Understanding the Dynamics of System Changes

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What makes systemic  innovation possible? what prompts it to happen?

Technology may prompt change – the emergence of mobile phone  technologies; electricity; fuel cells. in these cases the opportunity space changes both for  incumbents and newcomers.  in some cases  a crisis so disrupts (or delegitimises) the existing structures that systemic change happens.  This has happened after financial crises; ecological crises, and social ones. war is the  extreme example which has sometimes been a particularly powerful accelerator of systemic  change. in some cases a new  idea may be so powerfully compelling that systems change around it – like new ideas about  human rights

Can the system be defined through a relatively small number of key relationships or factors?  is it closed or open? is it living or mechanical? are the underlying technologies mature? can  it learn?

A crucial step is to identify which elements of the  system are open to influence by any particular actor, and which aren’t. this gives a way  of mapping systems – in terms of the balance of power and knowledge involved.

When systems are fully transformed we usually find at least some of the
following elements in play:
• new ideas, concepts, paradigms.
• new laws and regulations.
• coalitions for change.
• changed market metrics or measurement tools.
• changed power relationships.
• diffusion of technology and technology development.
• new skills and sometimes even new professions.
• agencies playing a role in development of the new.

In more cases, we see an interaction between bottom–up changes in culture and behavior, and the responses of governments and big businesses, with a combination of new technologies, changed market dynamics, changed policies and also changed behaviors, or ‘scripts’ governing daily life. solar power is an example – although some big players can create vast solar farms, and government can offer subsidies and feed–in tariffs, systemic
change requires many decision makers to change their minds and their actions.

Many of the biggest changes, and the most important clusters of innovations, combine top–down, horizontal and bottom–up dynamics (as in the ‘fuzzy’ or ‘clumsy’ dynamics analyzed to explain issues such as climate change). although most of us are brought up to privilege a particular model of systems change based on our direct experience (either top–down command, horizontal market forces, or bottom–up), the
patterns only make sense as an interaction of all of these.
in all cases, evidence is likely to be fragmentary. even where it’s possible to describe the desirable direction of systemic change there is unlikely to be much evidence to support this vision, simply because it has never happened. where there is evidence it may be misleading  because complementary innovations haven’t yet developed – so the car in its early years performed very badly because the crucial supports just weren’t there (they were for horses and carts, which appeared more efficient as a result). faith and even arrogance may be needed to advance a radical vision. on the other hand there needs to be humility to learn from experience, and from inevitable surprises.


so what can individuals or organizations do? how can they be part of systemic change?
First, where possible it’s useful to situate individual actions within the context of a broader movement of change, and with a sense of the bigger picture. entrepreneurs (whether social or business) who promise to transform systems single handedly are unlikely to succeed (and may be bruised by their own hubris). but isolated actions that aren’t guided by a sense of the bigger picture are likely to disappoint. so the ideal is to iterate between the big picture and small steps. realism about power and knowledge can also help: if you have knowledge but not power then you need to find allies, and points of  leverage. if you have power but lack knowledge you need to experiment and learn fast.
second, if they don’t already exist, the creation or mobilization of intermediaries can be crucial, to articulate the direction of systemic change, and link big ideas to individual innovations. in retrospect this role was sometimes played by networks, clubs, think tanks and development agencies. their overtly visionary work helped to clarify a desired end point, often in partnership with experts from the field (e.g. on how to create a zero–carbon city, or a people–centred eldercare system). intermediaries of this kind can also orchestrate advocacy and campaigns (focused on key points of leverage, such as laws, or corporate behaviour), and deliver demonstrations of whole alternatives (which will necessarily be small scale and partial).
for any individual there are then a range of options for action. the table below summarizes some of the goals that might be relevant – to change minds, to demonstrate a systemic alternative, or to work on some critical elements (obviously these involve different sequencing), and then some of the actions or vehicles for achieving these goals,  whether to work with and within large incumbent organizations, as an insurgent outsider,  an advocate or a networker.

There are great potential benefits to be won from connecting, aligning or joining up innovative projects and programs so that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. the dysfunctional nature of some of the most important contemporary systems means that systemic innovation is likely to become more important – and that the absence of well–developed skills and capabilities to do it well will become more apparent. but systemic innovation isn’t amenable to simple recipes or toolkits. it’s inherently complex and multifaceted; context and detail matter.

Clearer articulation of where systemic innovation could end up, with collective shaping of ideas, potentially allows people to align their actions and choices – making them more likely to happen.

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