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).
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.
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.
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. Continue reading →
Quite a few market systems development projects I have come across in my practice have a goal in their logframe to achieve systemic change. In most cases this is spelled out around some or other market function that is supposed to be improved (e.g. improved access of poor farmers to seed). But in some cases, the log frame simply asks for a number of unspecified systemic changes to be achieved. Both cases are interesting in their own right, but particularly in the latter case evaluators need to be able to answer the question “is it systemic change or is it not?”. There has not been a clear way to answer the question.
In this post, I want to introduce two concepts that can be helpful to answer this question. Firstly, the idea of ‘depth of change’ taken from the systems thinking literature, which helps us understand how fundamental a change is with regards to a system’s architecture. Secondly, the idea of resilience and the question if development interventions build the resilience of the market system or economy. Continue reading →