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The Future of Systems Change

Pearl Leung

Pearl Leung

Digital Marketing Specialist

From healthcare to housing, the COVID-19 pandemic has made systemic failures impossible to ignore. Now is the perfect time for individuals and networks alike to come together and explore the future of systems change.

In December 2019, 30 organizations working in the field of systems change gathered to discuss what this future looks like. The culmination is Convening the Capacity Builders, a report that explores what systems change looks like, and how we, as leaders in the field, can move forward in an inclusive and productive manner.

Here are a few highlights from their report:

Definition of Systems Change

Our definitions-in-use are still evolving, and we see the effects of dominant culture on the field itself. Grassroots community members are doing innovative work but not calling it ‘systems change’ and they usually aren’t in these spaces. A chunk of the work to be done in ‘systems change’ is decolonizing the Euro-centric language, behaviors, practices, and belief structures.

Some of us try to avoid the term “Systems Change” or even the word “change” altogether, preferring instead to talk about “collective transformation to create a new more healthy reality for everyone” or integrating (or reintegrating) the parts of a system that have been rejected, neglected, fragmented, or broken off.

How Leaders in Systems Change Learn

  • Learning about systems change is a life-long endeavour. No single program or framework, no matter how intensive or thoughtfully designed, can prepare one for this work.
  • System leaders are diverse, as are their learning needs. At the point that any person initiates a system change initiative, they may already have experience in community organizing, systems dynamics, entrepreneurship, design thinking, or any number of analytical or social change lineages. They likely also have diverse personal biases and blind spots based on their own backgrounds and values. This means that what any individual most needs to learn (or unlearn) next may vary substantially.
  • There are core competencies and, potentially, identifiable developmental pathways. Certain core competencies, including working with complexity, facilitating across difference, and supporting collective sensemaking, are key to success in this work.
  • System leaders need the learning they need, when they need it, in language that resonates. We saw the need to help both aspiring and practicing system leaders move their learning closer to their day-to-day work through coaching, apprenticeships, peer learning circles, and action learning methods.
  • The language we use to talk about learning in the systems change community implies some basic assumptions and mental models about the learning relationship.

You can read the full report here.

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