“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”
- Albert Einstein
To build a fair, thriving and resilient region we need to uproot the complex problems that hold our neighbors back. Many problems facing our region are not getting better, despite our best efforts. These are complex problems - like poverty, health inequities, homelessness, addiction, climate change - and they require a different approach. Most of our attention goes to addressing the consequences of these problems over and over again. For lasting change, we must address the causes. Systems change is a powerful paradigm to help us think and act differently in the face of complex problems and move the needle, for good.
To change systems we work together to first accurately see the factors that hold a problem in place and then innovate to re-structure the system so it produces different results.
What's a system?
A system is any set of things that are interconnected and produce a result. Many interconnected factors together sometimes produce results nobody wants, like obesity, or food waste. The systems we are most interested in are macro-level systems that affect our community's wellbeing, including those that affect our access to food, education, nature, health care, housing, and more.
"A system is a set of related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the system's objective."
- Donella Meadows
How do you change a system?
Four key elements are at the heart of most approaches. First changemakers convene and commit to others in the system, including those most affected by the issue. Then they see the system around a problem together, develop and implement innovations that change that system so it functions differently, and learn along the way and adapt accordingly. The intended impact of systems change is both durable and broad progress on a complex problem, beyond what any one organization could achieve alone.
Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities shares a story of their role in helping to change the school food system in Michigan.
What does systems change look like?
As an outcome, systems change is a change in a structure or pattern that is aimed at the root causes of a complex problem and leads to long-lasting results.
Community-level systems change:
Cannot be achieved by one heroic individual or organization alone
Involves diverse teams that work together to see issues from many angles and perspectives
Gets upstream on complex problems, finding and addressing root causes
Uncovers strategic opportunities for change, "leverage points," that may be unexpected
Includes a variety of actions aimed at root causes and leverage points
Is best executed when a window of opportunity has opened - such as a change in political climate or a high profile case that has built public will for change
Fundamentally shifts the underlying structures that keep problems in place - including policies, practices, relationships, resources, power structures and mindsets
Considers the potential unintended consequences of actions
Prioritizes solutions for those most directly affected by an issue
Leads to long-lasting change that affects many