Systems as people, not structures

SiG Note: This blog is the first response blog to the newly launched Building Ecosystems for Systems Change: How do we collaborate to create ecosystems that support innovation for systems change? A report and reflection, based on Session 22 of the Unusual Suspects Festival.

Further response blogs are welcome. Please email: if you have written, or wish to write, a response or think-piece.

The best way to understand a system is to look at it from the point of view of people who want to subvert it” — Joseph Schumpeter

Provocative? Perhaps. But I think this is as good a place to start as any when we talk about building ecosystems for social change.  And of course we should ask: why do people try to subvert systems in the first place?

Building Ecosystems for Systems Change

Summary Graphic || How do we collaborate to create ecosystems that support innovation for systems change?

Systems represent complex structures developed to carry out specific activities, perform particular duties, and at their best solve problems.  The bigger and more intricate they are, the more complex they tend to be.  Swirls of interrelated and interdependent elements, components, entities, factors, members, and parts immediately spring to mind.  The report’s assessment of the purpose in building ecosystems for systems change is very clear: encouraging collaboration to create a space that supports innovation.  You would be hard pressed to find many who disagreed this was a positive purpose to serve.

My personal apprehension derives from the very obvious challenges of how you go about actually building such an ecosystem.  As we all know (whether we live by it or not is another matter), diversity in people, perspectives, expertise, ideas, skills, and experience makes fertile ground for innovation.  So when the report asserts that ‘without diversity, the ecosystem collapses,’ I would go further and argue that without diversity, the ecosystem never really gets going.  And the dangers of acting on the urgency to do something, anything runs the risk of the ‘deliberate intentionality’ creating systems that happen to and for people rather than with them, as the report rightly warns against.

This is precisely why the conversation around how we identify, engage, and work alongside unusual suspects, has to drastically change gear.  We almost have to get back to basics and ask ourselves questions such as: “How can I identify everyone who may be affected by a particular problem and get them involved in solving it?”

Granted, this is easier said than done, but now more than ever is the time to craft new, creative, and engaging ways to connect different actors at varying scales, who can influence a range of external conditions (the report cites cultural, fiscal, political, temporal, and physical).  Our combined and connected influences then create enabling environments for innovation to take root as a first step towards systems change.


The other point I wanted to very briefly touch upon was this fantastic notion of rage as a driver for social change.  History suggests this couldn’t be truer.  In 1964, when Fanny Lou Hamer said: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” unknowing of the context, one could quite easily be forgiven for thinking that this was merely one woman’s trite expression of frustration at the mundane struggles of life as we all know it.  My point is that rage often comes from an uncomfortable place that shapes our motives and objectives for affecting change.  Jon Hugget’s estimation that “rage is what gets us to do good things (it can also get us to do bad things), but if the rage isn’t there, we aren’t getting anywhere” may be true, but it does beg the question: how do you direct rage for good rather than retribution, particularly when feelings of rage may stem from being unequal players within a system?

This is probably too big and complex a question to combat here – and definitely warrants its own blog piece! But the success of collaborating to innovate systems change will be strongly dependent on making meaningful attempts to understand the complex and challenging make-up of our coalition of actors and unusual suspects, in order to co-create the right spaces and platforms for new thinking, cultures, and practice.  And that is not a bad place to start at all.

Building Ecosystems For Systems Change [CoverPage]

Download the report


How do we collaborate to create ecosystems that support innovation for systems change?

This report is a reflection on the Unusual Suspects Festival 2014: Session 22, a session co-hosted by Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National and Oxfam.

It was prepared by Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National on behalf of the collaboration.

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Adelaide Adade About Adelaide Adade

Adelaide is the Partnerships and Project Manager at Collaborate. Adelaide has previously worked internationally in the private, public, and social sectors. Adelaide most recently worked for the Commonwealth Secretariat within a Governance and Institutional Development Division, providing technical assistance to member countries in the area of Public Administration. Consequently, Adelaide worked in Tanzania and Zambia on Public Financial Management and Anti-Corruption agendas respectively.


  1. […] is published as a call to react – via twitter, facebook or blogs. You can read a response piece by Adelaide Adade, of […]

  2. […] Before contributing to the discussion, read the full report here as well as the response piece by Adelaide Adade, of Collaborate here. […]

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