What Is Systems Change? 6 Questions, Answered
Systems change. Transformation. Deep transition. These phrases are used so often they risk becoming buzzwords with diminished meaning.
And yet to limit global temperature rise, conserve nature, and build a fairer economy that benefits everyone, we will need deep change across every aspect of our economies at a pace and scale we have not yet seen.
The latest science tells us that we must limit warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) to prevent increasingly dangerous and irreversible climate change impacts. It also tells us that we must protect, sustainably manage and restore ecosystems, among other actions, to halt biodiversity loss as soon as possible. To achieve all this, we need fundamental change across nearly all major systems by 2030 — power, buildings, industry, transport, forests and land, and food and agriculture. Cross-cutting transformations of political, social, and economic systems must also occur to enable this and ensure the change is socially inclusive with equitable outcomes for all.
To be blunt, action that is incremental or confined to one agenda, region or sector will not be enough.
The global crises we face today — climate, ecological, health, equity, geopolitical and beyond — are closely interconnected. Changes in one system can cause unforeseen consequences in others. If we are to create a sustainable and just future for all, we must navigate these with a systems lens to fully grasp the complex dynamics.
We created Systems Change Lab in response to the urgent need for transformational change. The new initiative aims to spur action at the pace and scale needed to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges across climate, nature and equity.
But what exactly is systems change, and how can a systems approach help us solve complex environmental and development challenges? Below, we answer six key questions.
1) What Is Systems Change, and Why Is it Important?
Systems change can be defined as shifting component parts of a system — and the pattern of interactions between these parts — to ultimately form a new system that behaves in a qualitatively different way.
Many governments, corporate leaders, and civil society organizations approach change projects with linear models and plans, “if A then B.” But engaging a complex system is not as simple as this.
We navigate interdependent webs of systems every day, all of which have complex interconnections and unique relationships. For example, a family, a community, a nation. Likewise, our transport system, food system and cities. Thinking systemically generally involves:
- Seeing the whole rather than just parts;
- Seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots;
- Understanding key interconnections within a system and between systems;
- Engaging different perspectives;
- Constantly learning and adapting; and
- Probing assumptions.
2) What Does Changing a System Actually Look Like?
First, it is important to consider why the current system is no longer fit for purpose.
For example, take the global power system. Electricity has changed people’s lives for the better in countless ways. And yet: Hundreds of millions still lack access to reliable power; the burning of fossil fuels that provides most electricity is changing the climate, contributing around 23% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; and shifts to cleaner power sources are happening nowhere near fast enough to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C. Fixing all these problems — while protecting human health and jobs — is no small task.
Systems change often involves a series of shifts that work together to disrupt the status quo and create systemwide change. For example, to transform the global power system toward a more sustainable and just future for all, key component shifts would include:
- Phasing out unabated coal and fossil gas electricity generation;
- Rapidly scaling up zero-carbon electricity generation;
- Modernizing power grids, scaling energy storage, and managing power demand; and
- Ensuring energy access and a just and equitable transition for all.
There are no silver bullets, but rather a jigsaw of solutions that must be pieced together, adapting as we learn more about what works and what doesn’t.
A singular focus on adding zero-carbon electricity generation will only get us so far. We need to think through how the rest of the system will need to transform, concurrently and in relationship with each other — including transitioning away from fossil fuels without leaving dependent communities and workers behind (known as a “just transition”); updating grids and overall power management; ensuring equitable access; and developing resilience of the power system for impacts of a changing climate.
It’s also critical to consider the nexus of relationships with other systems — how shifts in the power system can most effectively enable other systems to change, such as transport as more modes of travel are electrified. All the while, navigating these transitions amid the backdrop of broader geopolitical and landscape-level complexities is vital.
3) How Do You Apply Systems Change?
Applying systems change as an approach to complex challenges can help decision-makers pinpoint critical actions on which to focus, identify more effective solutions, and better understand the cascading impacts of various interventions.
There are many routes and tools to apply strategies for systems change — system mapping, futures practices, viewing patterns of change and more. But three general elements include:
- Determining points of leverage and the required transformations: Deepening understanding of the system, its patterns and interconnections to identify the shifts that will be most effective to bring about systemwide change.
- Learning about what drives change: Embracing complexity and gathering insights from past and present examples of change to identify drivers that may accelerate pace and scale, while mitigating unintended consequences.
- Effectively aligning change agents and mobilizing action: Deeply engaging and collaborating with the range of stakeholders in the system toward a path in which each is uniquely motivated and has a distinct role to play in shepherding the change.
4) What Major Shifts Are Required to Achieve Systems Change to Meet Our Global Climate, Nature and Equity Goals?
To limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, halt biodiversity loss and build a fairer economy, nearly every major system will need to transform, including how we grow food, power our economies, build cities, conserve nature and beyond. Cross-cutting transitions must also occur in political, social and economic systems — such as how we finance these transitions, evolve measures of economic prosperity, govern our shared natural resources, and ensure that everyone benefits from the sustainable economy.
Within each of these systems, there are a number of component shifts that must happen concurrently — and rapidly — to bring about the necessary level of change. Systems Change Lab identifies the more than 70 critical shifts that, taken together, can help transform nearly all major systems.
These shifts range from phasing out the internal combustion engine; to extending financial services to underserved communities; to adopting more holistic indicators of economic well-being; to developing solutions for hard-to-abate industries like steel, cement and plastics; to restoring deforested and degraded land.
5) What Are the Enablers and Barriers to Systems Change?
It is critical to consider the factors that may contribute to or hinder progress of systems change. The specific enabling conditions range widely, but Systems Change Lab has identified five common categories:
- Innovations in technology, practices and approaches;
- Leadership from change agents;
- Regulation and incentives;
- Strong institutions; and
- Behavior change and shifts in social norms.
For example, there are many possible factors that could enable or hinder systems change across the power system — such as fossil fuel subsidies, cost of energy storage, corporate leadership in procuring renewable energy, national electrification plans and more. Additional equity-related enabling conditions that would help foster a just transition in the power system could include the number of programs supporting fossil fuel workers in transitioning to other jobs, the number of firms offering training in skills for clean energy, and the number of jobs in green sectors.
Tracking trends among these factors and uncovering insights about their interconnections can help accelerate transitions while also considering potential knock-on impacts, co-benefits or trade-offs.
6) How Can We Track Progress Toward Systems Change?
Systems Change Lab will track global progress across nearly every major system in order to spur transformational change across climate, nature and equity.
Within each shift identified, we measure how much progress has been made toward 2030 and 2050 science-based targets, as well as individual enablers and barriers of systems change. We track where change is accelerating or heading in the wrong direction entirely, as well as identify critical gaps in knowledge and data.
To Reach Critical Systems Change, We Must Start Now
Action to date has largely failed to spur change at the pace and scale needed. Developing a future where we reach net-zero emissions, halt biodiversity loss and build a just and equitable global economy is possible. And fortunately, we've never had more information about what needs to be done.
Taking a systems approach will be key to realizing this path. It will require leadership from all corners of society and within every system. Together, we can spark the systems change needed for the planet and our societies to thrive.