A history of the emergence of a systems change community

We could talk about the emergence of systems change from a historical theoretical perspective — for example, from the emergence of systems thinking over the last half century as a scientific discipline (Capra, Meadows) and then its use in social settings, such as organisations (Senge). Or we could discuss the growth of other related fields of study and practice — innovation, social learning practices, design thinking, psychology for change, sustainability transitions, cultural theory, movement building… I could go on.

Instead, I am going to tell this story through my experience of the emerging communities that are starting to use the framing and processes of system change to address some of the most complex challenges of our time. [I don’t think it is a coincidence that the complexity of the challenges we face, and our awareness of them, for example poverty and climate change, has emerged at the same time as disciplines that are seeking to answer the question — what can we do? How do we start to address these challenges?] As any good system changer will know, you can only ever tell the story from your perspective. Like tributaries flowing into a river and a river into the ocean, our intention is to invite others to tell their story so we can see what this picture looks like and where we might need to go next.

This journey for me started facilitating multi-stakeholder process in relation to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, bringing together different actors to support processes for change. This led me to working in the Social Change team at WWF-UK, who were already using learning theories and systems thinking to address issues of sustainability in schools and communities. Together we set off on an inquiry into how we could create more profound change in the education system. We brought in ideas of social learning (communities of practice), innovation diffusions and behaviour change to explore what might be possible. Some of us attended the first Theory U course, 2007 in Boston and started to apply it to our emerging work with business and the finance sector. This work gave birth to SMART CSOs and the Finance Innovation Lab whose own tributaries can be traced in their system change strategy.

The community for us at this point felt like a group of colleagues and seemingly geeky friends who were exploring different system change processes and approaches.

When I arrived at Forum for the Future in 2008, we were using leadership, organisational change, futures and innovation practices to help address sustainability across the public and business sectors. We had the desire to work more at the level of sectoral challenges and to bring in a systems perspective. Innovation was a term used by our business partners and so we brought the framing and language of system innovation used in the sustainability transitions field to the approach we took to our work. This helped us bring the technical and the policy arenas together with markets — and create initiatives such as Sustainable Shipping Initiative, Community energy challenge, Protein Challenge, Cotton 2040.

Systems change was gaining traction with some individuals and organisations who were also trying to pioneer different approaches, from corporates such as Nike to others starting their own system change endeavours ( for example Comms Lab). We were finding allies who were also innovating their own approaches, seeking to learn from each other and reach out beyond our organisational, sectoral, geographical and discipline boundaries. There were people, such as Steve Waddell, who want to start to bring together academics and practitioners globally to explore possibilities of working together by hosting more informal, smaller, gatherings in pubs and homes (linked to new collectives such as The Point People).

Funding this new type of work has not been easy. So it was encouraging to find funders who were sharing questions with us about how they create greater impact with their actions and who wanted to find new models and fresh thinking to achieve this (with pioneers such as Caluste Gulbenkian UK). It was great to find others who had also been pioneering different approaches — for example Lankelly Chase Foundation has been helping me bring in to my practice the more psychological process of ‘deep democracy’.

Through this work one could see the growing connection between the work of social innovation and the questions arising from systems change — supported by organisations such as SIX, and their global networks across public policy, Labs and Foundations, as well as other change makers.

Today we are in many ways a community; it is no longer just a fad, and system change (as both a practice and as a growing question) is beginning to have real purchase. We are finding those who have been out on a limb doing it for a while and new organisations across all sectors — business, foundations, public services, civil society — who exploring what it might look like for them.

So why is this important?

We want to hear your story, and learn from your perspective, so we can start to build a bigger map of what people may find useful in supporting their practice.

We recognise that people are starting from different origins, and use different languages and frameworks (this wordle is just a sample of the different words). We feel that systems change has the potential to pull these different strands together as it speaks to both the problem (The systemic nature of the challenges across social and environmental fields), the thus the need for a systemic approach as well as the range of change methodologies you might use to address these challenges (innovation, design, systems practices, collaboration and psychology etc.)

As more organisations are starting to frame systems change for themselves, we would love to hear from you so as to build the frameworks of the field– and to look at ways we can start to build this larger community. We need to bring our collective wisdom together to learn from each other, to help the more experienced to continue to learn, and to provide a short cut for those who are emerging and bringing exciting new flavours and threads of inquiry to this field.

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