What is Systems Change?

Resource Library

This is a rich and broad field, and so there are many definitions to choose from. For the purposes of this self-assessment tool, we use relatively simple definitions:

System: According to Donella Meadows in Thinking in Systems: A Primer, a system is "a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time." Systems depend on their observers—their perspectives and the boundaries they choose to draw around the system. So, systems can be seen everywhere: the human body, a supply chain, or even a societal problem.

Systems Change: According to Social Innovation Generation (SiG), systems change is an approach that focuses on "shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place." And, according to the School of System Change, it is both an outcome and a process. The outcome is the emergence of the system behavior one wants—a change from one state to another. And it is the process of envisioning a new system behavior and re-designing the system toward realizing that vision. The design process involves multiple cycles of experimenting, learning, and adapting.

Systems change work often involves transforming policies, practices, norms, mindsets, power dynamics, and resource flows, towards creating lasting impact at local, national, and/or global levels. It is a comprehensive approach to social change that seeks to solve the complex socetal problems. But there is no one way to understand or achieve systems change, as each systems change effort requires a unique recipe.

However, there are commonly used concepts, frameworks, tools, and methods that can be applied across contexts—which you can browse in the Resource Library. For example, one key aspect of systems change work is sustained collaboration. True systems change occurs when multiple players across sectors, disciplines, and social groups—including funders, social innovators, movement leaders—work together towards common goals over the long-term.

<aside> 💡 "Hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unemployment, chronic disease, drug addiction, and war, for example, persist in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance that have been directed toward eradicating them. No one deliberately creates those problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless. That is because they are intrinsically systems problems ... They will yield only as we reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it." —Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer