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SYSTEMS CHANGE & TRANSFORMATION

“Grounded in a shared intention of the future we want to create, awareness-based systems change involves shifting the mindset of people and organisations from silo to systems view.”

- Otto Scharmer

Why systems change is needed

I’ve been involved in several systems transformation projects that have led to dramatic change on a social issue (such as the Middle East refugee crisis) or have transformed a government system (such as large-scale education reform). I’m applying this experience to my work on climate change.

I’ve learned that in complex social and environmental problems, one needs to engage the entire system in order to have lasting impact.  Climate change is an especially difficult issue which has stumped the global community.  Our economic system incentivises short-term thinking and financial profits over balanced impact.  The system is set up to destroy nature. 

Efforts since the Earth Summit in 1992, which I attended, have been incremental. I’ve seen the ineffectiveness of incremental change close up in the last two years, working with several companies in France on sustainability. Because of competitive and financial pressures, companies did the bare minimum, and not what was really needed.  

European governments and the EU are taking the lead with regulations and a Green Deal. Supply chain pressures have also had a positive impact in reducing carbon usage and other contributors to climate change.  I think there is hope that real change will happen in Europe. 


That’s why I want to and act on the level of system change – industry-by-industry – toward innovative, regenerative business models that reverse climate impact. 

How I engage in systems transformation

It's crucial to understand the players and dynamics and to engage all aspects of the system as part of the transformation. Although every situation is different, these elements are often present:

  • Mapping the system: actors, values, motivations, positions

  • Crafting a new system through patterns of emergence, engagement and innovation

  • Allowing new aspects to operate alongside the old system as momentum grows

  • Continuing to learn, innovate and iterate 

  • Strengthening leadership with new skills, competences and shared vision

  • Listening to what’s needed next, a refined focus from year-to-year 

  • Being patient, engaging with resistance, waiting for a shift to happen

  • Allowing the new system to flourish as it establishes itself 
     

My experience in Systems Transformation

Building refugee resilience

In the Middle East, I worked with a team of ten people from United Nations agencies over a four-year period in the volatile, unpredictable, sensitive regional refugee crisis.

 

In the first year, we were finding our way in small steps by engaging stakeholders across sectors in five countries to cope with the crisis: to assess the situation, build capacity for rapid, coordinated response, and to understand the deeper needs and issues.  

 

We developed a set of principles to encourage inclusive partnerships to build resilience, foster innovation, and increase synergies between actors. We ensured that human dignity and self-sufficiency was at the centre of the work. And, we set out an agenda to transform the crisis into a positive opportunity.

In the subsequent three years our focus was to help UN and non-governmental agencies build capacity to innovate how they serve refugees and how they could help refugees recover and transform their lives.  Started as a collaboration between UN agencies, we worked with a wide range of business, agencies and governmental stakeholders to innovate how refugees were served and to adapt to dramatic changes, and to transform what was possible for refugees.

We demonstrated a successful system change over a four-year period in five countries. We helped build refugee resilience in the Middle East to improve lives and to reverse the refugee crisis. I co-led the human-centred design and innovation for crisis efforts to bring together people from different countries to share challenges, learn from each other, and develop innovative solutions. They rolled up their sleeves, actively generated ideas that could help, and came up with new solutions. 

Summary of other projects

  • Helped a ministry engage 1500 staff and stakeholders to reform a state education system – United States

     

  • Supported a 4-year project to transform the refugee response across five countries, engage stakeholders across sectors, and build innovation capacity in 75 UN and NGO agencies – Middle East

     

  • Developed an impact measurement system to incentivise a bank’s new customer service culture – England 

     

  • Co-led a network of change agents to build capacity for innovation in the UN system – Worldwide
    Coursework in systems change and collaborative social impact, Presencing Institute (MIT) – United States