Systems change is code for dealing with root causes, not symptoms. For widespread, as opposed to, piecemeal reform. For transforming our structures of governance and commerce. For dealing with all aspects of a particular challenge – from its origins to its negative impact on people and the environment. Systems change also addresses the cultural dimensions of change i.e. those habits, attitudes, beliefs that led to the creation of the problem in the first place and which resist attempts at resolution.
Two small elite groups have taken on the daunting task of systems change:
- Billionaire capitalists. Think Bill Gates and Richard Branson. Give them a disease and they will eliminate it. Identify a social or environmental mess and they will clean it up.
- System change designers. Their specialty is mapping society’s systems and institutions looking for connections and points of intervention. They want to accelerate change by shaking up governance, management, programming and usage.
The two groups couldn’t be more different yet they have one thing in common – the omission of regular folks from the problem-solving. I refer to those so called ordinary people who aren’t familiar with the literature on systems change or social innovation and are busy dealing, often ingeniously, with life’s many challenges in their lives, homes and neighbourhoods. That doesn’t mean ordinary people don’t care or that they don’t have opinions or extraordinary solutions of their own.
Of course, these regular folks aren’t completely ignored by these elite groups. They exist to be sampled, researched and surveyed. Or, they are the audience for the solutions the elite groups develop. In both cases, they are seen as passive recipients. To be shifted, persuaded, directed, nudged, incentivized.
If systems change thinking is to have any relevance to making the world a better place it must make room for a resurrection of the ordinary.
- Enhancing our faith in the capacity of people to solve their own problems. As active citizens, not as passive recipients.
- Making face-to-face relationships a priority over data and statistics
- Reducing scale to one person at a time
- Recognizing that systems change is not about designing a better service but about refreshing our democracy. And that means enabling citizens to take care of each other and the rocks, birds, trees, ocean…
This is one of those moments when the barriers between who’s a regular person and who’s an activist need to break down. Capitalism has succeeded in convincing us that we’re not worth saving, that we can honestly look each other in the eye and say, ‘We can never do it.’ The job of any social-justice movement is to hold up another image of society and say, ‘We can be more.’ (Naomi Klein)