Systems change - what have we learned?
There's a big revival of interest in systems thinking and systems change at the moment - perhaps the consequence of intersecting crises. This is very welcome as it's not possible to understand or change the world without a sense of the complex systems around us.
But this revival raises the question of what we actually know, and what's been learned. I've been through several cycles of growing interest and then decline - from the mid-90s when I worked at Demos, through being in UK government where I published a Cabinet Office overview of systems methods in 2001 and used it to train staff, to the early 2010s and a programme of work at Nesta which included new methods for local systems change, and a report published two years ago for UCL on 'Thinking in Systems'. At the moment I am heavily involved in using systems methods to understand how to achieve Net Zero.
Over the last 70 years there have been many such cycles, from the first flowering of systems thinking in the 1950s. But there has been less sign of progress in methods or of shared memory. I gave a talk at the World Cybernetics Congress a decade ago trying to critically assess these different phases, from Bertalanffy to Beer, Odum to Capra, Maturana to Meadows and Senge, and what they got right and wrong (which was not so easy - very few presented their ideas in ways that could be tested, interrogated or refuted).
I'm often asked to talk about what I've learned - how to connect the micro and the macro; the challenges of working bottom up as well as top down; the timescales of change; how not to get overwhelmed. I've become quite sceptical of generalisations and in particular of the very airy sweeping claims often made by some thinkers in this space (including the ones listed above). Changing systems means very different things in relation to energy, transport, welfare, human rights, gender - and using the same terms often leads to more confusion than clarity.
I've also become concerned that sometimes systems talk becomes a reason not to act rather than to act, and I like to quote Italo Calvino's comment that 'imagining the world as a ‘system’, as a negative, hostile system (a symptom that is typical of schizophrenia) prevents any opposition to it except in an irrational, self-destructive raptus; whereas it is a correct principle of method to deny that what one is fighting can be a system, in order to distinguish its components, contradictions, loopholes, and to defeat it bit by bit.’
That said, we cannot help but take account of the systemic nature of our world and so, difficult as this is, a systems approach is necessary. I'm attaching here a paper I wrote about a decade ago (part of a programme of work at Nesta) which I think is still useful in providing some ways of thinking of systems, and in particular ways of thinking about what we can each do as individuals or organisations to influence systems.
The 2021 paper - which is more focused on infrastructures and networks and
includes many examples of how to visualise systems - can also be found here.