Notes from the Asian field

Asia is home to a thriving, though embattled, change community. You could draw a direct link to the fact that it is also a hotbed of complex and increasingly wicked problems. We've been watching a language emerging within it: one of “systems change”. At Forum for the Future, we both use the nomenclature and try to practice it here in India and South-East Asia. We know others do too, often without labelling it.

In early 2018 we set out to understand the field here better, with the intent of understanding our role in nurturing it given our expertise areas, and joining the conversation that will enable others to do the same. What types of systemic approaches are practiced in Asia? By whom? How are they applied? And are they working towards systemic impact? How is the community being connected and how do they learn from one another? were just some of the questions we were, and still are, hungry to answer.

Let’s be clear: through our School of Systems Change we are a learning provider, and see a role for us contributing to building the field of systems change already in Europe and North America. But we don’t have such a high opinion of ourselves to think that we can come in and single-handedly lead the building of the field here in Asia. We know that there are people who are equally, if not more, awesome in this area here. We would like to become an active member of the emerging community and contribute to its growth in the region. We have a vision of a thriving, interconnected web of change agents applying their skills to the challenges that prevent society and the environment flourishing here. Corruption; sanitation; air pollution; climate change and land use; inequality; you name it.

So we’re listening and exploring, sharing our own experience and comparing notes with fascinating practitioners and the people who support them. This blog is a snapshot of some of what we’ve heard so far, the questions we are still exploring and an invitation to join us or invite us into your conversations. We don’t know if these observations are reflecting the true situation yet. What do you think? What would you add? What would you counter?

The community

The community we have found so far is pragmatically passionate about the potential for applying systemic approaches to change in Asia, and are keen to meet their peers. Our questions on exploring the need to build the field of system change are resonating. We have experienced no resistance; rather, we have received encouragement to pursue these efforts on the basis that it would contribute to cultivating a field perceived to be much needed.

Whilst many individuals had ideas for where to find like-minded people, it was rare that people could identify specific people beyond a small circle. Interestingly many people pointed us to intersections of expertise areas or practice as a place to look, rather than your straightforward stakeholder categories.

Observations on the types of systemic thinking and practice we’re seeing

So far we have had great conversations around a lot of frameworks and theory that have originated in the West. Donella Meadows’ Levers, Systems Mapping often using Causal Loops, and Complexity Theory have all been referenced. A few people have critiqued them, which in itself is a sign of systemic practice (in our humble opinion) as it means we’re constantly questioning our own assumptions. Many are keen to find more tools and approaches to apply.

Some of the most exciting examples of applying elements of systemic practice on the ground don’t reference any models though. The ability to keep hold of the bigger picture, to collaborate across different perspectives and to be very aware of your own place and role in the system comes naturally to some. This tells us there is more practice out there. It’s just not labelled.

We have a sense that other practices exist that may be based on frameworks unknown to the epistemic community. We think they are as yet unexplored either theoretically or empirically with a systems lens. A great chat with one capability builder highlighted that he uses Chinese Medicine at the start of his sessions as an example of systemic thinking. It comes very intuitively to participants apparently. He also suggested that the philosophies in I-Ching (the Book of Change) can be mapped to what we understand to be elements of systems thinking such as balancing loops. It makes us want to explore more Asian rooted approaches such as Vedic thinking for instance and how this influences change on the ground.

Attitudes to learning how to approach systems change

We know formal education – right from pre-school and tutoring to professional learning – is hugely valued in Asia. We keep being told everyone loves a certificate! A big question was raised by one person however on whether institutionalising or professionalising systems change is an inherently Western thing to do, and whether it is effective for this region. The National Institute Design (NID) in Ahmedabad and others have helped us see that you can have the toolbox of systems change but still not be practicing it systemically or aiming for systems change. They work hard to try and prevent this. How do you build capability in a way that results in meaningful application?

Every person we spoke to said they had gaps in their knowledge and was open to learning. This can’t be generalised obviously, but is a good sign for the emerging field. Even people we would see as experts are very keen to learn from others – exactly as they are in Europe and North America. It sounds like people are mostly in nascent stages, and we have a hunch that are yet to fully articulate their own practice. People have a strong desire to make sense of what they are practising and how it is or could be more systemic. There is a strong degree of humility.

Could we all get together to understand the field and build it?

One of the major events in the Forum calendar last year was the convening of people from across many different systemic practices to explore what the field is and where it could go in North America and Europe. We would like to do the same in Asia and have been testing appetite as we have these conversations. Not one person has said they’re not interested.

A few people did flag that cultures across Asia may mean that the informal nature of last year’s convening in Canada may need to be thought through, particularly if we have some very well respected people attending, and others are less well known. Our desire would be for everyone to have an equal voice and the same sense of ownership.

The field emerging in India feels quite different to that in Southeast Asia (though this may be due to sample size). We don’t think this should mean future action research or convening should be separate however as, if we have learned anything in our explorations, it is that sparks fly when differences meet.

What more do we want to know?

This is just the beginning of our conversations, and of the conversations between the people we are meeting. We would like to test what we’ve heard, challenge it and find the exceptions as well as the rules. If we are to contribute to really building a field of people who can create the change we so urgently need here, we need to answer some of the key questions our initial conversations have raised. These include:

  1. Are there clear articulations of how people are working in systems practice in Asia? How do we build them?
  2. Who are the main groups of people / organisations practising systemic approaches to change?
  3. Who are the people/ organisations that are actually working to build the field (beyond not capacity building) i.e. seeing something bigger than their work and actively cultivating it? How do they approach it on the ground?
  4. How do we identify and connect with the “Non-Western” lineages of systems practice?

What next?

We will be comparing notes and sharing hopes with the community we have met. Being an international not for profit, we are looking for funding to support our collective exploration and convening of the field, with the eventual aim of building a connected community of formidable force that creates and enables systems change right where it is needed most.

Asia is on the brink. It is at once raising its face to greatness whilst standing on the crumbling edge of an abyss full of unprecedented socio-political and environmental challenges. It needs change at a systemic level and, for that to happen, it needs a formidable force of people capable of bringing it about. We’re joining this mission. Will you?

If you would like to join these explorations please do email Pallavi to arrange a chat.

Contact Pallavi 

Research for this blog was conducted by Anna Warrington, Sumi Dhanarajan, Laura Winn, Anna Birney and Pallavi Ahuja.