Systems Innovation Topic

Updated: Aug 19

Systems innovation is about applying systems and complexity thinking towards enabling innovative solutions and transformative change within complex organizations. This approach is about tackling root causes, it is about a new “holistic” and networked way of thinking call systems thinking that enables us to better understand complex systems; to embrace complexity and the power of connectivity; to harness it towards developing sustainable solutions.

Systems innovation is a term that has risen to prominence recently as around the world societies, governments, enterprises, and professionals find themselves facing a new set of highly complex challenges – what we call “wicked problems.” Such wicked problems include financial instability, ethnic conflict and terrorism, climate change and soil erosion or the challenges of designing smart cities and the risks of cybersecurity to name but a few.

In the face of a growing recognition to the systemic, interconnected, interdependent and ever-evolving nature of these challenges, the term system innovation has arisen as a systems-based approach to enabling systemic transformation and sustainable solutions. Typically when we talk about innovation we think of things, focusing on parts; building a better car, making a better solar panel creating a better medical device. Systems innovation is about looking at these as whole systems so as to ask how can we build a better transport system, energy system, health system, or financial system.

This kind of ambitious agenda is now made possible by the combination of new ways of thinking but also new technological means. Today we have a powerful new set of technologies with which to build new organizational structures when we combine these with new ways of looking at the world and the new models from complexity theory we find yourself with a unique opportunity to really rethink the way we do things and enable system-level change.

In the past decades, we have put powerful tools for computation in the hands of many and interconnected us all with telecommunications networks. This offers the potential to innovate in virtually all spheres of human activity. To rethink virtually all these systems as we turn the centralized organizations of today into the open networks of tomorrow – but doing that successfully requires new ways of thinking and systems innovation.

What Is Systems Thinking?

It is often said that we can’t solve the problems we face with the same sort of thinking that created them, we need a paradigm shift in our thinking to see new solutions – this paradigm shift is systems thinking. Systems thinking is a way of thinking characterized by a holistic view of the world, which means that we are always looking at things in relation to the whole that they form part of; when looking at a plant we try to understand it in the context of the whole ecosystem; looking at a car in the context of the whole transport system. Systems thinking is about looking at the world in terms of connections; patterns of organization and how the system behavior emerges out of those networks of interactions.

Complex Systems

A complex system is typically a large-scale system composed of many interdependent parts that are relatively autonomous. All of the large-scale systems we are interested in our economy are complex adaptive systems, food systems, energy systems, political systems, health systems, financial systems etc. Systems innovation is about using systems thinking to enable transformative change within these complex organizations.


Innovation is about the creation of something that is both new and of value, however, it is also about its adoption and implementation so as to change some established way of doing things. The key aspects of innovation are that of creativity and change. However, innovation is different from pure creativity in that it is looking at both ends of the equation, both the creation of something new and useful but also its adoption and usage within society so as to enable real change in the world around us.

Changing Systems

Whereas management is generally about doing what we did in the past the point of innovation is change; to not do what you are doing again. In a paper entitled “Systems change: what it is and how to do it”[1] the authors write “Systems change is an intentional process designed to alter the status quo by shifting the function or structure of the identified system with purposeful interventions. It is a journey which can require a radical change in people’s attitudes as well as in the ways people work.” Systems innovators aim to transform the system in which they operate so as to no longer have a job, as there is no longer a problem to fix. As Ashoka’s Founder, Bill Drayton, once said “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”[2]

1. Systems change: what it is and how to do it | London Funders. (2020). Retrieved 19 August 2020, from,behave%20in%20a%20certain%20way

2. event, T. (2020). TEDxASB | TED. Retrieved 19 August 2020, from,Drayton%2C%20founder%20of%20Ashoka%20Foundation.

Systems Innovation

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