Written by Laura Winn, Head of the School of System Change, and Charlene Collison
, Forum's Associate Director of Sustainable Value Chains and Livelihoods, this blog contains quotes from participants on the School of System Change in Finance.

You can't succeed in a financial career unless you have a head for numbers, a taste for data, perhaps an instinct for grasping probabilities. But the finance sector as a whole can't succeed in transforming for the future we need without greater adoption of systemic thinking: working through turbulence, addressing deep rooted drivers of change, and being willing to challenge purpose.

As Steve Waygood from Aviva Investors so clearly states, “Systems thinking is the only proper starting place for attempting to solve the planet’s climate, nature and social crises”. Seeing how finance is deeply rooted and interconnected in global living, social and economic systems offers a different starting point for thinking about the challenge of transforming finance to address these crises.

Although systems thinking has been around for decades, few leaders in finance are versed in this kind of approach. This is what the new School of System Change in Finance is trying to address. This initiative, a partnership between Aviva Investors, Forum for the Future and the School of System Change is offering people from across financial institutions and NGOs working in finance the opportunity to learn together and develop the conditions for collaborative action. Forty participants in our founding cohort came together in early October to start a four-month learning journey, with the ambition to seed and contribute to a wider movement for change. 

As the first cohort finishes the online part of their learning journey this month, we are able to share some of the early insights.

Developing an understanding of systems change and systems dynamics and how they apply to finance

A systems change lens invites people in finance into a different way of thinking about their work. In finance, much is organised around saying what will happen, based on knowledge of historical trends, and pricing it in. In a world of increasing uncertainty and turbulence - James Vaccaro of RePattern spoke to us of “polycrisis” or even “omnishambles”! - this approach is being challenged. Embracing complexity invites a robust and different frame to layer on top, where focusing on interconnections and patterns can help create meaningful change. This is not about dropping the skills we have, rather repurposing them. For example, how might we use our pattern recognition skills to find patterns in emerging data rather than by scrutinising historical data sets?

Beyond a focus on the skills of individuals, understanding systems change helps people see  where they can focus their efforts and work together to create change on a systems level. They have already been doing good work to improve the system; through growing collective capacity for driving transformational change across the whole finance system, the ambition is to adopt a macro-stewardship approach: not just looking to improve finance but to unleash the latent potential of finance to transform society towards the Sustainable Development Goals. As Mark Versey at Aviva Investors puts it: “In essence, it means taking a more holistic view of our stewardship responsibilities and actively engaging with policymakers, industry bodies and peers, regulators, standard setters and other influential parties to advocate and push for changes that will help create a more sustainable economic system.”

Learning a selection of system change tools and frameworks, and practising applying them to complex macro finance challenges

Embracing complexity might sound easy, but it can be counter cultural, particularly in organisations founded on quantitative mindsets. This is where frameworks come in, supporting us to scaffold our thinking within complexity, looking for key insights and patterns rather than simplifications. 

“I’ve really felt the benefit of having time for structured thinking.” Quote from school participant

In order to move from systems thinking to systems change, the School is founded on an action learning pedagogy where participants apply frameworks and tools in peer groups, to live challenges brought in by members of the cohort. Over the course of multiple sessions, a nuanced understanding is gained through multiple frameworks being applied to challenges such as How to bring together all the actors in financial services to align for change? How to address political and governance short-termism? or again How to embed ESG in pension schemes?

Refining different roles as a changemakers, identifying where and how individuals and organisations can exert influence for most impact

The group sessions and individual coaching conversations have revealed that much of the work of systems change is about new ways of being and doing, as much as whole new projects. People have shared their frustrations about the slow pace of change, or the deep rooted resistance to change in their organisations and in the finance system as a whole. Peer conversations have encouraged renewed confidence to be disruptive, and helped hone in on where there is opportunity for the most influence for change.

“It is a dynamic, positive empowering course that builds on the theory and you get to discover more about what your role as a change agent can be.” Quote from school participant

One key shared insight is around the need to engage actively with the resisting forces at play, with empathy and creativity. This means shifting from seeing barriers and obstacles to overcome, to seeing deep values playing out that can be brought into alignment for change.

Our first guest speaker, Dr Gillian Marcelle, founder of Resilience Capital Ventures, provoked us to look at the philosophy from which we are proceeding when engaging in change work, highlighting that approaches just steeped in Western modernity won’t get us to transformational change. She invited us to dig into intersectional feminism and embodied justice in order to shift the role of financial capital towards human thriving and planetary stewardship.

Our last guest speakers, Francesca Spoerry from the Center for Sustainable Finance and Private Wealth, and Delilah Rothenberg founder of the PreDistribution Initiative, both shared how they had identified ways to intervene in the finance system towards creating change. In very different ways, each had noticed spaces of inconsistency or dissonance, for example colleagues working in impact investment who hadn’t managed to find ethical packages for their own finances, or again unintended consequences of international development capital funding schemes. Rather than judge these situations, as changemakers they have seen vulnerabilities as a way in towards deeper change, addressing multiple layers and strategies within the system, beyond small-scale solutions at the asset management level.

Meeting amazing participants and guest speakers, and seeding a movement with the power to make change possible

This first cohort has seen a group of people coming together who have separately been working for systems change. Together we have been able to experience the sense of momentum and building of a collective movement that arises when people have come together with others working towards a similar goal. This has engendered feelings of relief, accrued agency, empowerment and excitement. 

“Engaging here has given me the confidence to have the difficult conversations knowing that I am part of a supportive cohort.” Quote from school participant

Our guest speakers from the UK Financial Conduct Authority, Yasmin Raza and Zeeshan Ghaffar, both spoke to the importance of working with others to support finance’s role in the transition to a more sustainable future and a positive economy. While systems, rules and regulations are often well established, institutions large and small can use their business decisions and their voice and their influence, to encourage positive change.

Motivation can be sparked by seeing the large number of existing ambitious initiatives. In our cohort, participants have started sharing working papers, podcasts, other initiatives to be aware of and get involved with. We are paying attention to this growing connectivity as we explore what the contribution of this School of System Change in Finance might be towards galvanising a wider movement to change the incentives of the financial system towards UN Sustainable Development Goals.


This initial cohort will be meeting in person at the beginning of February, to reflect on what they’ve learnt and orient collectively towards continued action and learning. We have felt energised by the enthusiasm and curiosity of this group, bringing in their own work challenges and rethinking roles and opportunities using systems change approaches. As we start a new year, we’ll be asking ourselves how to create a sustained culture of learning in finance towards systemic change, finding innovative ways to support this seed cohort, and opening up opportunities for more people to join the movement.

Ideas shared in this blog series draw on a new Forum paper on the role of finance as an agent of system change. 

School of Systems Change in Finance: This is an initiative of the School of Systems Change, Forum for the Future, and Aviva Investors, to develop system-change skills and perspectives amongst players within the finance sector.  It draws on deep systems change skills in the School, perspectives on systems change in finance captured in Forum’s paper (above), and reflected by Aviva in this edition of Aviva Investors Quarterly. 

This is one part of a series of blogs on how the finance sector can step up as an agent of change. See also:
From ESG to systems change in Finance
2. Three innovations demonstrating finance as a lever for system change
3. What does good leadership look like for financiers embracing a role in driving change?