What is Systemic Change?

by Micha Narberhaus

By definition the term systemic change can refer to change in any system: the whole national school system, the global food system, the local waste system etc.

Systemic change is required when efforts to change one aspect of a system fail to fix the problem. The whole system needs to be transformed. Systemic change means that change has to be fundamental and affects how the whole system functions.

Systemic change can mean gradual institutional reforms, but those reforms must be based on and aimed at a transformation of the fundamental qualities and tenets of the system itself.

When our objective is systemic change, we need to look at the whole system including all its components and the relationships between them.

Most systems are by nature dynamic and complex and systemic change cannot be planned. Instead systemic change requires innovation, experimentation as well as constant learning and adaptation.

There is not one agreed upon definition for systemic change: some refer more to the what of change (fundamental) and others to the how of change (involving all system actors, innovation, emergence) — it has to be both, but in addition it has to include a realistic consideration of power in the system and how to deal with it.

Setting the system boundaries is fundamental. Many system change projects and approaches are not tackling the real root causes because the wrong system boundaries are set. Many of today’s crises (e.g. ecological, social) might be ameliorated if looked at in a sub-system (e.g. food), but in order to identify more effective leverage points we need to go deeper and beyond these system boundaries: ultimately today’s major crises are global and deeply cultural (late modernity — see Hartmut Rosa among others). They are tied up with our economic, political and social systems in the broadest sense.

Source: Re.imagining Activism — A Practical Guide for a Great Transition by Smart CSOs Lab