Getting Systems Change Positive with the Protein Challenge
It was exciting to see The Climate Group and Futerra launch Climate Optimist. They found that people who are actually working to tackle climate change are more positive than those who just see the grim facts. Being empowered to act and feeling that you have tools available to do something makes people hopeful – and the campaign aims to spread that hope and drive more action.
In a similar way, I find that systems change gives me hope and positivity on a range of sustainability challenges. By adopting an approach that brings real understanding and learning to a challenge, and that uses that insight to drive innovation and find ways to scale ideas that work – all elements of system change – it feels like we have a chance.
One of the projects that makes me hopeful is the Protein Challenge 2040. We are working on sets of solutions to feed 9 billion people sufficient protein in a way that is affordable and doesn’t harm the environment. We are now at the point of crunchy delivery where change is starting to happen. As we progress, we are learning more and more about the practicalities of making big change happen – and that is exciting and empowering. Right now, we are consolidating that learning, so that we can explore how to share it and apply it to other people’s challenges at our November network event.
Systems change in practice
One example we will explore further is ‘practical diagnosis’ – balancing taking practical steps to get tangible outputs, with the ongoing diagnosis of where we can make the most difference.
We started the Protein Challenge with a system map to bring the different protein supply chains together for the first time. This broad system diagnosis draws on research and stakeholder insights and is an essential first step. From the map, our group of business leaders, entrepreneurs and NGOs identified key leverage points for change. For example people eating more plant based protein, or tackling the sustainability challenges that come with animal feed.
As we set to work activating the leverage points, we found that getting practical was not always as immediate as we’d have liked. You need to keep diving deeper into a problem to find the most effective and creative ways forward. This risks becoming a talking shop, which no-one enjoys. So, drawing on design thinking, we moved to doing this continued diagnosis through real-world piloting. This meant we could make progress, and learn what works and what’s needed, at the same time.
On animal feed we started with an assumption that we needed to be able to compare different types of animal feed and husbandry to drive more sustainable choices. We built a draft ‘Feed Compass’ to do that – an assessment tool describing the different sustainability elements that should be considered for feed, with a range of partners and experts. This practical output helped us understand more about what was really happening. As we explored the data needed to validate the criteria it became clear that the lack of transparency on what animals are fed was a more fundamental problem. There is very little publically available data. To get to a point where any criteria were going to make a difference we needed more basic information. At the same time there were no real incentives to provide that information (we have learned on many projects that incentives are key). So we are now working on a few simple questions that retailers, food service and producers can consistently ask, raising awareness and transparency across the supply chain. From there we will explore what requirements customers can ask for to provide the right incentives.
Small successes v. quick wins
To evolve a diagnosis in a way that combines practical outputs and deepening insights is becoming more and more central to our work. It can be frustrating as it sometimes means changing direction, but it also gets practical faster which helps maintain momentum. The type of actions are important. David Peter Stroh, author of ‘System Thinking for Social Change’ makes an important distinction between quick fixes and small successes. Small successes are designed in the context of bigger, longer term ambitions. They demonstrate progress towards the fuller measurable results. Whereas quick fixes are about sorting something quickly – they are a sticking plaster that often consolidates the problem and may have unintended consequences. So taking action for system change has to be about small successes that are driving towards a goal – not quick wins, just to get something done.
This is just one example of the sort of insights we are getting that help make big change practical. The Protein Challenge 2040 is one of several projects making me hopeful and ‘systems change positive’. And if you want more hope, and to learn more about creating the system change needed to address complex sustainability challenges, join us on November 9th for our next network event.