Many folks around the world are embracing the challenge of systems change. Personally, I’m excited to introduce you, readers, to some of the transformative methods, machinery, and mindsets poised to change the world. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather a demonstration of what systems change can look like. To change the systems that have been in place for years, decades, or even centuries, we will need entirely new ways of not just solving problems, but identifying them in the first place.
The Plastic Solutions Fund
One of the NGO’s best demonstrating the importance of considering the ‘system’ instead of the ‘outcome’ is the Plastic Solutions Fund. Their vision states “…daring to imagine a future in which respect for our beautiful planet is woven into the actions of every corporation, government, and individual.” The vision statement alone articulates very clearly that they are driving for transformative systems change… not just campaigning for people to make sure they toss plastic bottles in the recycling instead of the trash.
While describing the multitude of projects the non-profit will fund, PSF outlines the importance of systems thinking in that they want to support those that are “…as close to the source of the plastic problem as possible.” encouraging ‘radically collaborative projects’, and ‘multi-organizational movement’. Honestly, their website, perhaps unintentionally, provides one of the most tangible definitions of systems change that one can find on the world wide web.
The PSF has funded initiatives that focus on legal and financial risk of plastic production, zero-waste cities, policy regarding public companies’ chemical use, and much more. This mindset that our global issues are all interconnected, woven through countries, corporations, and belief systems is overwhelmingly essential to solving any of them.
Bill Gates’ Toilets
If you are familiar with the relatively recent documentary titled, Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, you are likely also familiar with the global sanitation problem. A startling statistic you may or may not recall, is that 3.6 billion people worldwide lack proper toilets and/or sanitation. This is a prime example of a problem requiring systems thinking to solve. The problem is not just a sanitation problem; it’s an infrastructure, and child mortality problem amplified by policy, poverty, overpopulation, and lack of education. Following this, the solution cannot just be a ‘toilet’, it must be inexpensive infrastructure that is easy to transport, implement, and service. However, a toilet alone is not the solution; the toilet must be paired with things like education regarding the importance of cleanliness, affordable healthcare, and practical knowledge should anyone need to repair the toilet.
Without spoiling the entire documentary for you, I hope this example demonstrates a problem and solution pair requiring systems thinking and systems change. It is important to note that this is an issue Bill Gates and team have been working on for over a decade; researching, prototyping, iterating for years, frequently requesting the opinions and assistance of external experts, field leaders, and innovative students. As discussed in previous pieces, systems change is a multi-faceted process requiring many minds, perspectives, and time.
Ideally these examples shed some light on real-life systems change happening around us as we speak. However, a system can look like anything, and therefore a systemic problem can appear in many faces. After reading this brief piece, and possibly the two leading up to it – “Systems Change: A History”, and “On the Precipice of Change”, I challenge you to consider a problem. This problem doesn’t need to be global or immediate, but something that should, eventually, be solved. While considering this problem, consider it as a system, as a web of interconnected pieces working together toward this unfortunate result.
As previously stated, systems thinking is a mindset, a learned behavior. By identifying issues as well as their many facets, you can practice systems thinking and consistently consider systems change. I hope thinking deeply about your issues, and the issues of those around, leads you toward exciting change.
Lauren Carson, Associate, systemCHANGR