How do we solve social and environmental problems?
As Peter Senge says, problem solving can be like jumping on an air bubble in a carpet, you squash it in once place, only to find it pop up somewhere else.
Systems change or systemic innovation is an attempt to shift problems at their roots.
But what are the alternatives to systems change?
Campaigning: raising awareness of a problem that the system is creating or one it is ignoring. The ambition is to put pressure on the powerful organisations’ within that system to change behaviour or the law.
This approach created a shift in corporate strategy for example, when companies like Nike were exposed for fostering child labour in their supply chain. Pressure from NGO’s and the media forced Nike to make sure children no longer worked for their suppliers. However the root causes of child labour remain, if this is all that changes. The problem is complex. Children were forced to go to work rather than school to help feed their families. But this choice meant their chances of escaping poverty in the future decreased as they were unable to read or write. Losing their job in the factory could have an even worse unintended consequence, like forcing children into prostitution to make ends meet.
This approach can help solve a single problem in a system, but the unintended consequences of that single change, often lead to further problems that require further campaigns.
Aid is another intervention. Fundraising in the developed nations to feed the poor in developing nations, for example. This approach works certainly in life and death situations, at times of drought or famine.
But the old adage ‘give the man a fish and he’ll feed himself for a day. Show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’, captures the limitations of this approach. Simply transferring funds keeps power dynamics intact with the poor disempowered to do anything to get themselves out of poverty in the long-term.
Social enterprise: typically a businesses designed to solve a single social or environmental problem. A social enterprise might for example, take food that otherwise would have gone to waste and turn it into products that can be sold. But this approach means that the enterprise is reliant on that waste for survival. If the waste ceases to exist, then so does the business. Taken alone, it doesn’t tackle the root cause of the problem.
These organisations as newcomers, often lack power and influence. They often rely on interventions elsewhere in the system for their success. So a group of peer-to-peer lending entrepreneurs in the finance system need regulation to change, in order to launch and trade.
Thought Leadership initiatives aim to describe the problems of an existing system in reports and books and highlighting them at conferences and events where experts speak at panel sessions and roundtables.
This approach is very successful at bringing issues to the attention of power brokers who steward a system and in spreading the idea of change within the different levels of a system. A place to make explicit criticisms which otherwise may go unsaid.
However thought leadership work if often criticised for its lack of action and events given the tag of ‘talking shops’. Ideas themselves do not always lead to change. Someone has to take the responsibility to actually do something differently.
Each of these interventions has its strengths and weaknesses. And it’s worth noting that they are not designed to be systemic.
What characterises a systems change project?
Systems change initiatives work on many failures within the system at once and uses many of these strategies at once to solve them.
It’s employs a combination of previous interventions. For example in the Lab our ambition is to realign the financial system so that it is in service of people and planet. To do this we work on policy change, help support new entrants to the financial system, have programmes to repurpose mainstream finance and to support civil society leaders. We do this all at once.
In order for a new system or part of a system to take hold, it needs to be self-sufficient. So interventions are designed, for example, to build the capacity of entrepreneurs, or to change the law, or to build deep relationships between actors that last well beyond the end of a project.