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Laboratories for Social Change: Towards a Theory of Systemic Action

Reos Partners
March, 2010


CURRENT APPROACHES TO ADDRESSING COMPLEX SOCIAL CHALLENGES ARE NOT WORKING. There is much to celebrate in terms of the number of people involved in change initiatives, in the increasing amounts of money being invested, and in the attention being given to innovation. The underlying trends, however, from accelerating species loss to ballooning public debt to rising rates of obesity, continue to deteriorate. The social fabric is increasingly strained under loads it was never intended to contain. In the face of increasing injustice, direct action has either become a strident call for someone else to take action or the frantic alleviation of symptoms that leave underlying causes largely intact. For instance, we feel increasing pressure to change our behaviour, particularly around environmental issues, in what sociologist Ulrich Beck describes as an attempt to find “inpidual solutions to systemic contradictions”.

The Dominant Response to Complexity

Examining dominant responses to complex [1]  social challenges as perse as environmental degradation and the financial crisis, we find two broad approaches widespread among institutions, policy-makers, and change agents: technical and planning-based methods. Together, they form a technocratic approach, which dominates efforts to address social dilemmas.

Jared Diamond once asked his students to imagine what the Easter Islanders were thinking when they cut down the last tree (leading to the collapse of their society). “Technology will save us” was one student’s answer. Technical approaches can be thought of as a “great wager”, which, under unknown odds, may or may not address the underlying causality of a situation. While we can at least imagine technical solutions (regardless of how implausible), planning-based approaches, used widely by both corporations and governments, are almost entirely unsuited to situations of complexity. Conditions are changing too fast and systems are too interconnected for planning to make sense. Technocratic approaches can best be understood as the optimisation of sub-systems. They require a somewhat deliberate myopia as a precondition, a narrowing of where we choose to focus our attention.

We can only justify a continued investment in technocratic approaches if we look exclusively for short-term gains. At best, we might alleviate the suffering of some small group, or save a few endangered species, or persuade ourselves that the financial crisis is over. The underlying situation, however, remains unchanged. By continuing to invest all of our resources in the optimisation of sub-systems, or silos, we are simply avoiding the difficult, unpredictable, and frankly unprecedented work of systemic change. To put it another way: Deploying tools and approaches that may have worked in the past but are not necessarily effective in the face of today’s situations and conditions is ultimately not a very intelligent gamble. By the measure of a small part of the whole, a few people in a population of millions, we will succeed. By the measure of the whole, we are guaranteed to fail. Social challenges will remain fundamentally fixed in their downward trajectories, even if plenty of action is happening around addressing symptoms.

New approaches to addressing complex social challenges are required.

The Change Lab

The Change Lab represents an embryonic theory of systemic action. At its most humble, it invites us to confront our situation as a whole, armed with the full array of human creativity, camaraderie, and courage. At its most ambitious, the Change Lab represents a full-blown theory of systemic action.

The premise at the heart of the Change Lab is that a perse team that practises together over a sustained period of time will prove more effective at addressing complex social challenges than a homogenous team (consisting of either people from a single organisation or under a single “command”) engaged in a short-term project.

The Change Lab is a space, a team, and an intention. It is a container with direction and movement. The Change Lab is a space within which a team practises to learn how to shift dominant patterns and trends. Typically, it consists of a sustained gathering of a group of people representing the different experiences of those affected by (stakeholders) and those trying to cope with (practitioners) the issue at hand. In broad terms, participants come from government, business, civil society, and community-based organisations or representatives from communities. This team gathers for the express purpose of fostering and creating innovation within a social system in order to demonstrate the seeds of a new reality. These seeds are represented in initiatives or prototypes that aim to model new realities in how they are designed and enacted.

To date, a number of labs have been convened, including the Sustainable Food Lab (global), the Bhavishya Alliance Change Lab (Maharashtra, India), LINC (Leadership and Innovation Network for Collaboration in the Children’s Sector in Midvaal, South Africa), and Meadowlark (Northern Great Plains, US). New labs include the Finance Lab (UK), the Child Protection Lab (Australia), a Social Housing Lab (Netherlands), and a Public Healthcare Lab (Nova Scotia, Canada). Taken together, these constitute the mobilization of many hundreds of people, many tens of institutions, and many millions of dollars—a sizable experiment.

From observing practice within a number of Change Labs over the years, a number of characteristics exhibited by initiatives that indicate what constitutes a systemic action can be named. These include:

(1) Multiple owners, (2) Local precipitates, (3) Non-local impacts, (4) Operates at multiple levels, (5) Emergent rationality, (6) Contested terrain, (7) Permeable boundaries, (8) Clear intentionality, (9) Causal power structures & relationships negotiable, (10) Fuzzy goals, (11) Fluid roles, (12) Inter-connectedness, (13) Public conflict – private harmony [2]

There characteristics together form a phenomenology of systemic action. Knowing what these characteristics are ensures that we can start to consciously design initiatives to have systemic impact and we can start to assess initiatives against a set of criteria.

Together the Change Lab and the practices it fosters point us in the direction of a new theory of systemic action that ultimately results in the creation of new social contracts between perse stakeholders.

New Social Contracts

The gathering together of people in the context of a Change Lab represents the beginning of what can be thought of as an armistice, a suspension of what has been called “the battle of the parts versus the whole”. People work in unison, recognizing that the cost of continuing the “war” is too high. In situations of complex social challenge, stakeholders needs to negotiate a new social contract, with the interests of the whole being put at the centre.

These social contracts represent a dramatically different approach to addressing complexity than sub-system optimisation. Instead of condemning entire portions of the population to misery, the highest hope of a Change Lab is to creatively renegotiate the social contract that exists between various members of a society. Whereas some stakeholders had previously been subject to forces and decisions beyond their control, they now become actively involved in co-creating their shared realities.

In the lecture from which I borrowed the title of this article, Doris Lessing reminded us that we often forget that communism was born from an ancient dream of justice for everybody. Our hope is that each Change Lab will provide us with radical insights as well as practical examples for how to cultivate societies that are characterised not simply by inequity but by justice.

 [1] The Santa Fe Institute of Complexity characterises the unprecedented complexity we are facing along three dimensions: complex collective behaviour (lots of people doing lots of different things that gives rise to unpredictable patterns); signalling and information processing (the system produces lots of new information); and adaptation (people within the system change their behaviour and actions in light of changes in their environment and available information). See “Complexity: A Guided Tour” by Melanie Mitchell, Santa Fe Institute of Complexity (Oxford University Press, 2009).

[2] A full explanation of this list is provided in the forthcoming Laboratories for Social Change by Zaid Hassan (2011)

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