What is systems change?

What are systems?

Systems are all around us, from ecosystems in nature, to the NHS, to the advertising industry.

Within a human system individuals get together and form a network of relationships and activities designed to address a particular problem that they feel invested in. The NHS was designed, for example, to provide universal healthcare for all.

But because they emerge around a specific problem and a specific set of people coalesce to create a solution, systems can meet the needs of some and fail to meet the needs of others.

Occupy Wall Street with their ‘We are the 99%’ slogan is a good example of what can happen when a set of stakeholders becomes disillusioned with the way a system functions and the people who benefit from it. The rise of the organic food movement is another. A reaction to the practices of the food industry, which seeks to build an alternative.

Why change a system?

The motivation to change a system comes from different problems. This depends largely on the maturity of the system in question.

In very nascent markets;

Increase efficiency: A systems change project will be designed to improve the functioning of an inefficient system that could create positive impact if it worked better. A growing number of NGOs are starting to take this approach to address the root causes of poverty. For example the Chars Livelihood Programme which intervenes in the milk production market in Bangladesh by helping farmers feed their cattle better and secure more buyers for their produce.

In growing markets;

To create new products: Initiatives designed to accelerate the growth of a new market. For example The Criterion Institute who promote the market for gender lens investing. Taking the ‘system’ of impact investing and which aims to tackle poverty, for example and adding a new stream within it that invests in women and girls in the developing world.

In mature markets;

To solve unintended consequences: People often seek to change a system when they an identify an unintended consequence of that system, that they find unacceptable. For example depleted fish stocks caused by unsustainable fishing practices is at the heart of Cheryl Dahle’s of Future of Fish systems change project.