What Is Systems Change?

by School of System Change

January 26, 2024

This is the second blog in the series created to complement Stepping Into Systems, our introductory short film series on systems change. In the first blog, we speak about the process of creating the film series, which involved in-depth interviews – yarnings – with a diverse range of systems change practitioners. This blog series gives space to some of the rich and beautiful sharings from those yarnings. This blog pairs with the first film in the series, 'What are systems, and what is systems change?' which asks foundational questions about systems change and explores the qualities that systems exhibit. Watch the film here.

Our world is alive, beautifully complex and continuously changing, creating vitality in a dynamic dance that’s been forever unfolding. Yet, we face interwoven crises that undermine our world’s ability to thrive. Systemic ways of thinking, acting and being can enable us to embrace complexity and effect lasting and deep transformation in a world in crisis.  

We opened each yarning simply, with the invitation to answer, what is a system? There was expansiveness in the answers, and all practitioners caveated that the ideas they presented only represent a fraction of the plurality of systems thinking and even of their own thinking. 

“A system is a set of elements connected by relationships that create a functional whole,” Ana Lucia Castano concisely explains. 

Juanita Zerda expands: “In basic terms, a system is an interconnected network. I think about it as the consequential relationship between elemental parts. However, those definitions tend to be static. When I think about a system, I think about movement. So, for me, that interconnectedness is something that is always in flow. It has interconnectedness that expands and contracts.” 

Demonstrating Juanita’s explanation, Eruera Tarena gives the metaphor “of a spider's web, where it's all about interconnectedness … when something happens in one place, the impacts of that and the consequences of that can happen in other areas and in quite unpredictable ways.”

Constança Belchoir is one of the many practitioners who chose the metaphor of the human body to illustrate systems. “Everybody has one and can understand it as a whole thing with parts – organs – that would not live on their own and that each fulfils a purpose larger than themselves.” She speaks of “embeddedness at different levels,” using herself to demonstrate her point: “for me, it's my household, my neighbourhood, the city.”  

Systems can be complex and open, like the human body.

“The human body is a system of interconnected parts,” Juanita continues. “The liver can be working very well, and the brain can be working very well, but if the pathways between them are not healthy, then there tends to be a collapse. Yes, it's important to see the parts, the different organs, but what’s even more important when you're thinking about health is that interconnectedness between the parts. You can continue expanding the metaphor and say for physical health, you need the interconnectedness between this body and the bodies next to you. Studies have shown that love and community matter for the health and longevity of the physical body.”

Tatenda Nzinga Muranda also reminds us that systems live beyond “our physical biology, our conditioning, our thinking, our impact, and the roles that we play in society.” 

Habiba Nabatu continues: “Family is a good metaphor – the web of relationships and interdependence that is not just about membership of family but also the intangible ways we're related. I am African, and in my culture, we have totems associated with plants or animals. It’s through totems that we declare and affirm our sisterhood and brotherhood with animals and plants, whom we could not be without. So family is not just this very neat thing. If you want to be cognitive about it, you can draw the boundaries of what might be considered a system, but the boundaries will always be limited and unsatisfactory."

Speaking also about the perceived boundaries of systems, Ben Haggard explains, “There's a famous anecdote about Buckminster Fuller, who's working with a group of students outdoors, and one of the students asks, ‘What is a system?’, and Fuller draws a little circle in the dirt and says, 'Well, the first thing to know about a system is that it has a boundary,' and everyone shakes their heads. Then he erases the circle and says, ‘The second thing to know about a system is that the boundary is something that we make up. It's an artefact of our own thinking.’ A system in and of itself is invisible. The system is a pattern of relationships. It takes my peering into it and interpreting it to be able to engage with it or think about it as a system. [...] So where you draw the line just happens to be what you're interested in thinking about and what you can manage in your thinking.”

Continuing the same thread, Lauren Hermanus describes “a system as a sense-making tool. It's a model, a way of thinking about certain kinds of phenomena in a way that allows meaning to emerge, where more linear and reductive approaches approaches don't necessarily work very well.” 

From these sharings and those of the other practitioners, as well as from our own understandings at the School, we have discerned systemic qualities: nestedness, interconnectedness, emergence and aliveness. These qualities are exhibited throughout tangible and intangible systems. All practitioners reflected on the dynamic and ever-evolving state of what might be termed 'systems'.

Qualities of a system

However, as Melanie Goodchild explained, the aliveness of systems isn’t reflected well in the English language: “A system as a noun when we define it in English is part of the ‘nounification’ … English tends to thingify the world. It's a language of distancing. And so when we thingify and nounify a system, it's ‘over there’. This does us a disservice when the first thing we teach people is that we are part of the systems we're trying to transform. So, from my perspective, a system is a living set of relationships. It's a living being. It has a spirit. There are non-humans and humans involved in those relations. And so from anishinaabe gikendaasowin, which means our original ways of knowing, from that perspective, a system is not a system. It's a series of living beings in relationships. It's not a noun.”

We asked each of the practitioners, what is systems change? There’s scope for interpretation in the question, which some of the practitioners noted, and we invited them to answer the question as they heard it.  

Ben reminds us that “Change is given. You couldn't stop change from happening regardless. Atoms are smashing around, and the house is falling down. It's just change. Change is going to happen.” 

Ana Lucia explains:

“Living systems change just because.” She speaks about evolution: “That's a totally emergent, random phenomenon that we have no control over and has no particular purpose or direction … But human systems or socio-ecological systems also change because there is agency in human beings to choose what we want for ourselves. It's not an absolute force. We can't choose everything. We are still being influenced by our environment, but we change also because we choose to change.”  

As Tatenda explains, the nature of that change “depends on the system”. She continues, speaking about systems relating to healing justice: “These systems on the outside look as though they do not change at all … And if there is a change, it is slow, it is gradual, and it is resisted. What I found though is that even in that, let's say the individual is the smallest unit of what that relational system is, there is the opportunity for individuation and yet even in individuating, one finds themselves in another system or in another group or in another structure of people who have individuated and that creates another system. So it's almost like systems multiply; nothing really changes and nothing is fixed. And while that sounds like a paradox, it is true of systems change.” 

Tatenda continues to explain that systems experience “disturbing or disrupting events [that] change how things have always been done and causes not necessarily a forward motion but re-energizes another possibility.” She describes how a “pattern of events, depending on the conditions, [can] become a pattern of change”. 

To describe systems change, Juanita borrows a definition, which reads, "Systems change is about shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place." However, she explains, “[the issue is] we're always talking about systems change to solve problems when there is so much potential for systems change to highlight strengths.” She edits the definition: “Systems change is about shifting the conditions and energy that bring societies and individuals to their full potential.” 

Constança explains that “a few interventions contribute to putting [a system] in a certain trajectory.” She says “system change is to build or develop capacities in a system that support that system to evolve and become more of itself, to express more of its essence, to open up possibilities, to open up creativity in a way that respects nature, people and place.”  

Ben echoes this, saying, One of the ways that I think that change occurs is through the dynamic tension between the nature of something, its essence, and the role it could be playing, the contribution it could be making to whatever other systems it's embedded in. So especially among living systems, there's always this drive to make a contribution at the next level or next several levels out that basically secures something’s place in that system. That's an ecological principle: that species occupy certain niches within which they're able to make a contribution to the total ecosystem. And that's how they secure their viability; that’s how they secure their place in the system. It's the same when we're playing a role within a family system or a community or a neighbourhood system, that the extent to which we're bringing something that's of value to that system and enabling it to play its role in some larger system allows us to live and potentially thrive and flourish, but only if there's a good match between who we actually are as individuals, what we aspire to become, and how that can find a fit with the larger system."

As we seek to shape change, our systems practice asks us to think and act systemically. Change is the process and the outcome. Systems practice is the continual process of learning and adapting in an unpredictable, non-linear world. We are all integral parts of systems, and collectively, we can give rise to emergent properties that disrupt repeating patterns and reorganise systems, bringing forth new vitality and system structures in an ever-unfolding story that is rooted in the past, present and future. 

We extend heartfelt thanks to the practitioners for sharing their wisdoms, perspectives, thoughts and ideas. 

With this, let us introduce the contributors to these emergent works:

Our contributors and their interviewers: Ana Lucia Castaño Galvis, Ben Haggard, Constança Belchior, Lauren Hermanus, Tatenda Nzingha Mazowe, Habiba Nabatu, Eruera Tarena, Melanie Goodchild, Maya Narayan, Juanita Zerda with Rodrigo Bautista, Saskia Rysenbry, Sean Andrew and Anna Birney

In alphabetical order:

Ana Lucia Castaño Galvis is the co-founder of Arare Co., an organization that fosters regenerative development of primary production systems in Colombia and Mexico.

Ben Haggard specialises in a holistic, systems-based approach to understanding and building upon the complex human, natural and economic relationships that create and sustain the vitality and viability of a place. He is a founding member of Regenesis.

Constança Belchior is a facilitator and designer of innovation and systemic change with a background in natural sciences and sustainable policy making. She is co-founder of Lúcida, a change management organisation guided by a living change perspective.

Eruera Tarena is Executive Director at Tokona Te Raki, Māori Futures Collective in Aotearoa, an indigenous social innovation lab housed under the mana of Ngai Tahu and based in Otautahi/Christchurch.

Habiba Nabatu is Director of Practice at Lankelly Chase, a charitable foundation working to improve the quality of life of people who face severe and multiple disadvantage. She supports pioneering people and communities to nurture the ideas and relationships that can help improve the way we all approach social disadvantage.

Juanita Zerda is a Director at the Collective Change Lab, where she works to support individuals, communities and organizations in transforming inequitable and unjust systems, through more holistic and non-dominant collective change practices.

Lauren Hermanus is a sustainable development researcher and practitioner with 12 years of experience spanning the public and private sectors and academia. She works on issues of just transition, climate resilience, sustainable development, and the adaptive and anticipatory governance that underpins these dynamics.

Maya Narayan is the co-founder of Holon Perspectives, a Mumbai based consultancy, founded with a mission of developing the systems thinking ecosystem in India. She facilitates systems change workshops to better equip organisations and individuals, with tools and frameworks for solving complex problems.

Melanie Goodchild is an Anishinaabe (Ojibway) systems thinking and complexity scholar. She is part of the faculty at the Academy for Systems Change, the Presenting Institute’s u-school for Transformation and the Wolf Willow Institute for Systems Learning.

Tatenda Nzingha Mazowe is a specialised therapist, yogini, author, artist and hypnotist. She is the creator of Oshun Rises, a social enterprise and healing justice foundation committed to re-anchoring African Women's presence in alternative healing and wellness research.

with Rodrigo Bautista, Saskia Rysenbry, Sean Andrew and Anna Birney.

Thank you for going on this journey with us. Here are links to all the blogs in this series: 

by School of System Change

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