#10, December 2021


How can we equip ourselves to make use of the systems approach?

Darcy Riddell, Raccords #10, Systems approach, Systems change

There’s nothing new about systems. We have always existed through and within them. Adopting a systemic mindset however is much less common.

For Darcy Riddell, Consultant in Strategy and Systems Change, the merits of a systems approach isn’t relative: It’s the only way to observe and take action in the world so that we can achieve positive change.

As with any modality that goes against the grain of dominant views and aims to bring about sustainable change, a systems approach brings its own challenges. That’s why it can sometimes be tempting, not to mention easier, to address complex problems using quick, linear solutions. In this interview, Darcy explains why it’s essential to focus on the systems at the root of problems. She argues convincingly that “to take effective action, we can no longer see ourselves as isolated.” She’s an expert in both theory and practice, and gives us concrete ways to do this.

Raccords: We often hear that a systems change approach addresses the root of a problem. Yet chronic social and environmental issues are complex and multifaceted, involving many interdependencies. How do we go about identifying the source of a problem? Is it realistic to believe we can address its root, and can we honestly claim we’re doing so? In this line of thinking, what is systems change, and how is it possible?

Darcy Riddell: I agree: Because of globalization, all of the problems we’re facing today are complex and multifaceted. Systems thinking brings the root of the problem into sharp focus, and ensures that your attention stays on it. But this idea in systems thinking—that you’re going to the root of the problem—can be misunderstood if you think it means you only have to work on the root.

Systems thinking asks us to take into account the long-term practices humanity has perpetuated that hold the structures of a broken system in place. It’s a way of understanding, contextualizing, and then making yourself accountable to ensure that you’re looking at the whole system as part of your solutions. For example, if you’re dealing with domestic violence, you would take into account patriarchy as a root cause. From a systems change point of view, you might be able to say that simply offering economic opportunities to those individuals experiencing violence—so that they can get out of their abusive homeuse—would not target the problem at its source. I understand that we get overwhelmed by the idea of changing the whole system. We spend a lot of time admiring the problem. But I do think that the systems approach asks the opposite question: How can we expect to solve problems if we don’t address this system failure?

So what is systems change, and how do we achieve it? On the one hand, it has become such a popular framework, a buzzword, almost. On the other hand, the idea of systems change can feel grandiose, even overwhelming. How can I, with my one intervention or idea, address complex global problems?

The siloing of behaviour and thinking can be a first barrier to engagement. People don’t believe they have the power to do something outside of their individual sphere of agency. If siloing does in fact discourage participation, then part of the solution is to think more broadly about the source of the problem. To think about who else is facing that problem from a different location in the system, and how we might be able to work together to find new approaches—not simply quick fixes that reduce the symptoms, but actual changes to the underlying way a system works. Systems change efforts require people from all of the different points of the system to be involved. Who else is facing this problem? How and from where in the system? How can we work together to find new approaches that are not simply quick fixes to reduce symptoms but that actually address the underlying dynamics of the systems? We might think that taking a systems approach can feel overwhelming, but the opposite is also true! We can show a stakeholder that they actually have power in the system if we say, “This is how what you’re doing is contributing to holding this problem in place, and this is how your agency to effect change becomes greater.” This is why it’s important to engage with the government or the private sector. It’s not that their intentions are bad; it’s that they don’t always see their full potential as agents of change. They remain stuck in their ways. They have a lot of resources, and we all stand to gain if they use their position inside the system to work in a concerted way with those outside it.

A systems approach is not radically new, because we are all already embedded in systems. What’s radically new is seeing that if we work together in an integrated way, it’s possible to bring about change in the system, because we have activated a whole diversity of actors from different sectors. This cultural shift is within everyone’s reach.

One of the first steps in a systems change approach consists of recognizing and trying to visualise the complexity of the problem. The use of pictures, visuals, and models can help people to see the many parts of the system and how they’re interrelated. Engaging with the system visually helps to make it feel less overwhelming in its complexity. The next step is to identify the part of the system that interests us and that represents our sphere of action. Once we’ve done that, we have to try to see ourselves and our actions within the system.

A really important approach for informing local issues in a time of, I would say, global crisis is one that looks across scales and helps us think of ourselves as nested so that we can remind ourselves to think about the scales of the problem which might be beyond our immediate reach but are important to consider and understand.

Raccords: How do you see social innovation fitting into this imperative for systems change?

Darcy: There are many connections between social innovation and systems change. What I would say is that some approaches to social innovation are more systemic than others. We’ve talked about systems change, which can feel grandiose or overwhelming to us, but social innovation is very much about what we can do together, getting to action, providing resources, and building a better system. The systems approach can help ensure that a social innovation approach isn’t simply reproducing broken market ideologies, or simplistic quick fixes, or entrepreneurial solutions that don’t really get at the deeper roots of a problem. These types of solutions can have the unintended effect of reducing the pressure to solve the deeper problem. For example, some people feel that to address climate change, we don’t have time to fix capitalism—that we have time only to scale up renewable energy technologies. In taking a systems approach, we might ask, “Will this energy support limitless consumption? Will it provide energy to the broken systems that do harm both to humans and the planet?” When we consider these questions, we can see that unlimited energy, even if it is de-carbonized, is not the solution to the multiple planetary crises we face, including climate change.

Raccords: A systems change approach appears to be the most intelligent and obvious avenue to solve difficult problems from a conceptual perspective. In practice, though, systems change can seem overwhelmingly complex, as you’ve mentioned. How can we address this complexity? What critical insights into this problem have you gleaned during your many years of experience as a trainer and practitioner in systems change and social innovation?

Darcy: Through my involvement with social and environmental movements, then with social innovators, and more recently with foundations and philanthropic organizations focused on systems change, I have seen a great need for capacity building. What that means is that being supported in learning communities—sharing with peers—is incredibly important. I have been privileged to be involved in capacity-building work throughout my career. I have also found that it is important to invest in people who are doing change work to help refresh and inspire them.

Capacity development can take place in the course of project implementation or as part of learning-based programs. In the training program I ran for many years, and in my research into scaling up, scaling out, and scaling deep, I was interested in how the process—being involved in a learning community of systems approaches and scaling—is itself a transformative experience for leaders of organizations. It doesn’t just help to fuel their own innovation work and organizational change; it’s a necessity. Many leaders have used these peer-based learning processes to spread and scale up their innovations around the world. Engineers Without Borders has used this approach. So has the Tamarack Institute, which has scaled its Vibrant Communities methodology through a learning- and principles-based approach, investing in sharing and mobilizing knowledge, and in networking. When done well, the capacity-building process can drive systemic and social change. Those involved find common cause, support, and inspiration.

I think systems change requires a space for capacity building, because we’re trying to change mindsets, and we’re trying to change the inherent structures of a system. We need to build toward that. Capacity building provides us with a support structure, a scaffolding, so that we can take risks and build toward this new world. Once again, this is the strength of innovation that takes a systems approach: It’s easier to get people on board by telling a story about how they are building something new and better.

Another way to think about this is that many of the systems that structure our lives today were designed according to worldviews and mindsets that are very different from those that will enable us to thrive today. We go back to the roots, once again, to address the mindsets and narratives that underpin our systems of governance, social order, and social structures, or what constitutes a healthy economy. These narratives explain the architecture of current systems, and we know that the assumptions they contain are wrong, or at best deficient. They’re built on a simplistic conception of a world that is, in reality, much more complex, and they’re built around maximizing certain variables or desired outcomes. The reason why systems are failing at the moment is that they were built on a mindset that isn’t adequate to deal with the complexity of the world today.

How can we acquire a new mentality? This requires transformation on both a personal and collective level, because we never transform in a vacuum—we transform by interacting with others. But the role of the individual in systems change work is very important. It’s important to recognize the role we play in systems we don’t like. This applies to individuals as well as organizations. How do you locate yourself in the system? There is no view from nowhere, right? We’re always standing somewhere. You’re in it. You’re embodied, and you’re embedded, and you’re participatory. But you need to be weaving yourself into the story of that system, and how that system is being transformed.

Most people who have led successful change efforts report engaging in a sustained practice of self-reflection. Regardless of the medium one chooses—be it meditation or therapy or honoring your creativity—it seems important to consciously pursue a path of personal development in order to become an effective systems change agent. We all have blind spots that prevent us from understanding other people’s lived experience. Self-work provides tools so that we can become more multifaceted—so that we can trust others to collaborate with us instead of thinking we must always be in control.

Raccords: Could you give us an example from case studies or your professional experience that might illustrate how cross-cutting systemic impact unfolds?

Darcy: I worked on the protection of old-growth forests in British Columbia, in particular the Great Bear Rainforest. We were reframing the idea of the economy to focus on conservation, and we felt that this was a very big systemic achievement. We were able to attract new investment to support indigenous stewardship, and we helped to enshrine indigenous land title and rights. We also identified a lot of new conservation areas where there wouldn’t be logging, and other areas where there would be only light logging. That was twenty years ago in British Columbia, and I’m still working on those issues.

The reality is that we didn’t actually address the source of the problem, which was the underlying hunger of industrial forestry for the continued exploitation of forests. We limited ourselves to protecting only certain areas of the forest. In effect, we created an island of new legislation in a much larger ocean of unchanged industrial practices. It has become very complex to sustain the change we wanted for the Great Bear Rainforest. We never changed mindsets, we never changed the policy regime outside of that area, so it sneaked in, even in a place we thought we had protected.

To protect the remaining old-growth forests in British Columbia, we need to support the industry in making a sustainable transition. We need to engage all of the communities that are dependent on this resource extraction, so that they feel comfortable that they and their families have an economic future. The reality is that we continue to follow a harmful trajectory. As long as the system as a whole isn’t reconciled to the limits of the environment, it will be difficult to make significant progress. We now realize that we will not be able to solve this issue once and for all until we address the economic model that threatens old-growth forests. Even if you take a systems approach, there’s always a wider concentric circle of the system to consider, so in that sense, there is no ultimate and perfect victory. We can see, though, that the playing field has clearly changed! The consolidation of indigenous rights is more mature than it was twenty years ago. There are many First Nations involved in the management of forest rights, and they are rebuilding their legal frameworks to restore their traditional stewardship rights. There has been a real cultural shift, and this is a systemic impact in itself.

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