What is 'systems change'?

‘Systems change’ is about trying to tackle the deep, underlying causes and forces that produce harmful processes, bad outcomes, and damaging individual and institutional behaviours. 

Foggy Mountains covered in snow and ice
Two cartoon crocodiles with speech bubbles above them. One says "How many lightbulbs does it take to change a system". The other says "???"

How many lightbulbs does it take to change a system?


‘Systems’ refer to ‘all the people and things happening in a certain area.’ We can have ‘the criminal justice system’ or ‘the health system’. A place is also a system, so we can talk about ‘the Gateshead system’ or ‘the Oxford system’. (Place-based work is often systems work.) There are also the more nebulous and pernicious systems that are harder to see – systems of oppression and injustice. 


Systems are never just one thing – a fact which can be confusing when you’re trying to talk about ‘systems change’. Systems have to have boundaries – this is what enables us to talk about them. But we are also all part of many, interconnected systems at the same. Systems are the water in which we swim. They are everywhere – the connections between things, the causal flows, the relationships. 


People trying to understand systems is a lot like fish trying to understand water. It’s the stuff we take for granted because it’s all we’ve ever known. When we talk about ‘systems change’, what we’re doing is acknowledging that life is very complex. The social justice issues that we care about are not the sort of thing you can fix with a simple ‘intervention’. There is no straightforward solution that will fix poverty, or racism, or obesity because there are many factors that cause poverty and racism and obesity and they all overlap.  


Part of the problem with ‘how things are done now’ is we don’t think in systems. We think in parts of systems, in isolated fragments, without looking at how each part relates to the other parts and to the whole. While we know that homelessness links to mental illness, isolation, and poverty (among other things), our current structural arrangements separate these four issues. We have different organisations tackling one of the four, typically in isolation. 


The social issues will only lessen once we change the underlying systems and root causes. This is the thrust of systems change work. It’s about trying to affect the underlying, often taken-for-granted structures and forces rather than simply the presenting issues. This involves challenging things like how money moves from one part of the system to another, power dynamics, organisational structures and boundaries, employment arrangements, conceptions of work, relationships between the citizen and the state, and much, much more. 


At its heart, systems change work is not about fixing problems or delivering services for people but about trying to make it much easier for people to lead good lives in their own terms.