From Sustainability to Systems Change

Updated: Aug 10

The desire for systems change seems to be growing. The recognition for some deep transformation and change seems to be bubbling under the surface in many different areas. However, the common language of systems change seems to still be lacking in the mainstream. It is safe to say the idea of systems change has not yet made it into the mainstream, except in very niche areas. One of them has been the environmental sustainability movement, who have been talking about the need for systems change for decades now. 

I think that as the narrative around sustainability has become mainstream there is increasing recognition that maybe the sustainability story is just one step on the road to embracing the ideas and need for systems change. I recently asked Sally Uren of Forum for the Future – during our interview at Si London conference – she confirmed some of my thinking when she replied:

“In 20 years sustainability has gone from the fringes, it wasn’t even a word that people recognized, to everyone’s talking about it, but in a very different way. So the question that I have is how do we build on that increase awareness and say, yeah, that was okay but it’s not good enough, and actually the field, the practice of systems change when you bring it into sustainability challenges offers us a huge opportunity to really up our ambition and to properly design for transformational change… the next wave is designing for catalytic transformational change.”

So what is wrong with the traditional story that has brought the term sustainability such prominence today, here’s my take. The traditional argument around sustainability hinges around the idea of a finite planet and sounds something like this. The population will increase in the coming years – up to 10 billion people – that will require up to 50% more food, 50% more energy, 30% more water at the same time we are running out of resources, groundwater depletion, fish and wildlife, etc. We are taking from a stock of resources that are required to sustain future generations, thus unsustainable, and we need to change by producing less pollution, CO2, using less water and materials, etc. generally conserving what we have.

I don’t want to deny any of this – it is apparent that physical resources are finite on this planet and the logic is very strong and appealing – but to be honest I always felt a bit uncomfortable with this argument and recently I think I figured out why. It is a very static, conservative and zero-sum way of looking at the world that fits too easily into the existing paradigm and preserves existing structures. I think the underlying statement is that everything is fine here as long as we can just consume less. 

One of the main problems with this static view is the idea that “if we all just do our little bit” to use less, pollute less and conserve more than all those little bits will sum up to a solution and everything can go on fine. I think this diverts attention from system structure and the need to change it. We talk about the minimization of consumption and impact, but not about how to restructure the economy so as to use less. Every company tries to reduce CO2 emissions, but they don’t look at the structure of the industry they are in.

In other words, what we are saying is we can all just go on in our boxes and make incremental improvements and that will get us to where we want to go, but no amount of summing up of parts or optimizing of boxes will give you a quantum leap. I think ultimately the traditional narrative of sustainability is based upon the same old logic of resistance rather than making the deep systems structural changes that are needed to adapt.

To really work towards a more sustainable world the sustainability narrative needs to be an intro to systems change; that conservation is just a starting point when what is really needed is an appreciation for systems structure and the need to adapt and evolve those. Those structural changes may take many form but I think primary to it is the shift from the centralized systems of the industrial model to a decentralized model more relevant for a connected world.

We all talk of collaboration but in reality the systems and structures we have created systematicly resist that. We have built linear systems that travel vertically and inhibit cross-domain collaboration. In this respect what really matters is transaction cost across boundaries if those are too high – as they are – then people are incentivized to stay within their existing structures and try to solve the problem there, which simply does not work when dealing with the highly complex sustainability challenges of today. 

Centralization creates boundaries around domains and organizations with the net result being a hugely fractured system. This making transactions across boundaries costly and time-consuming and inefficient, so we go on trying to tackle the problem from within those boxes when what is really needed is to build networks that incentivize for coordinated activity around the problem between a diversity of actors rather than incentives for each organization to do its little bit and thing that somehow those little bits are going to sum up without actually changing the structure of the system. For me when we talk about systems change it is this key structural dynamic that needs to change and why technology plays such a key role as we have no way of doing large scale decentralization without information networks.

This is why I like the narrative of systems change because it starts with a clear assertion that the structure of the system has to change. I think the first generation narrative around sustainability – that is now mainstream – was fine but it has to evolve if it is going to stay relevant and not become greenwashing to prevent systems change.

Systems Innovation

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