Systems change in 66 days

Noel HatchThink back to when you woke up, you maybe turned the light on, got in the car (or…walked) to go to work and grabbed a coffee on the way. The systems your lighting, your transport and your food are part of all feel very difficult to influence and the actors that dominate them very distant.

Yet, we all make decisions that collectively and over time, impact them, whether it’s you complaining about the cost of electricity, buying coffee from an independent shop rather than a multinational or choosing whether to drive or walk.

But it’s not just the roads we pass through on the way to work, it’s how we interact with the communities we live in. It’s not just the energy we consume, it’s how we use the natural resources around us. Systems don’t stop at the borders of our countries, let alone of our neighbourhoods.

How do we make sense of what’s going on within and between the systems that affect our livelihoods and our communities?

We can only see the tip of the iceberg of how a system actually works, what people say they believe, how they act and react. What we don’t see is what influences the way they think and the way they behave. If that wasn’t complex enough, we observe all of these things with our own frames of thinking, our own assumptions.

  1. Put yourself in others’ shoes

Experiencing the issues and opportunities within the context that people are living or working on, and putting yourself in their shoes can help get under the skin of how different systems interact on the ground.

Transeuropa Caravans travelled across Europe to immerse themselves in neighbourhoods to uncover and compare how groups were developing civic cultures to tackle systemic issues – from migration to welfare.

  1. Start with what people value

Any work in this area needs to go beyond asking what people what they think or need. Indeed, it’s our intrinsic motivations that are most difficult to identify and yet closest to our values. That’s why organisations like the Campaign Company help the RSPCA connect with people who own ‘status dogs’ by identifying their values.

Values is an over-used word in politics, but surprisingly under-used in civil society. We prefer talking about what value we can bring to others than what values drive us to do what we do. Values influence us – in what we believe in and what we do – and how we project those values influences other people on what to think and how to act.

Systems change doesn’t happen because

a single actor, however powerful, wants it to happen

Our values aren’t static though, they’re shaped by the environment around us. Some people are more influential than others in their ability to change what we think and do. Whether it’s our family, our friends or other people we might trust. Some people will be more influential in how we think depending on the circumstance. We may trust our neighbours more when it comes to a planning decision than our relatives and we may trust fellow sufferers of a chronic disease more than our loved ones.

Why is this important? When you want to involve others in building system change – and don’t think you can do it on your own – you need others to want to get involved because they believe in the need for the change, they believe in your theory of change and in your capability to make that change happen.

  1. Create experiences that embody your values

You can build system change by creating practices that appeal to people’s different values, but first and foremost they need to embody your values. Some people may prioritise some values over others in terms of the energy they dedicate to it, but the most important is that they share the values your initiative espouses and that it doesn’t contradict with theirs. One of the reasons political parties have lost our trust is because they triangulate their message to people with opposing values. But there are groups that manage to create spaces for people with different values together.

Common security clubs for example, bring together people interested in protecting their neighbourhood and those developing new forms of welfare. By focusing on the shared need for security that both groups had and creating an environment where protection and innovation are valued, everyone feels a sense of common ownership.

Don’t play into people’s self-interest if you want to develop their solidarity, as it will only awaken the ‘what’s in it for me?’ principle that pervades our society. Play to their natural generosity to start building their trust – like through batch cooking together or sewing over coffee – and through people who can exhibit that authenticity, like Alice from Make, Do & Mend.

  1. Seed change throughout the system

Helping develop system change across an area often requires stimulating different ways of tackling the issues and connecting the people involved to learn from each other and work together to embed those new behaviours.

The Open Works in West Norwood is stimulating civic behaviour by supporting people to grow ideas into sustainable initiatives through developing their ‘civic proficiency’. To create a positive feedback loop that recycles the learning from these projects to energise new members of Open Works, it documents the recipes that have made these projects work, whether that’s ‘crowdfunding to buy fitness blocks’ to the ‘clay from the ground beneath our feet’.

  1. Support people to change their behaviour

Having understood how the system works, where the barriers are and what interventions could help break them down, the practices that can create system change need the momentum to be able to change the underlying behaviour that creates the barriers to systems change in the first place.

If it does take 66 days to form a habit, then investment in supporting people to be able to and want to form that habit is critical. That’s just at the level of an individual.

How long does it take for a community to form a habit, in other words to create a social norm? The same amount of time, if you consider that most systemic issues that affect individuals also affect communities. If you consider however, that every individual has different value modes and capabilities, then there will be people in that community that will cope better with the systems change and others who won’t.

How about supporting people over an extended period of time to build in those new behaviours to create an ‘esprit de corps’?

Do you focus on a circular approach which encourages people to work together within the system, like Monmouthshire Council’s Intrapreneurship School to create a sense of collective ownership over each intervention’s impact? Or do you go for a transversal approach which enables people on the ‘edge’ to influence the ‘centre’ of the system, whether that’s developers in residency helping councils rethink their services, or grassroots activists helping the UN understand trends on the ground.

  1. Assemble all the actors involved in the system to build change

Beyond the individuals that make up communities, institutions also influence the systems that affect communities. They help mainstream social norms, whether it’s through religious principles like the Ten Commandments, government communications like ‘five-a-day’ or state investment like cycle schemes and lanes.

So what about creating spaces where citizens and policymakers can work together to redesign institutional tools to create positive feedback loops, from crowdsourcing policies, such as in Iceland or city-wide participative budgeting, such as introduced in Porto Alegre and now Paris?

But system change doesn’t happen because an actor, however powerful, wants it to happen. Let’s take the example of the social model of disability. It took a generation between campaigners building a successful coalition around it, to then creating new rights and society accepting this model as natural. Indeed, system change often takes place through both orchestration and opportunity.

What can we learn from system change that have disrupted and created new patterns of behaviours? While fast food disrupted the way we have a meal, ‘open source’ has changed the relationship of consumers to a product. These have even spread into other sectors, from the fast food style of campaigning to open source policymaking.

If campaigners on disability rights were able to develop a social model of disability that became embedded in public services, how can campaigners, policy makers and practitioners work together to develop new social models?


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