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The Art of Systems Change: Eight guiding principles for a green and fair future

Nothing remains constant except change itself. Harnessing this wisdom is critical to taking advantage of new opportunities as they arise, and to creating a sustainable future for people and nature.

The Art of Systems Change by Shauna Mahajan & others is licensed under CC-By Attribution 4.0 International

Yet, the alarming rate of global environmental change invites a moment of collective reflection: With all our efforts, why have we not yet reversed the trajectory of global change? There’s no easy answer, but it starts by accepting that the world is complex. Enabling lasting change requires embracing this reality and working with greater intent to transform the systems that perpetuate the unsustainable trajectory of our planet.

This book lays out a vision and an actionable plan for seeking sustainable solutions for our planet. In Part 1, we outline the fundamental tenets of systems thinking, the behavior of complex systems, and the implications for our understanding of the world. In Part 2, we outline a set of eight guiding principles for working to achieve long-lasting solutions to tackle our most pressing environmental and societal challenges. Finally, we lay out a map for the road ahead, and for the individual journey into systems practice that each of us is embarking on.

The Art of Systems Change is not designed to be prescriptive. It does not lay out a specific set of tools to guide the design and implementation of interventions. What it does do is seek to provide a collective roadmap for navigating toward a sustainable future, by embracing the complexity of the challenges we face, creating space for diverse ways of knowing, and providing ways of working that reflect the dynamics of the systems we strive to influence. We can no longer ignore that the future of humanity and the planet are at risk. How we go about our work must be in intentional service of the lasting change we seek to make. Welcome to the systems journey.

Working within complex systems to create change involves the first developing literacy on the basics of systems thinking (introduced in Part 1) and building the capacities required to enact lasting change in systems. Given the complexity of systems, the specific operational tools relevant for designing and implementing‘systems-aware’ interventions will vary markedly with context. Thus, following a prescribed sequence of steps, facilitated by rigid toolkits, can actively undermine our attempts to incorporate systems thinking into our work. Instead, each of the principles outlined below represents an essential idea for how to incorporate systems concepts into practice.

The principles are arranged broadly sequentially, mirroring the design,implementation, and monitoring of an intervention. To create change in systems,we must blend the behaviors described in these principles so that they aremutually reinforcing, no matter where we may be on the systems journey.

Principle 1: See ourselves in the system. We are all part of the systems we strive to change. By seeing this, we can sharpen our awareness and attune ourselves to the feedbacks and relationships that occur between our individual and collective actions and the broader systems we exist within. Cultivating mindfulness, humility, and acceptance of the complexity we exist within provides space for reflection, which can in turn make us strong and resilient agents of change.

Principle 2: Identify our frames. How we define problems shapes how we find solutions. Our perceptions of problems are often limited by our experience, values, and beliefs. Failing to recognize this can increase the risk of misdiagnosing problems based on incomplete understandings of systems. By developing the ability to identify, stretch, and reduce our frames when needed, we increase our capacity to see problems in the context of the systems that generate them, increasing the set of solutions we can perceive.

Principle 3: Co-create with intention. Creating social and environmental change that lasts relies on the behaviors of all actors in a system. Intentional co-creation involves defining problems and solutions together with actors in a system and includes creating a safe space where the diversity of views and visions for the future can co-exist. Not only is co-creation an ethical way to drive change, but it is also essential for building a coalition of actors with the capacity for enacting change.

Principle 4: Explore time and scale. We are often tackling problems with limited time at too small a scale. Developing a sensitivity to both time and scale can help us become attuned to the underlying patterns and trajectory of systems change. With this attention, we can design actions in ways that harmonize time and scale, and build solutions that work with – and not against – systems.

Principle 5: Find simplicity in complexity. The belief that there exists a simple solution amidst great complexity is important for those wrestling with intractable problems. By working to truly understand and navigate complexity, we train ourselves to discern points of leverage that offer opportunities to transform system structures, patterns, and behaviors. By identifying simple solutions, we’re equipped to communicate the elegance of systems change, and build stronger foundations and coalitions for change.

Principle 6: Experiment iteratively. Described most simply as ‘learning by doing,’ experimenting iteratively builds our capacity to think and act both quickly and slowly. Systems are always changing; and to ensure our actions are fit for purpose in an ever-changing world, we need to build the ethos of learning and experimentation into ourselves, our organizations, and the systems we inhabit. Experimenting iteratively offers us a way to use our experiences as opportunities to learn, integrate, and adapt.

Principle 7: Align the structure with change. The characteristics of the formal institutions that govern our work to change systems have the power to either inhibit or advance our capacity to drive change. The environmental and social systems we strive to influence are complex and adaptive, therefore the institutions and programs that address these problems must also have the capacity to adapt and respond to changing conditions.

Principle 8: Act based on evidence. Acting with evidence encourages evidence-based reflection, which aligns monitoring with the knowledge needs and actions of all actors in a system. Monitoring change in complex systems goes beyond measuring the finite impact of our actions and includes understanding the dynamics our actions influence, the relationships that exist, and the trajectory of structural change.

Let's integrate and make a better world, together!