In a world where many of the systems we live within no longer serve us and we can see the possibility of doing things better, systems entrepreneurs exist to accelerate the evolution from the old to the new.
They do this by creating positive change in the way we as individuals, our institutions and our markets operate. They redirect organisations and the business community towards the things we value and build new ecosystems that allows smarter practice to grow.
But these systems entrepreneurs sit within a nascent market themselves; one that is not understood by funders and lacks community and peer-to-peer support.
I want to work with others to build an effective marketplace for these change makers and in doing so create hope that we can solve some of the largest challenges we face as humanity, at this point in history.
Background of the problem
Except from ‘Labcraft’, co-authored by me, and eight other Lab entrepreneurs, from around the world;
Many of us live in a highly institutionalised world that, on the one hand, provides us with many of our everyday needs and wealth; yet, on the other hand, it deprives and restricts others and creates a host of unintended negative side effects. Our carbon-based energy system, for example, creates mobility and heats our houses, yet it also creates climate instability and geopolitical risks. Our education systems realise the fundamental right to education, and embodies the pursuit of human potential. However, they also produce workers for a 20th century industrial economy who often burn out or otherwise fail to find satisfaction in a knowledge society. Our healthcare systems extend lives, but they are not financially sustainable, nor do they necessarily improve quality of lives.
These massive systems seem like skyscrapers—powerful, enduring, and rigid structures that dominate the landscape. And yet these skyscrapers must somehow evolve and change to create space for the new and better system that wants to be born.
In my mind, the tools we use to address these complex problems are insufficient. Policy, aid, international governance, social entrepreneurship and CSR when applied as part of an uncoordinated effort, do not have an impact large enough to meet the scale of the challenges we face.
A systemic solution
Systems change entrepreneurs are architects of eco-systems and infrastructure. They take a birds-eye view of the system they are trying to evolve. They look for what’s missing; at why the market for social entrepreneurship is inefficient, and support the intermediaries that can help that market to grow. They ask big questions about the values that underpin a profession and help whole industries to repurpose themselves. They look for the emerging alternatives, the new business models in food or finance that move us away from our monopolies, and support them to thrive. They look for root causes; at why prisoners reoffend, or why we have food waste and they tackle multiple causes of these problems at once to break the cycle.
They are working on some of the largest, most complex challenges of our time; from child-abuse, to climate change, to depleting fish-stocks, to the misalignment of our global financial system. They are building new markets that connect social entrepreneurs to capital and mending inefficient markets in the developing world so that the world’s poorest people have the opportunity to flourish.
But the market for systems entrepreneurs is underdeveloped. On the demand side, systems entrepreneurship as an approach to social change is rare. Funders often don’t know about it, or understand how to assess its effectiveness. Which is unsurprising because strategies are often emergent, based on iteration and the outcome of a project cannot be easily predicted before it begins. And while the media are beginning to pick this up, (Gunther, Marc, April 2014, The art and science of systems change, Guardian) but there are no consistent champions.
On the supply side there are is a growing cluster of practitioners (see Cheryl Dahle of Future of Fish, our team at The Finance Innovation Lab, Lisa Harker at NSPCC , Kieron Boyle at The Cabinet Office). But they don’t know each other. Conferences that bring this group together are few and far between hosted in different corners of the world. Practitioners find themselves amongst peers trying to tackle the same problem, rather than amongst those using a similar problem-solving perspective. They lack a shared language to describe how the nature of their work is different, which means a lot of energy is used up translating. They are the outliers with a lot of explaining to do.
Systems entrepreneurs are so busy running their projects that they rarely have a chance to write down what they’re learning. Best practice or any consistent attempt at sharing lessons is a long way off. Those that are successful want to scale up, but have to work out how to do it on their own. While they often incubate others’ efforts as part of their systemic change strategies, there are no incubators to support systems entrepreneurs. There is no established support network.
Finally there are the budding entrepreneurs, those who want to learn how to lead ground-breaking systems change projects, but can’t afford to hire consultants to work out how. With limited case studies and no blueprints, these entrepreneurs often fail to launch.
I want to use what I have learnt as a systems entrepreneur myself to support the emergence of a market I am passionate about. Our strategy in the Lab works on the premise that to build a market, you have to act in many places at the same time, these are the steps I believe we need to take:
1. Illuminate the great work already happening
Find the right words to describe it, shine a light upon the best examples with comms and to bring together the people who are interested in building this market, but don’t know each other. These are academics (Marc Ventresca at Oxford, Michele Kahane, The New School New York, Hendrik Tiesinga, Berkley), social innovation experts (Tim Draimin at SiG, Charmian Love at Volans) and systems change specialists (Monitor Institute, Reos, Forum for the Future), funders (Carlouste Gulbenien, Friends Provident, Rockefeller Foundations), people building eco-systems or markets (Joy Anderson, Kieron Boyle, Paul Cheng ) and media who have shown interest in this approach (The Guardian, Disrupt Magazine, Fast Company).
We need to write and publish more material that describes the work of systems entrepreneurs, like Labcraft, a book I co-authored with other Lab leaders from around the world and the article in Fast Co Exist and actively promote these insights to the press. We have already started this work at The Point People, where we launched systemschangers.com, a video library that highlights the practice of systems entrepreneurs in the UK.
2. Connect the community
I’d like to host a series of events designed to bring this community together; to build trusted relationships between different parts of the system and develop a network of interested parties. These will be along the lines of Leaders Shaping Market Systems, a series of gatherings by the Criterion Institute in the US, which I helped to support and who are interested in partnering to continue to host a conference series on the topic.
3. Launch a series of incubators
It’s important to demonstrate that this approach actually works. Here we would launch a series of incubator programmes to create a pipeline of new systems change projects. Specifically an incubator designed for entrepreneurs who want to launch new projects but need to support to make it happen.
We would also support the adoption of this practice in mainstream, by hosting launch an incubator designed for funders and NGO’s, to take them on a guided learning journey to find out about how this type of practice works from the entrepreneurs themselves.
4. Build a community of influence
The strategy here is to build a tight community of the best pioneers of this movement, friends and family who want the same thing we want, to inform our strategy and build collective intelligence about what the movement needs next.
I already have a group of these people in mind. From the three different systems change initiatives I have been involved in; Leaders Shaping Market Systems, the entrepreneurs featured on systemschangers.com and my co-authors at Labcraft who are hosting Labs from around the world.
I am committed to leading this initiative, but it will take collaboration to do it well. I am looking for partners who believe in the same vision- a flourishing market for systems entrepreneurs.
Specifically I am looking for feedback on this strategy. What are the most promising areas for development? What doesn’t resonate? Why? How might this be done more effectively? Who might fund this? What might be interested in partnering?