What does systems change mean in 2020?

We are living through such a momentous time of rapid transformation, the big question is: how will we enter the next era?

Photo by Harrison Candlin from Pexels

In February this year I was browsing in a bookshop in Gatwick Airport (an act that seemed so normal at the time) and I came across a copy of The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. The brightness of the cover and the boldness of text was instantly memorable.

This is the decade. We are the generation.

“This is the decade in which, contrary to everything humanity has experienced before, we have everything in our power. We have the capital, the technology, the policies. And we have the scientific knowledge to understand that we have to halve our emissions by 2030…We can choose to go down a path of reconstruction and regeneration.”

Enthused by this passion and confidence, I got the dopamine hit I needed to top up my stock of hope when thinking about the seemingly insurmountable challenges that lie ahead. That’s what airport books are supposed to do I guess.

Then shortly afterward, the Covid crisis hit.

With lightening speed, Christine Figueres was back in the spotlight. This time on the radio talking about the ways in which governments should direct fiscal stimulus in light of the pandemic to spur a green recovery. This “will set the contours of the economy for years to come” she said.

Something about this phrasing struck me. A visual metaphor emerged, a landscape scarred and riven with the flows of fiscal stimulus, uneven distribution and hollowed out by debt.

Perhaps, I thought, before we leap to respond to calls to “build back better”, we should reflect on the shape we want these contours to take. Indeed, we should reflect on the contours that were honed when the banks were bailed out last time.

Photo by Sebastian Palomino from Pexels

So, I cast my mind back to 2008, to the last major economic crash. Then, thinking about the years that followed, I mostly remembered turbulence. In 2011 you might have been forgiven for thinking we were living through a series of “peak events” with new dramas emerging regularly, from Occupy Wall Street, to the UK riots, to the Arab Spring. It was a bumpy ride. A decade on, and the visible contours left by 2008’s economic priorities show a clear bifurcation: one distributary of the economy surged — the capital markets and wealth (with a bull market that thrived on digital innovation and big tech platforms), while the other withered to a stream — the real economy and income, leaving parts of the economy hollowed out and riven by the deep cuts of austerity.

With hindsight: This is an era of long emergencies

And now we are at peak events once more, along with a dawning realisation that there may be no return to normal. Instead we are perhaps in an era of long emergencies: last year’s destruction of the Amazon rainforest, followed by the ultra-intense Hurricane Dorian, then the extraordinary bushfires in Australia over the new year, ensued by the onset of the pandemic which preceded the Black Lives Matter protests — a civil rights movement that is sweeping across the world. As economist Branko Milanovic says — this is a historic moment, and a new normal is inevitable. “Even if the pandemic is over by then, December 2020 will be entirely different and the political forces that these twelve months will have set in motion — and which we currently cannot predict — will fundamentally affect how economies behave in the future.” To re-imagine government funding models, then, it is crucial that we avoid “old paradigm bias” and explore the unknown.

Renewal after the pandemic

While the language of “systems change” may suggest otherwise, the power to change systems is not within any single agency’s gift. It may be better to build capacity to think holistically and seek to understand the intersectional nature of the systems that we seek to change. Climate change and inequality are often referred to as “grand challenges” — twin threats to long term stability and democracy — but they are often tackled separately in the policy agenda. A more holistic view is called for, as we have seen with the Black Lives Matter protests, these things are interlinked and different forms of inequality exacerbate one another: race, gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status all combine to drive inequities deeper.

We must therefore not seek to redesign systems as if they were for a stable environment — there is no such thing — we are always in constant and dynamic flow. For systemic change to happen, emergence will always play a critical role. For city leaders to seek to affect positive change in the coming years, it will be vital to consider the latent momentum beneath current events, and go with this flow, as any interventions made will not be static — they will be part of a dynamic system, over which they will have incomplete knowledge and minimal control.

If you had asked me six months ago how a city should approach systems change, I would have said work with communities in small experiments to understand how to approach challenges like climate change and population growth — exploring and testing solutions perhaps using Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model as a starting point like the City of Amsterdam. In light of the pandemic, while I still think this provides an excellent framework for dialogue, I am inclined to encourage leaders to take this opportunity to pause and look deeper within — sit with the nature of what is happening in your city and start where you are.

By using the principles of permaculture — listening, probing, observation — leaders might spot brave new forms of local democracy that are ripe for emergence. This is a global crisis with very local ramifications and communities have already reshaped themselves to adapt. How we meet, work, eat, socialise and live together — the prevailing concerns of a city — have already dramatically changed. So, perhaps city leaders would do best to acknowledge the scale of this change and not add to it with new interventions, but instead focus on deepening existing ties. By using the new digital infrastructure that has been rapidly adopted to engage with communities during the pandemic, leaders might want to begin the messy conversations with communities in the context of the problems that they have experienced and what they hope and fear for — economic insecurity, their potential loss of work, poor health, anxiety and disillusionment. To open this dialogue, leaders could make the space for deeper questions of the city’s future: social equity, the climate emergency and how to embrace anti-racism.

Pausing to check in on neighbourhoods like this may feel intangible, but it is this work that will nurture the capacities of city governments for long termism. Transformational coalitions build from the inside out and a common trap when working on complex problems is to think we must set up dedicated delivery bodies or wait for institutions to get their house in order before starting the work. But as Margaret Wheatley says: “We discover how life truly changes through emergence. When separate, local efforts connect with each other as networks, then strengthen as communities of practice, suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale. This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals. It isn’t that they were hidden; they simply don’t exist until the system emerges.”

Reimagining economic systems

But what can be missed in the community deliberation is the underpinning economic system. And there is critical work to be done in imagining new economic systems. Having spent over 20 years working in social innovation and sustainability, I have observed that we find it particularly hard to rethink the economic underpinnings of this work. We can imagine positive innovations with ease, but the hard graft is in rethinking their economics.

In the growing call to work with indigenous knowledge around the world, leaders will need to do the deep and systemic rethinking of our prevailing economic logics. In traditional economic theory, environmental impacts and civic life and culture are not classified as economic activity — they are simply externalities that contribute to market failures. In an indigenous world-view the economic concept of externalities doesn’t exist.

The pressing experimental work of systemic change will be in rethinking the economics. One thing that is often missing from the practice of system change is the notion of what Joanna Macy calls “Deep Time” work, the idea that there is no beginning or end — there is just the actions that you take now and their ramifications on later generations. But this is the kind of long termism that must infuse the economic models of the future. In the calls to “build back better” we must ask “but what should we build?” Unlike the aftermath of an earthquake, we have no collapsed buildings to revive, just our economic security. So while many are calling for “shovel ready projects”, what we actually need to build is our capacity for imagination in order to explore regenerative scenarios for the economy.

This is indeed the decade, and we are indeed the generation.

A version of this opinion paper formed part of City of Melbourne’s “City of the Future Event” held in July 2020 and was published on Participate Melbourne.

Head of Mission Oriented Innovation Network at UCL IIPP. Former Director of Innovation at the RSA, on Medium just me.