Solving the planet’s biggest problems in an increasingly complex world — the Systems Innovation Conference in London

Sophie Preuss
Sep 15 · 5 min read

This obesity system map is taken from the UK government’s website.

The world is a complex, interconnected, finite, ecological-social-psychological-economic system. We treat it as if it were not, as if it were divisible, separable simple and infinite. Our persistent, intractable, global problems arise directly from this mismatch. (Donella Meadows, 2000).

Systems change and systems thinking have been a key focus of my On Purpose Associate Programme. Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the second ever Systems Innovation Conference in London, organised by Joss Colchester at Systems Innovation. This conference brought together academics and practitioners from the UK, South Africa, Netherlands and Switzerland among others. It focused on systems thinking, systems change and complexity theory as applied to the Anthropocene, climate change, as well as the workings of international government organisations. But what exactly is systems thinking?

In its most simple form systems thinking is a methodology and a more general approach to grappling with adaptive problems in complex environments with the aim of making enduring social change at scale. System thinking is best applied to problems that tend to be complex or “dynamic challenges that have a web of interconnected elements” (as described by +Acumen and The Omidyar Group’s Systems Practice online course). Problems such as the housing crisis, homelessness, childhood obesity (see picture of obesity system map above) and income inequality are all problems that defy our best efforts to address them and it is here where systems thinking might best be applied. (See the Rockefeller Foundation’s blog post on How to explain systems change to a 13-year old for another good definition of systems change).

Throughout the On Purpose Associate Programme I had the opportunity of attending fascinating training sessions on the role of businesses and systems change with Amanda Feldman at Impact Management Project for example or attending our recent session with Immy Kaur on how Impact Hub Birmingham was founded using a systems thinking approach.

Throughout the programme I have tried to learn more about systems thinking by forming a study group with a few associates in my cohort. Using the online course Systems Practice by +Acumen and The Omidyar Group we are applying systems thinking to the housing sector in the UK. When Ashoka delivered a 1-day training course on systems change at my current placement a few months back I asked one of the instructors for recommendations for further reading (David Peter Stroh’s Systems Thinking for Social Change) and what conferences and events to attend in London. This is how I came across the Systems Innovation Conference.

The conference provided a great overview of systems thinking applied in different sectors as well as highlighted useful frameworks to take away and use at work. My main takeaways from these two days were: 1) our knowledge of a system will always be incomplete, 2) we will always work in uncertainty, 3) the system is constantly changing and 4) we form part of the system. Systems thinking thus forces you to move away from applying linear solutions to problems as well as to move away from trying to have an end goal or fixed vision for the future.

In her keynote speech, Dr Sally Uren, CEO of The Forum for the Future, referred to her organisation’s recent report “Driving systems change in turbulent times” which identifies seven areas of change that look likely to play a major role in shaping the 2020s. Sally talked us through how The Forum for the Future approaches collaboration in tackling complex challenges and their lessons learned from previous partnerships. Here, she mentioned that governance and decision-making were absolutely fundamental in collaborations attempting to drive change as well as the need to learn and understand power, influence and beneficiaries. Sally mentioned to expect resistance, be patient and encourage ego-free zones when driving change in collaboration with others. Finally, Sally highlighted the importance of language in the systems thinking sector, a theme that was also picked up by other speakers throughout the conference. Language unfortunately can also act as a barrier and thus it is important to use clear and simple language and define concepts throughout when working with different stakeholders.

Tom Bosschaert’s keynote speech at the Systems Innovation Conference focused on the practical elements of systems change. Tom, Founder and Director of Except, an innovation, design and development consultancy based in the Netherlands also stressed the importance of language in this sector. Tom defined sustainability as “a state of complex, dynamic system” which “can continue to flourish resiliently, in harmony, without requiring inputs from outside its system boundaries.” Language is so important to Except that all their business cards contain this definition of sustainability. The project that stood out to me in Tom’s overview of Except was without doubt the world’s largest natural rooftop park at the San Francisco Transbay Center (now known as the Salesforce San Francisco Transbay Centre). This concept was developed by Except together with Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and both organisations restructured the existing transport hub in San Francisco city centre. The project features innovations such as water purification, air filtration, ecosystem services, improved biodiversity and adds green space in the centre of the city.

The world’s largest ecosystem-rooftop, Salesforce San Francisco Transbay Centre.

In a world that is increasingly uncertain and constantly changing and facing a climate emergency, systems thinking and systems change have emerged as appropriate methodologies for tackling issues that seem overwhelming, incredibly frustrating and intractable. For me it reaffirms the step to go against our basic human need for control and certainty, which are not possible when trying to tackle major social problems. Moving away from a single issue focus to a system wide understanding is part of this. As Sally mentioned in her keynote speech this requires a move away from a short-term to a long-term view, from solving the problem alone to collaboration, from having definitive goals to having goals with hypotheses on the most impactful routes to change. Systems thinking thus means moving away from certainty and order to applying flexible learning with frequent experimentation when driving change.

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Sophie Preuss

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