Defining Systems Change Evaluation

Here we wish to define the main concepts involved in this subject, but the definition of definitions means that it is necessarily reductive and linear, and they will not capture the dynamic nature of these concepts.

What is a system?

“Complex systems are a configuration of interacting, interdependent parts, connected through a web of relationships, that represent a whole greater than the sum of the parts (Holland, 2000)” “Complex systems exhibit behaviours like self-organisation, non-linearity, feedback loops, self-organization and emergence (Pratt, 2019)”

What is systems change?

“Systems change aims to bring about lasting change by altering underlying structures and supporting mechanismswhich make the system operate in a particular way.” (FSG, 2015)

“Solving these problems [humanity’s most pressing problems] requires long-term support that goes beyond activity-based funding and approaches that tackle the root cause – i.e., approaches that aim to change systems.” (Ashoka, 2020)

Systems change is a complex and debated concept. Existing literature in the social impact space on this topic takes the view that system change can happen by tackling root causes. Root causes are usually defined as the “first cause” of a problem. However, outside of this space, systems thinkers, especially from the engineering discipline (Yuniarto, 2012; National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2018) are moving away from Root Cause Analysis as it is seen as reductive, but drawing from systems dynamics, an approach to understanding the nonlinear behaviour of complex systems over time using stocks, flows, internal feedback loops, table functions and time delays [AF1] (influenced by Jay Forrester and Donella Meadows). Systems dynamics has been applied within humanitarian contexts, to evaluate complex system behaviour (see this article). However, this approach is also criticised by social scientists, as any approach that aims at reducing social interactions to formulas.

What are leverage points?

Leverage points are a fundamental concept in systems thinking. According to Donella Meadows, leverage points are “places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” She has defined nine places to intervene in a system, as summarised by the graphic below.

Leverage points are important concept for measuring systems change because it is very difficult, within complex systems, to neatly define the baseline and endline, and to ascertain the contribution of interventions. A more realistic and cost-effective approach would be to take an experimental approach to systems change, trying out different leverage points and measuring the impact of those leverage points. 

How are systems change and systems thinking linked?

Systems thinking provides the foundation for conceptualising systems change, which describes the process of a system changing (either intentionally or unintentionally). In the context of social change, often systems change denote the intentional efforts by changemakers to change a system in order to address complex social and environmental challenges.

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