Systems change

Analysis and action for impact, sustainability and resilience

‘Systems change’ is a broad term with a rich and varied history of usages and which engages a variety of approaches. Today, this term and associated practices focus on a way to think and act on broad societal challenges across sectors and policy domains.

Our research investigates issues of systems change in the social impact space, in questions of sustainability and climate change, and in the context of resilience and systems leading. In each policy space, we observe global funders, civil society actors, corporations, state actors, intermediary agencies, and local community initiatives experimenting with systems change issues and action. Multiple actors are progressively engaging with a more complex space for intervention, and this poses fresh analytic challenges.

Despite being a vibrant concept in policy and practice, ‘system change’ has received little empirical attention from researchers. With the ambition of addressing issues of great relevance for academics and practitioners, academics at Saïd Business School have attempted to systematically map and understand the viable pathways to drive positive system change through research, teaching and wider engagement.

System Change Observatory

zoltan tasi

(Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship)

The SCO kickstarted a community of systems change practitioners, which includes funders, entrepreneurs, Skoll alumni, researchers, and policy consultants interested in social impact. With a long-term perspective, we aim to engage a diverse community through a horizontal, inclusive approach, that allows us to engage with like-minded researchers and practitioners, disseminate our research, learn from insights and experiences of others, and collaborate on mutual projects. To date, we have conducted interviews and convened meetings with practitioners to get feedback on our research agenda.

Conceptions of System Change

Despite the growing adherence to the vocabulary of ‘system change,’ the definition of this term is far from consensual. Organisations orbiting around the social impact arena have very different conceptions of what a system is, what change is desirable, and what are the viable attempts of purposefully driving system change.

In this context, we ask two fundamental questions: What are the available conceptions of ‘system change’ among this initial sample of funder organisations? And, how do these different ideas shape the focus, mechanisms, strategies, and pathways that result in their efforts?

To answer these questions, we are analysing how narratives are constructed across key players in the social impact world. This approach allows us to grapple with the plural meanings of system change and provide frameworks to support the strategic decisions and performance evaluation of organisations engaged in promoting social impact.


The theoretical foundations of sociotechnical systems change for sustainability: A systematic literature review

Plurality in understandings of innovation, sociotechnical progress and sustainable development: An analysis of OECD expert narratives

System and Organisational Change

This new project draws on data from over 100 recipients of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, combined with interviews with organisations active in systems change efforts. We identify patterns of variance across organisations and over time, making visible different strategies, emerging pathways and models of system change. Our goal is to generate actionable insights, case studies and tools in support of systems change, both for practice and policy.

Contrasting these variables for +100 ventures over time allows us to identify and explore the relationship between critical organisational attributes to drive system change for social impact. For example, we analyse how these organisations conceive system change; what pathways they undertake for these pursuits; how they measure system change and social impact; organisational characteristics of social ventures, such as governance structure and operations; how founders and funding matter; changes in networks linkages; and contexts linked to real-time changes in strategies.


Funding the UN Sustainable Development Goals: Lessons from Donation-Based Crowdfunding Platforms

Social movements, field frames and industry emergence: a cultural–political perspective on US recycling

Organizations, Policy, and the Natural Environment 

Micro-Foundations of Systems Change

Systemic problems, such as the ones encompassed by the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, are increasingly drawing attention from governments, intergovernmental organisations and companies, engaged with macro-level discussions and highly institutionalised means of pursuing system change. These often involve coordination of multiple agents and long timeframes for implementation.

Little attention has been paid to the micro-foundations of system change, particularly to ways of addressing problems in situations where resources are scarce, and decision-making is urgent. Aiming at addressing this gap, we are mapping and analysing mechanisms of changing systems that are accessible to society at large, that have low barriers to entry, and that drive immediate sustainability impact. Insights for this research are gleaned from cases collected in multiple countries, which address different social problems, such as healthcare, sanitation, and civic empowerment.


Sustainability Hacking: conceptual development and empirical exploration

Hacking System Change


Technologically-driven system change

Key-enabling technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence and other smart technologies, will dramatically and unevenly change society.

They simultaneously pose positive and negative prospects. Positive prospects include efficiency and improvements in production and provision of services leading to increased wellbeing; negatives contain, for instance, manipulation of public opinion and job losses. Our challenge here is to understand how these technologies converge into complex system webs, and how they can be steered towards positive outcomes.

We have started by systematically mapping and contrasting theories on system change that present a technology lens. We want to understand how they approach technologically-driven system change, as well as the multiple mechanisms of harnessing development towards socially desired directions. One of these efforts consists of understanding how Artificial Intelligence can impact democracy and political participation.


Empowering political participation through artificial intelligence

Frugal Innovation: Models, Means, Methods