Six Steps to Developing a Societal Change System

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

Large systems change efforts are greatly strengthened by strategies to create powerful Societal Change Systems (SCSs). Such systems are naturally occurring around any particular change challenge such as sustainable forestry, social justice and food security. However, they are largely invisible or perceived as chaotic acronyms of organizations, projects and programs. Building their identity as a SCS provides them with the basis for greater impact by increasing synergies, addressing conflicts and taking collective action to respond to gaps in effort. Last week I wrote how a SCS Steward can have a critical role in this.

Working on the issue of electricity globally, I led a team that identified six steps that represent one strategy for developing a powerful SCS. The key players are the SCS Steward, people with technical mapping and research expertise, and the change agent organizations in the SCS.

Step 1 Step 2 Step 3 Step 4 Step 5 Step 6
Action Identify
of actors
Identify issue
Map efforts Identify
actions to
the SCS
Participants Steward

The first step is to identify who — change initiatives, which may be projects, organizations, programs — is in the system. I refer to these as SCS participants. This can be greatly facilitated by webcrawls, a tool that helps ensure the universe of players is identified rather than simply the ones a particular person or group of people know about. The second step is to identify the structure of the system in terms of sub-systems that the change initiatives are organized around; this means the sub-goals or change challenges. These sub-systems are very natural and organic, but their boundaries are not obvious and therefore expert research is required to identify them through analysis of the initiatives. In terms of electricity globally, the five core sub-systems focused on changing public policy, new technology development, financing new energy infrastructure, creating new energy business models, and influencing consumer behavior. You want to know these sub-systems because they have emerged through the experience of those trying to change the particular system, and represent wisdom that should be supported for further development.

The third step is to map the SCS to help make it visible. A variety of mapping methodologies is useful. The Systemic Change Matrix is developed specially for this; Managing from Clarity mapping is good to bring out theories of change; Value Network Analysis is good for understanding roles and exchanges; System Dynamics mapping is good for understanding system forces. With any of these, it is important to fully engage the SCS participants, because the objective is not simply to have a way of representing the SCS, but to have the participants understand the map and see it as valid. This leads to Step 4: discussion amongst participants to identify how the SCS could be strengthened, what they can do about it, and building their commitment to do it with the SCS Steward supporting them to fulfill the commitment.  This leads to Step 5, where these commitments are implemented; it is usually best to organize these as “experiments” since several approaches may be needed and learning is critical. That learning is the core of Step 6.

These steps require repeating at various intervals. New players arise and some fall out. The stuck points and potential synergies will continually change. And the whole change system should mature with successes.

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