Large Systems Change: an emerging field of transformation and transitions

What is meant by “large systems change (LSC)?” How can we “do it” much better? What must change and what are the strategies to realize it? What does a comprehensive picture of the field of LSC knowledge and methods look like? These are some of the questions that a just-published Special Issue of the Journal of Corporate Citizenship on LSC investigates. Contributors include David Snowden, Mari Fitzduff, Otto Scharmer, Rajesh Tandon, Pieter Glasbergen and Derk Loorbach.

The Issue’s lead article, of which I’m lead author, is freely available here. It presents responses to the questions with an eye to the emergence of a new field of knowledge and action that draws from multiple issues and disciplines that remain highly fragmented. One goal of the issue is to support cohesion and community identity, to support development of LSC as a field.

The editors of the Issue went back and forth with terms of “scale” and “complexity” being in the title, reflecting their assumption that these concepts are intimately part of the LSC concept:

By large systems change (LSC), we mean change with two characteristics. One we refer to as breadth: change that engages a very large number of individuals, organisations and geographies across a wide range of systems. Indeed, given the interconnectedness of humanity, we see the need to think about global systems change engaging local-to-global (glocal) dimensions. The second characteristic we refer to as depth: LSC is not simply adding more of what exists or making rearrangements within existing power structures and relationships, but rather changes the complex relationships among these elements at multiple levels simultaneously. LSC means fundamental revisioning of what is possible and ways of sensemaking that lead to previously unimaginable outcomes.

Fragmentation also results from the various points of departure interms of the object of change attention, the lead article notes. Some, such as Scharmer, place particular emphasis on the role of the individual and the need for change to start with them; some focus on the importance of technological change impact, such as those looking at technological innovation systems; some stress the need to transform institutions and structures, which are often the focus of social movements; more recently attention has increased on the role of culture and memes of beliefs and values which create possibilities such as Thomas Kuhn associated with scientific revolutions; and the rise of the anthropocene as an new geological era associated with the period since the industrial revolution, points to environmental transformation of the natural environment

LSC, the lead article proposes, involves spheres of interacting change: although one may be the focus of attention at a particular time and by a particular group or intervention, transformation involves change amongst the spheres. As with the proverbial problem of the blind man determining the actual shape of an elephant by touching different parts, there is a natural tendency for interveners to focus on specific parts of what needs changing to realize transformation.

LSC is also currently characterized by strategic and methodological parochialism: interveners and their interventions tend to have a highly restricted view of what ways transformation arises. They naturally come from what they know and feel comfortable with, supported by a particular focus on a particular part of what has to change. An attempt to distinguish between types of interventions and build a comprehensive picture of options led to the distinguishing between four types of interventions. Most, the lead article notes, focus on strategies associated with a co-creation logic grounded in reciprocal respect and willingness to change, since it embodies the values associated with peaceful transitions arising out of a sense of equity. However, other change strategies such as war and capital strikes can blow collaboration strategies out of the water. Another goal of developing a comprehensive picture of strategies is to explore sequencing and relationships amongst them. For example, it has often been noted that collaboration strategies often only arise after parties have exhausted themselves from other approaches.

The Special Issue hopefully makes a contribution to the emergence of ties across strategies and fields of action and knowledge that are critical to advancing our capacity for LSC. Unquestionably, this emergence is part and parcel of our ability to respond to the increasing urgency for large scale interventions.

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