What is Systems Change?
What is a system?
Extract from Thinking in Systems: A Primer (2008) by Donella Meadows:
A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something … [A] system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections and a function or purpose.
For example, the elements of your digestive system include teeth, enzymes, stomach, and intestines. They are interrelated through the physical flow of food, and through an elegant set of regulating chemical signals. The function of this system is to break down food into its basic nutrients and to transfer those nutrients into the bloodstream (another system), while discarding unusable wastes.
A football team is a system with elements such as players, coach, field, and ball. Its interconnections are the rules of the game, the coach’s strategy, the players’ communications, and the laws of physics that govern the motions of ball and players. The purpose of the team is to win games, or have fun, or get exercise, or make millions of dollars, or all of the above.
A school is a system. So is a city, and a factory, and a corporation, and a national economy. An animal is a system. A tree is a system, and a forest is a larger system that encompasses subsystems of trees and animals. The earth is a system. So is the solar system; so is a galaxy. Systems can be embedded in systems, which are embedded in yet other systems.
Is there anything that is not a system? Yes – a conglomeration without any particular interconnections or function. Sand scattered on a road by happenstance is not, itself, a system. You can add sand or take away sand and you still have just sand on the road. Arbitrarily add or take away football players, or pieces of your digestive system, and you quickly no longer have the same system. [ …]
You can see from these examples that there is an integrity or wholeness about a system and an active set of mechanisms to maintain that integrity. Systems can change, adapt, respond to events, seek goals, mend injuries, and attend to their own survival in lifelike ways, although they may contain or consist of non-living things. Systems can be self-organizing, and often are self-repairing over at least some range of disruptions. They are resilient, and many of them are evolutionary. Out of one system, other completely new, never-before-imagined systems can arise.
The systems-thinking lens allows us to reclaim our intuition about whole systems and hone our abilities to understand parts, see interconnections, ask “what-if” questions about possible future behaviors, and be creative and courageous about system redesign.
Practitioner definitions of systems change
“Systems change means fundamentally, and on a large scale, changing the way a majority of relevant players solve a big social challenge, such that a critical mass of people affected by that problem substantially benefit.”
- Martin Fisher, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, KickStart International; Schwab Social Entrepreneur
“Very often, scale is looked at as scaling an organization or enterprise as opposed to scaling a concept. Looking beyond scaling a particular organization requires a major mindset shift. We must determine how we can collaboratively scale action around a particular problem through the engagement of all the stakeholders affected by the issue. Only then will we make meaningful changes in how complex social problems are taken on.”
- Jeroo Billimoria, Founder, Aflatoun; Founder, Child & Youth Finance International; Schwab Social Entrepreneur
“Systems change starts by examining the conventional wisdom perpetuating an underperforming or failing system. You must debunk those conventional wisdoms – not in a ‘holier than thou’ way but in an evidenced-based way – through thought leadership and action. And you must communicate that through advocacy.”
- Gary White, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, water.org; Schwab Social Entrepreneur
“It became obvious to me that we could grow 50% or even 100% a year for many years to come and still never be up to the challenge of solving this problem. It became stressful for me to think about scaling from 2 million to 3 million to 5 million – huge numbers for any social entrepreneur – but still just a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.5 billion people who need this simple product. And the reason I launched a multistakeholder alliance is because the barriers to solving this problem, like cultural issues, custom duties, and supply chain problems, cannot be solved at an enterprise level.”
- Jordan Kassalow, Founder, VisionSpring; Co-Founder, EYElliance; Schwab Social Entrepreneur
In this report, “systems thinking” refers to a way of examining social issues, emphasizing linkages and interactions between elements rather than just elements individually. Systems thinking allows us to “see the forest for the trees” and to consider ways that a system may or may not be functioning optimally. We believe that systems thinking is a strong tool for social entrepreneurs to adopt, enabling them to “address the complexity inherent when innovations are integrated into existing systems.”1
“Systems change” means “fundamentally, and on a large scale, changing the way a majority of relevant players solve a big social challenge, such that a critical mass of people affected by that problem substantially benefit.”2 Systems change involves altering the linkages and interactions that form a system’s architecture – the rules and standards that make a system work the way it does, as well as the goals, norms and beliefs that, if left unchallenged, can prevent systems from working more inclusively. It “involves deep shifts in mental models, relationships, and taken-for-granted ways of operating as much as it involves shifts in organizational roles and formal structures, metrics and performance management, and goals and policies.”3
“Systems entrepreneurs” refer to social innovators who are intentionally adopting systems change strategies in their efforts – either through existing organizations, large institutions, for-profit companies, or even by creating new organizations and networks solely devoted to systems change. We believe systems change is a distinct set of activities from delivering products and services, and that it involves a departure from growing the work of a single organization to coordinating and influencing the work of multiple actors in a system.
Finally, systems change is easily merged with “scale”, a conflation that is tackled head-on in this report. Naturally, if a system works better, it should improve conditions for everyone living in it. However, systems operate at many different levels: individuals, families, neighbourhoods, cities, nations and the global community. What works for one system may be entirely different than what works for another. Therefore, this report tries to decouple the concepts of systems change and scale, acknowledging that, while the two may be interconnected, they are truly distinct.