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Seven conceptions of ‘systems change’: A starting point for intervention

Almost a year since it was established, the Systems Change Observatory at the Skoll Centre shares early research, noting seven formations of system change.

How do you solve wicked problems such as climate change, global poverty and wealth inequality – issues core to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Global changemakers and social impact institutions broadly agree: Persistent problems demand systemic solutions. In other words, they require coordinated institutional efforts to drive long-lasting systems change.

How do we get started with this? How do we actively steer systems change to address the most pressing issues of our time?

To begin, there are several challenges to consider. One, systems change takes time and resources. Two, there is no single view about how systems change actually works. Three, it is unclear how standard research can inform practice and policy for systems change.

The Systems Change Observatory (SCO), a research initiative from the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, seeks to address these challenges directly. Combining research and practice, it strives to create what Skoll Centre Director Dr Peter Drobac calls ‘a practical roadmap for changing the world.’

Conceptions of systems change

The SCO is focused on mapping how systems change is practised in key sectors, with attention to both global North and South contexts. Led by Professor Marc Ventresca, the three-year research initiative leverages data from 110 social ventures – representing a wide range of industries and varied focus on systems change – captured over 15 years. In addition, the baseline research draws upon public information from many of the world’s most influential social impact funders, and also builds on relevant work from other academic centres and global agencies.

‘Academic approaches often grapple with “whole system” approaches’, according to Ventresca. ‘Our team is engaging these familiar models and also exploring a novel starting point: intervention and problem-solving tools, grounded in empirical cases. The world is messy, complex. We pay attention to research that integrates practice and theory, a first step in directly supporting changemakers in the world.’

In August 2019, the SCO team outlined early research findings at the Academy of Management research conference in Boston. Specifically, the team presented the different ways key funders operationalise ‘systems change’ in practice rather than in theory. These amount to seven conceptions of systems change.

‘Ours is not a theory-driven framework’, notes Dr Paulo Savaget, a postdoctoral researcher on the team. ‘These are the conceptions that funders like Acumen, Skoll, the Gates Foundation and AKDN have supported to effectively respond to systematic challenges. Each makes key assumptions about actors, resources, forms of intervention, and the nature of impact on incumbent activities and behaviours.’


The seven conceptions of systems change the research identifies include:

  1. Disrupt the status quo. Build momentum to transform ‘mainstream’ behaviours and activities, changing what is often seen as taken for granted, inevitable.
  2. Explore cause and effect. When a system is not working as it should, identify and address the root causes of a problem instead of its symptoms.
  3. Empower people. Democratise power throughout the system and enable disenfranchised people to take action, to have a multiplying effect and address issues ignored by the privileged and powerful.
  4. Improve coordination. When agencies act in isolation, they often have little capacity to bring in new actors or try to change the game. Instead, help current players work together, exploring synergies towards common goals.
  5. Scale up. Focus on expanding the organisation’s operations, broadening its offerings and extending its reach, to impact more people and other regions.
  6. Scale deep. Instead of expanding out, push the organisation to do more in its current area of specialisation with multiplex ties in the local community or region. 
  7. Go beyond your organisation. Engage a broader view of the boundaries and expectations of what the organisation can and should do, engaging with broader opportunities with stakeholders and the ecosystem.

Building a ‘hub’ for systems change

The seven conceptions are a starting point for further research and engagement with key SCO stakeholders. This work will centre on trialling the findings, refining them and converting them into actionable insights. For the next phase of research, the SCO will investigate how systems change is pursued, framed, measured and ultimately legitimised.

While the near-term goal is to understand how systems change is practised in diverse and complex contexts around the world, the longer-term goal is something more ambitious: to enrich and change the model of engagement with different stakeholders and catalyse positive change.

‘Currently, the way experts and practitioners engage with one another is uneven and has little “translational” research guidance,’ Ventresca explains. ‘Our Skoll Centre at the Saïd Business School has an opportunity to become a hub for systems change – to bring actors together, foster collaboration, streamline efforts and build a sense of common purpose among social entrepreneurs and other changemakers, researchers, consultants, foundations and universities.’


Acknowledgements:  We thank colleagues at the Skoll Centre, the Skoll Foundation and among Skoll Scholar alumni for early comments. The SCO research team also includes Nikhil Dugal, Lu Cheng and Skoll Centre Associate Director for Programmes, Dr Zainab Kabba, with media support from Georgia Rafferty.