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Societal Change System Stewards: A large systems change frontier

Posted by Steve Waddell in Net Dev on January 5, 2017

Addressing large systems change challenges such as sustainable energy, health care and poverty can be greatly enhanced by development of powerful societal change systems (SCSs) comprising all those organizations, projects and programs aiming to realize change. SCS Stewards can greatly enhance the development of SCSs. The emergence of such Stewards can be seen in the energy arena with efforts such as Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) and RE-AMP. These entities work with an array of change efforts to bring coherence, create synergies, address conflicts, and initiate new action when necessary. However, they are still early-stage examples of the type of SCS Stewards that are needed.

The title of “Steward” emphasizes support and nurturing, rather than direct action. SE4All, for example, does not undertake action to directly develop sustainable energy; rather, it identifies opportunities and takes interventions in the SCS to enhance the effectiveness of those taking direct action. The interventions might consist of bringing some change initiatives together to spur synergies or address conflicts; to bring alignment around vision; to create common measures for success; to identify priorities. The core role of the Steward is to build consciousness of those working for change of the broader change system so they can improve their impact and the SCS as a whole. This shifts accountability of change initiatives from just their own internally set targets, to how they are contributing to the health of the broader SCS.

In RE-AMP, one of the critical activities was to bring together funders to bring coherence to their funding activities as six streams of activity for the US Midwest. This involved bringing together NGOs who were working for change to identify the streams and create broad agreement on priorities. SE4All has been key in ensuring linkages between those who are generating knowledge and those who need it.  Looking at SE4All and ways to strengthen its activities suggest value in it:

Organizationally an SCS must be structured to engender trust and a view of the SCS as a whole. This leads to a multi-stakeholder model where leadership includes stakeholders from the key change constituencies (RE-AMP notably only has two stakeholder groups and SE4All is government-heavy). The emphasis on trust does not necessarily suggest a complicated governance representation model; in fact, given the number and diversity of stakeholders and the continually changing composition of change initiatives, a better model might be to have an internal process for determining leadership with a core quality in identifying people being the need for system-wide trust.

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