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How to take 'systems change' from idea to action

We all talk about it, but we need to first understand what we mean by systems change if we’re to implement it effectively.

In the midst of the Global Climate Strike, we are once again hearing the call for "systems change" being made through placards, in conversations, across social — and increasingly traditional — media. 

But what do we actually mean by the term "systems change"? And how can we ensure it’s more than a passing buzz phrase on a placard? While momentum is building, we need to first understand what we mean by systems change if we’re to implement it effectively.

Systems change, systemic change and systems transformation are increasingly used interchangeably to signal a desire for significant and transformational change. Simply put, a system is a configuration of interacting parts working towards a specific outcome. Systems range from tiny in size — a beehive, for example — to global, such as our food, energy and mobility systems, and many are fundamentally geared to what we know are unsustainable outcomes.

At Forum for the Future, we believe we need to reinvent the rules of the game if we’re to build more resilience and address the daunting sustainability challenges we face.

These challenges are unprecedented: How do we cope with increasingly volatile and extreme weather events? How will we ensure we’re able to feed a growing population in a way that is safe, affordable, nutritious and sustainable to all? It’s clear we need new ways of collaborating, new forms of investments, new business models. This is where systems change comes in: reconfiguring the relationships between different aspects within a system towards sustainability outcomes and goals.

So if, as an organization, you are persuaded of a need for systems change, then comes an even bigger question: Just how do you go about designing for this level of ambitious change?

How do you go about designing for this level of ambitious change?
For years, Forum has been working with organizations, and businesses in particular, to design "strategies for systems change for sustainability." Given that this is a mouthful, let’s call these Sustainability Plus strategies. Here are six things we’ve learned along the way that we hope prove useful to your business at what is a pivotal time in the sustainability movement.

Six steps to a Sustainability Plus strategy

1. Understand the world around you as a set of interconnected issues

The materiality matrix is usually where businesses start to understand the issues they want to address, but this tends to place single issues on a chart, which then are not treated as connected. But of course, they are.

A food business offering plant-based products is having both a positive impact on carbon emissions and nutrition. A fashion brand using sustainable cotton in its products is not only reducing its chemical footprint, but also playing a role in securing sustainable livelihoods for smallholder cotton farmers.

2. Identify where you can make the biggest possible impact on the system around you, ideally in a way that drives value back to the business, either directly or indirectly

There are precedents here: the way in which Unilever has built sales of Lifebuoy in certain markets while also helping play a role in improving sanitation, particularly among children, is a good example. Burberry’s work with goat herders in Afghanistan is not only improving livelihoods, but also securing its supply of cashmere, a key raw material for its business.

3. Design clear theories of change

A theory of change is a sophisticated way of describing just how you will drive the positive impact that you can see is possible. It spells out your assumptions as to how change happens. Theories of change have been used in the developing world for years to articulate change outcomes.

Businesses can learn from this practice, as theories of change prompt strategies to go further than the numbers of people trained, or products sold; they require an articulation of the actual change being sought. They also require you to think about nested impacts; for example, how does the change I am trying to make on one farm drive change in the broader community, which in turn drives change in the broader landscape? Olam’s Reimagining Agriculture is a great example of sustainability strategy where these nested impacts are well understood.

4. Design for transformational, not incremental change

With the clock ticking, we need genuinely catalytic change — essentially, interventions that have the potential to drive further change. For example, changes to a contracting mechanism for a given commodity designed to reduce volatility and risk for smallholders, then can deliver improved income, which then can provide greater access to education, healthcare and greater investment in climate resilience.

Transformational change is also self-sustaining, able to keep rippling through any given system. All too often, change is created that then dissipates; the inherent resistance to change in any system can swallow innovations whole. Creating the enabling conditions for change to be sustained is therefore key. We need to ask ourselves what needs to be in place to make sure a change can continue. Who needs to be onside? Where will continued investment come from? Are any policy changes needed? And so on.

Collaboration can be used to address the tougher blocks — the systemic barriers — to change.
5. Be clear about what you can do alone, and when you need to collaborate

As important as it is for us all to take responsibility for tackling the climate crisis, the sheer scale of the challenges we face mean it can’t be done by any one organization working in isolation. Collaboration can be used to address the tougher blocks — the systemic barriers — to change. One brand working alone (unless it’s Apple) is unlikely to shift behaviors; brands working together just might.

6. Check your assumptions about how change happens

Simply releasing a more sustainable product won’t on its own create change. Underlying behavior change needs to be addressed. After all, turbocharging the volume of plant-based products to market won’t shift diets unless people actually want to buy them.

These six steps are a start, but a Sustainability Plus strategy will need to be augmented by some smart moves to overcome common barriers to systems change, such as short-termism, vested interests and resistance to uncertainty. At Forum, we’ve come across a huge range of these, most significant of which is a sheer unwillingness to accept that sustainability is even a strategic priority. This begs the question: how can we change mindsets and influence deeply held belief systems and values? (Explore my latest thoughts on this here.)

We’re at a pivotal moment in the sustainability movement and the Global Strike undoubtedly has put the spotlight on the need to act. But once the placards are put away and the marches are over, it’s on all of us to embrace the wholesale systems change needed. Armed with the above and given the social, economic and environmental imperative, there’s no excuse to not get started.

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