver certain types of qualities for the system actors (exclusive vs. inclusive systems, gender discrimination vs. gender equality, pro-poor vs. marginalising the poor, etc.). This conceptualisation of a system also means we can make our question more specific:  ‘how should the structures of a healthy system look like?’

There is and probably never will be a final set of principles. What is important is that we understand the need to take a systemic view on change, which, in turn, informs our view on individual behaviours. Hence, if we want to foster any of the behaviours described above, we need to work on the level of systems structures – institutions and mental models – so the disposition of the system becomes more favourable towards the behaviours we are looking for.

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