Why do we need systems change?
We see a world on the edge of collapse - paralysed by overwhelm. Just about everything we care about is struggling to hang on at the top of an exponential curve, while wildfires rage. Inequalities are rising, diversity of all life is plummeting, supply chains are fracturing, democracy is fluctuating.
There is so much change.
Yet we see a world that looks much the same despite pandemic lockdowns, rising prices, new record temperatures, and bubbling tensions. The patterns of our everyday living goes on. The oppressed are not more free, whilst some hold more of the burden than others. Timeframes to avoid climate breakdown draw worryingly near. The fearful perpetuate dangerous myths of separation. Transformation doesn’t seem to be afoot; we sense frustration amongst our fellow changemakers.
We can’t seem to create the change we want.
We also see a world that is alive and changing, where people are looking for new ways of thinking, acting, and being to embrace complexity and address the challenges of our time. Practitioners across the world are lifting up and developing approaches and tools that enable deep transformation and seed positive futures.
We learn about how living change and working towards systems change go hand in hand.
What is systems change?
At the School of System Change, we enjoy the multi-dimensional nature of the term systems change. It lends itself to talking about transformational outcomes and innovative processes, multiple worldviews and valuable practices.
'a system is a set of things — people, cells, molecules or whatever — interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time.’
Firstly, we understand systems change as an outcome. A system, which can be defined as ‘a set of things — people, cells, molecules or whatever — interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time.’ (Donella Meadows), is seen to have changed towards a different, sustaining ‘pattern of organising or system structure’ (Anna Birney). To address the challenges in the world today, systems that underpin human societies and behaviour will have to change, and in a way that they cannot revert to current operating patterns.
Secondly, we understand systems change as a process. We believe that to bring about systems change as an outcome, we need to adopt ways of creating change that are systemic. For example, working to shift relationships between things as much as inventing innovative new technologies, testing multiple interventions at different scales to create conditions for change, embracing complexity, and designing change processes based on learning and adapting. The multiple methods and frameworks introduced in our courses support this.
Thirdly, we see ‘systems change’ as a statement that invites us to consider our worldview and our beliefs about change itself. Systems do change. With a complexity worldview, we understand the world to be constantly changing and evolving through dynamic patterns of relationship. We stress the importance of evolving our own mental models and expanding our worldviews, as these influence how we design processes and therefore also the outcomes.
Finally, we develop systems change as a practice, or set of practices to sustain paradigm-shifting work in the context of a prevailing mechanistic worldview. By a practice, we mean something you can do in small ways and improve over time, a bit like yoga or piano practice. We’ve curated a set of ten practices we work with daily.
If you’re looking to get started, our Delta: introduction to systems change course might be just for you!