Systems change, I think, requires systems awareness, a group of people and organizations becoming aware of their shared interest and that they form part of some common system. This is the same for the systems change community as for any other systems change initiative. “System awareness” involves some form of visibility, being able to see who is who, what they are doing and where they are – some kind of map.
But beyond this, there needs to be some form of direction. If there is some kind of shared intent in terms of changing the state of things people will want to know what is happening, where we are trying to get to and whether we are making progress.
I bring this up because I find myself thinking about it recently but also as people are asking me about it. We recently did a meetup here in San Francisco at the end of the presentation I gave I got asked a question by one of the audience – that when something along the lines of – “are we making progress with this systems thinking thing.” I guess the question is if we are in some kind of transition to a place where systems thinking/change become more widely known and used then how far along that process are we.
I didn’t really have an answer but it has certainly been on my mind more recently, what is the “state of change” when it comes to systems change. I think in a way this is a key aspect to developing a community or movement for systems change, that we have some idea collectively about how widely known and used these ideas and methods are. Not an easy question to answer though.
I was recently at a small event in London where I met a guy who worked on the trading floor of one of the large finance companies, he asked me what I did and I told him I run this website. As always I then hesitated and asked have you heard of systems thinking or any of this complexity stuff? The answer was surprising, he said: “of course, it seems like every third person I meet these days is doing something with systems thinking.”
I have been scratching my head ever since, is it really that mainstream? What is the state of play when it comes to the adoption and application of systems thinking and how could we ever measure it?
Another factor to confuse the situation is that there are many systems thinking kinds of things taking place in the world that don’t call themselves by that name, for example, the circular economy movement or the rise of social innovation, or many other developments which would also make it difficult to put one’s finger on what is actually happening out there in the world in this respect.
At our Barcelona conference this year, one of the speakers raised the question: what happens when systems thinking becomes mainstream? Good question as people in this space normally spend there time thinking about how to gain greater awareness around systems thinking rather than ever having to worry about what might happen as these new ideas become mainstream.
The issue is that “mainstreaming” is often achieved at a certain dumbing down or normalization. We can take some lessons from other similar areas that have become more mainstream such as social innovation. For example, I recently heard Daniela Papi talk about this in a presentation on the theme of social innovation: “Somehow along the way over the last 25 years as the term social innovation and entrepreneurship spread wide the definition and practices have narrowed and along the way we lost systems change, we now teach it as though it was simply about starting a social business and growing it bigger.”
I think there are two concerns here, the first one, when you are starting out is about awareness and “scale” it is more quantitative, just trying to get more people introduced, then once it has some scale it becomes more about quality; to ensure that some standards are maintained as it becomes normalized.
To get a real sense of the state of change one would have to take account of a number of different things, both the context, that is to say how other areas that are using similar ideas are developing and people’s general thinking about the world, but also more specific metrics around the adoption of the language of systems thinking, e.g. number of organizations associated with it, courses, book published etc. Both quantitative and qualitative metrics.
So it seems hugely challenging to get some kind of accurate representation that is meaningful but at the same time it also seems hugely useful as part of community building…