Systems change: What makes it different from the rest of the buzz words? 

Is systems change the new social innovation, collective impact, social labs? Is it an unnecessary buzz word that serves to exclude people doing good work? Why are we trying to define another term in the social impact space? And why does this concept have to be so impossibly difficult to get your head around?  

Why do we need a systemic approach? 

As Peter Senge says, problem solving can be like jumping on an air bubble in a carpet, you squash it in once place, only to find it pop up somewhere else.

What characterizes a systems change project?

Systems Change is about seeing a problem from multiple perspectives. Systems change initiatives typically work on many failures within the system at once. They are defined by their focus on the root cause of an issue, rather than solving the symptoms of a problem. They typically employ a combination of many interventions at once because one strategy will rarely solve a complex challenge. 

For example as Co-Founder of The Finance Innovation Lab,  my ambition was to support the emergence of a financial system that was in service of people and planet. To do this we supported new entrants to the financial system whose business' had a positive impact, we had programs designed to evolve mainstream finance and we supported civil society leaders to have greater influence on government policy. We did this all at once.

My brother who works in market system development in Myanmar for UN ILO maps supply chains, identifies weaknesses and creates interventions to bridge these gaps, working on multiple projects at the same time.    

Defining systems change by the alternatives

How does a systemic approach interact with other kinds of interventions? 

Social enterprise: typically a businesses designed to solve a single social or environmental problem. A social enterprise might for example, take food that otherwise would have gone to waste and turn it into products that can be sold. But this approach means that the enterprise is reliant on that waste for survival. If the waste ceases to exist, then so does the business. Taken alone, it doesn’t tackle the root cause of the problem.

These organisations as newcomers, often lack power and influence. They often rely on interventions elsewhere in the system for their success. So a group of social impact peer-to-peer lending entrepreneurs in the finance system for example, need regulation in order to launch and trade. An intermediary like Ashoka or Acumen might take a systemic approach, supporting only those social enterprises who are tackling root causes or by orchestrating collaboration across a complex problem and lobbying to remove market barriers to entry. 

Social innovation: SiG in Canada argue that "For social innovations to be successful and have durability, the innovation should have a measurable impact on the broader social, political and economic context that created the problem in the first place". In the UK social innovation was often used to describe change initiatives in social service agencies in the wake of budget cuts. Others include social entrepreneurship within the definition of social innovation. At its heart, as Stanford University describe "A social innovation is a new solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions. The value created accrues primarily to society rather than to private individuals". This can be systemic or not, depending on the nature of the problem at its heart and on solution chosen. 

Collective impact: A tool often used by systems leaders, this is about connecting and coordinating the efforts of a range of existing actors (policy people, social entrepreneurs, government agencies etc) to create more significant impact. The role of the core team at the heart of a Collective Impact project is one of the honest broker, an independent intermediary who bridges silos and brings people together in a way they wouldn't have done, without intervention. Collective Impact initiative helps them set a common purpose and to work towards mutually beneficial goals. See the work of Geneva Global who convened agencies, companies and NGOs around sex trafficking to great affect. 

Design Thinking: A methodology for complex problem solving that famously follows a series of steps - building empathy with the user of the product or service, defining the problem you want to change, 'ideating' a solution (coming up with as many solutions as possible), prototyping the best of these ideas and testing them. Repeating the process until a successful intervention is created.  

Super brain Alex Ryan who is steeped in both traditions described to me the difference between systems change and design thinking. He said something like, systems changers take a birds-eye view, while design thinkers take an ants eye view (I paraphrase!). Design Thinking works in harmony with a systemic approach when it comes after analysis of the dynamics of system you are trying to change. Otherwise you can come up with a brilliant solution to a symptom rather than a genuine root cause issue or a solution that users love, but the stakeholders that surround it, completely reject. See this great blog from Fast Company to read more. 

Campaigning: Raising awareness of a problem that the system is creating or one it is ignoring. The ambition is to put pressure on the powerful organisations’ within that system to change behavior or the law.

This approach created a shift in corporate strategy for example, when companies like Nike were exposed for fostering child labor in their supply chain. Pressure from NGO’s and the media forced Nike to make sure children no longer worked for their suppliers. However the root causes of child labor remain, if this is all that changes. The problem is complex. Children were forced to go to work rather than school to help feed their families. But this choice meant their chances of escaping poverty in the future decreased as they were unable to read or write. Losing their job in the factory could have an even worse unintended consequence, like forcing children into prostitution to make ends meet.

This approach can help solve a single problem in a system, but the unintended consequences of that single change, often lead to further problems that require further campaigns.

Aid is another intervention. Fundraising in the developed nations to feed the poor in developing nations, for example. This approach works certainly in life and death situations, at times of drought or famine.

But the old adage ‘give the man a fish and he’ll feed himself for a day. Show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’, captures the limitations of this approach. Simply transferring funds keeps power dynamics intact with the poor dis-empowered to do anything to get themselves out of poverty in the long-term. You need to build infrastructure that lasts long after your intervention to make this work. 

Thought Leadership initiatives aim to describe the problems of an existing system in reports and books and highlighting them at conferences and events where experts speak at panel sessions and round tables.

This approach is very successful at bringing issues to the attention of power brokers who steward a system and in spreading the idea of change within the different levels of a system. A place to make explicit criticisms which otherwise may go unsaid.

However thought leadership work if often criticized for its lack of action and events given the tag of ‘talking shops’. Ideas themselves do not always lead to change. Someone has to take the responsibility to actually do something differently.

For me systems change is not just about bringing together a range of actors for action, but about bringing together a range of tools to solve the problem in front of you. This typically means learning at some basic level about all of the above and beyond; policy change, to impact investing, to design thinking and everything in between. Or better still, it's about bridging the worlds between brilliant people who are masters at each of these interventions, and about asking for help, regularly. 

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