Editor’s note: this blog originally appeared in Tamarack’s Engage! newsletter on July 16, 2013. It has been cross-posted with permission.
Early in my career I worked in international development in Central America supporting the pioneering community development efforts of organizations like a country’s first ever women’s movement, campesino co-operatives, and adult education NGOs. As strong as any individual organization’s efforts were, they were effectively undone by the worsening human rights backdrop of authoritarian governments and military dictatorships. Within 4 years I found my focus had shifted to working in Canada to support peace efforts through what later became called “citizen track diplomacy.” These were informal efforts by non-state actors like NGOs who convened off-the-radar meetings that connected belligerents and international stakeholders in facilitated processes that helped build relationships, new thinking and thereby overcome barriers to more formal peace efforts. In other words, events forced me to appropriate systems thinking to first seek to understand and then try to create ways to influence the larger forces and dynamics destructively dominating the region.
Have you ever put a lot of hard work into achieving your big idea or successfully creating a reform only to realize there are many related issues that need to be addressed? And realize your achievement may stand alone, an orphan in danger of erosion if you don’t address them? Welcome to the world of systems.
“Systems loom large in our lives”, says Charlie Leadbeater, a leading writer on social innovation. Our planet of 7 billion inhabitants depends daily on a myriad of interlocking systems for clothing, food, and shelter as well as meeting health care and other needs.
Our primary man-made systems were born – or matured – in the immediate post-World War II era when the planet was far less populated and its needs less complex. Unfortunately, many of those systems are now reaching – or have passed – their “best by” date.
Which systems do you experience as wearing thin: Social welfare? Education? Food? Health? Democratic engagement? Global finance? Environmental protection? Management of the global commons?
Geoff Mulgan, the CEO of Nesta, and Charlie Leadbeater have co-published a pair of excellent articles in Systems Innovation, including Mulgan’s Joined–Up innovation: What is Systemic Innovation and How Can it be Done Effectively? and Leadbeater’s The Systems Innovator: Why Successful Innovation Goes Beyond Products. They explain what systems are, why they are so important, and how they should be a focus for change by people involved in building and scaling social innovations.
Systemic innovation is defined as “an interconnected set of innovations, where each influences the other, with innovation both in the parts of the system and in the ways in which they interconnect.” As Leadbeater predicts, “systems innovation will become the most important focus for companies and governments, cities and entire societies. In the last decade there has been a growing focus on innovation in products and services as a source of competitive advantage. In the next decades the focus will shift towards the innovation of new kinds of systems.”
As I wrote in Shifting From Scale to Reach, individual social innovators are making enormous strides in building valuable innovations that generate meaningful social change. However, in order for those individual initiatives to scale up to achieve deep, broad and durable impact, we need to shift gears to collaborate with others operating in the related system. In most cases individual social innovators begin their changemaker careers focused on specific symptoms of systemic malaise. As they engage their system, they deepen their knowledge of it and often shift, as Pathways to Education’s David Hughes would say, from an-organizationally-centred strategy of ameliorating symptoms to an issue-centred strategy of altering systems. For example, many social innovators in the environmental movement started their careers focused on local issues like pollution or local conservation. Their experience with the underlining forces that produce negative local impacts provided them with the insights to re-think their goals and strategies in a more systemic fashion. This description reminds me of the work of Nicole Rycroft, who cut her teeth as a passionate campaigner for the protection of Clayquot Sound. Today she is an Ashoka Fellow who leads Canopy, working with the forest industry’s biggest customers to protect the world’s forest, species and climate by shifting markets.
In recent decades the world has seen the rise of numerous valuable fellowships supporting individual social entrepreneurs like Ashoka, Schwab Foundation Fellows, and Echoing Green. Their field building work, and that of their fellows, has helped to crystalize today’s extraordinarily exciting new era of entrepreneurship, experimentalism and innovation. Today however, we are preparing to enter the phase of connecting up the approach of individual innovations with the emerging systems innovation approach.
Core Elements of Systems Thinking
- Systems are a way of thinking about the world
- Systems behave as a whole
- Systems understanding is observer or perspective dependent
- A systems approach requires multiple perspectives
- Where WE draw systems boundaries affects the system
- We need to be aware of what is going on inside the system but also outside
- Systems are ‘nested’ – we should always think about the system we’re looking at as being made up of smaller systems and being part of larger systems
Introduction to Systems Thinking suggests three stages to employ in order to look at a problem using the lens of systems thinking:
1. Frame the Situation – Begin by generating a systems description or map of what is involved and the important relationships that define the system
2. Describe the Dynamics – Develop an understanding and description of the dynamics of the situation
3. Synthesize the Understanding –Capture what was learned from the first two phases of analysis into narratives about how the situation might or could unfold in the future
How does system thinking inform the strategy of social innovation? Introduction to Systems Thinking suggests three ways:
- It’s critical to consider the purpose, function, goal, objective for examining a system
- You cannot talk about a system without considering who is looking at it and why
- Understanding how elements within a system are connected allows you to identify places for intervention and transformation
- Openings appear following a crisis or period of upheaval
- New ideas, concepts and paradigms
- New laws and/or regulations across a broad area
- Coalitions for change of many actors and/or across more than one sector or scale
- Changed market metrics or measurement tools
- Changed power relationships and new types of power structures
- Widespread diffusion of technology and technology development
- New skills or roles across many actors
- New institutions
- Widespread changes in behaviour, structures and/or processes
SIE points out that complex challenges “cut across different policy domains, sectors and political and administrative jurisdictions. Coherent responses to these kinds of challenges cannot be driven by single institutions but will be reliant on numerous people, organisations, institutions and stakeholders working in a coordinated way. And as these social challenges become more pressing, a systemic approach becomes necessary. Individual social innovations may deliver certain benefits in a piecemeal way. But if we really want to address a major social challenge, we will need to look at problems in a holistic way.”
They highlight that systems change requires a whole series of complementary innovations – often introduced simultaneously – that will rely on all sectors: business, government, community as well as unorganized households. “In many cases,” they argue, “systemic innovation results from a confluence of forces: social movements, the creation of new markets, public policy (such as new rights or new legal, fiscal and regulatory frameworks) and behavioural change. While some systemic innovations are more challenging to effect than others (because of their scale, scope or complexity), systemic innovation in general is difficult to orchestrate or support (through the creation of enabling conditions, for example) and certainly more challenging than innovation at the level of a new project or a new venture.”
A timely opportunity to learn more about systems thinking in action is at this year’s Social Enterprise World Forum, taking place in Calgary this October 2 – 4. Hear from systems thinkers like Charmian Love of Volans (also speaking for our Inspiring Action for Social Impact series next week), Ros Tennyson of Partnership Brokers, and Vickie Cammack of Tyze Networks. Each of these individuals is currently collaborating with many partners to shift systems in new directions.