We know that we are facing increasingly complex and interconnected challenges, from poverty and water scarcity to rising global temperatures and crashing biodiversity. We also know the world doesn’t work in simple or linear ways and that, therefore, only a systemic approach will create what’s desperately needed: a more sustainable world.

But what are systems? And what is an effective systemic approach? Both were key questions recently explored by leaders across multiple industries and sectors at an event convened by Forum for the Future in New York in May.

Forum defines a system as a set of elements interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time. Systems can be tiny, like a microorganism, or huge, like an entire economy. They can be naturally formed, or created by us. System change is a deliberate process designed to transform the system’s fundamental behaviours so that a new, sustainable pattern can emerge.

Achieving this kind of long-term, transformational change, at both the scale and pace needed, is incredibly hard. There are no silver bullets. There’s no one individual, business, government or community able to do it alone.  

That’s why Forum brought together more than 40 senior leaders from civil society and the philanthropic, corporate and investment communities to share insights on how to effectively drive systemic change. The event was hosted by Paul Polman, Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, and attended by representatives from Unilever, Walgreens Boots Alliance, the UN Foundation, the Milken Philanthropy Institute, the Nature Conservancy and more. All joined in much-needed cross-sector debate and discussion on how change really occurs, and how organisations can be more deliberate in taking systemic approaches.  

So how does system change actually happen?

At Forum, we use the ‘Multi-level Perspective’ framework to understand what’s happening in the world around us and identify where in the change process we are. It has three components: the regime – the mainstream and the way things get done today; the niche – where new and unstable technologies, ideas, concepts and innovations emerge until they mature into the mainstream, and the landscape – the external context shaping the way the niche and regime interact.

System change happens when pressures from the landscape (such as political transformations) and the development of strong alternative solutions in the niche combine to disrupt the regime.

Simply put, it takes time, with different actions from different actors operating at different levels. Based on our work, Forum has identified nine strategies that we believe are key to creating system change, and it’s these that formed the basis of discussions in New York.

1. Create a robust case for change 

Our first strategy is about using science-based information to help key stakeholders understand the problem and how it affects them. Doing so is the first step to creating the case for change, which must be grounded in a compelling vision of what a sustainable future looks like; something everyone can really get behind.

As Charlotte Ersbøll of the UN Global Compact commented on the night: “The Sustainable Development Goals are massive drivers for systems change at the corporate level: [there is an] incredible willingness to step up and take this agenda forwards.”  Or as Roy Steiner of the Rockefeller Foundation said: “If leaders can make the vision, the future, real in a way that local people can really understand and connect with, it could play a really critical role.”

Making a robust case now is not only the right ethical and environmental move but a way of reaping long-term competitive and economic benefit. As Paul said: “Increasingly the economic forces are driving you to do the right thing. Everywhere we look the financial cost of not acting is higher than the cost of acting.”

2. Make information accessible

Our second strategy considers the need to raise awareness and develop a shared understanding of key issues, challenges and solutions. As Danielle Azoulay of L’Oréal USA observed: “Transparency needs to be the ‘guiding light’ for sustainable business.”

3. Create collaborations

Thirdly, we need to create collaborations that help align mindsets and goals, enable shared learning and spark new innovations. Complex challenges often require complex solutions with multiple sectors, industries and interests at play. We need to recognise that, as Kathy Calvin, CEO & President of the UN Foundation observed: “We see the food sector with the land sector with the climate sector – they’re all starting to recognise they’re in the same shared space. The sectors are seeing solutions… where they might not have previously looked for them.”

 The complexity of the challenges we face means business-as-usual no longer applies. We need to work differently, as Kriss Deigelmeier of the Tides Foundation highlighted: “When you want your ideas to stick you need to bring in unlikely partners – that often means business, civil society and government.”


4 / 5.Create disruptive innovations, and routes for them to scale

This is about bringing something new. How can we develop alternative, sustainable solutions that have the potential to mainstream – from products and services to entirely new ways of operating? We need to demonstrate proof of concept and provide new ingredients for the system to reconfigure around.

 But an innovation is only effective if it’s taken to scale. Our fifth strategy is about how we allow for innovations in the niche to enter the regime, or replace it altogether.

6. Create the right incentives, business models and financing

This focuses on changing how the mainstream operates. It’s about adapting to change, allowing the mainstream to respond to pressures. “NGOs need to do the brokering of pre-competitive action in a more efficient way. To understand what the ROI is… and how to drive and mainstream a solution” said Santiago Gowland of The Nature Conservancy. “The Nature Conservancy used the multinational business model to drive and accelerate change [in restoring water systems]. [We] used global ‘economies of knowledge’ to develop solutions, strong teams in countries to influence policy and government, and built the capacity of local NGOs. In Colombia the government has committed to restore every water basin the country.”

7. Develop policies that facilitate and reinforce systemic change

Our seventh strategy uses economic tools like taxation and subsidies, as well as political influencing, to shift behaviours and goals, albeit gradually.

8. Shift culture, mindsets and behaviours

The hardest of all the system change strategies is potentially the most powerful. It’s how we profoundly shift the big picture context in which the system operates and in doing so, shift culture, mindsets and behaviours. I echo Paul’s comment from the evening: “Unless we unlock that humanity… and start to care again, we will not find the answers that we desperately need.”

Change needs all of us as individuals, not just as part of influential organisations, governments or communities. From what and how we choose to buy, consume and throw away, to how we travel every single day, our decisions and behaviours have profound implications on our planet.

9. Develop rules, measures and standards for the ‘new normal’

Our ninth strategy is used in the later stage of any change cycle. It comes in once a new system is beginning to emerge and we’re seeing real signals of change.


So what will you do?

With nine strategies to delivering system change, we have the know-how. It’s not easy, but it’s the way forward, and Forum continues to engage wide-ranging organisations and civil society in shaping sustainability strategies with the potential for transformational change. I encourage you to really consider your role in a system and in tackling the challenge you or your organisation faces – and to explore how you can work with Forum on this.

As Paul concluded on the night: “We can all make a difference, that’s what we must unlock in every one of us. We need leaders with a bigger sense of purpose, that can think intergenerational, that understand the true sense of partnership.” I couldn’t agree more.


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The nine strategies above draw upon transitions theory (Geels et al) and look at where and how change might be leveraged. It was developed from and for use in practice by Forum’s System Innovation Lab.