Great in theory, hard in practice: the story of systems change

Philanthropic foundations face common challenges in adopting systems change approaches; they have an opportunity to learn faster by learning together.

Every year philanthropic foundations spend billions of dollars to have an impact on complex issues related to food, climate, nature, poverty, health, peace and nutrition. And yet, despite much positive impact, the underlying causes of these issues persist.

Systems change approaches that are built to work with complexity, interdependence, emergence and the ever-present power dynamics that create inequality offer a way for foundations to tackle the underlying causes of the problems they care about. And consequently, many leading organisations are exploring and adopting them.

Each philanthropic organisation that embraces systems change is on a learning journey. They are codifying new language, analysis frameworks, and leadership forms. As we have worked with a growing body of philanthropists, we have come to recognise some common struggles, and the opportunity to learn faster by learning together.

Challenges shared by philanthropies that practice systems change

Strategic focus: Funding portfolios are often delineated by technical themes such as agriculture, gender, climate, or livelihoods. Yet these are entangled in the real world. How might philanthropic organisations support interventions layered together to achieve transformative impact? How can they set strategic boundaries that ensure discrete work delivers impact within indiscrete systems?

Working with grantees: Grant recipients often seek immediate impact on an issue and can lack the tools and motives to work on underlying conditions. How can philanthropies guide and support them in pursuit of systems change?

Power: Power inequalities underpin most systemic issues. How can philanthropies apply their funds in ways that rebalance these? How can they harness or even cede their high-level influence in ways that elevate the disenfranchised?

Collaboration: System change can take decades, yet funding cycles are measured in years. How can philanthropies structure collaboration that ensures support beyond their individual timeframes and mandates? How can they operate as an ecosystem in ways that catalyse rather than capture impact?

Monitoring, evaluation and learning: System change embraces emergence, experimentation, and agility. So, how can MEL focus on dynamically improving impact more than doggedly proving impact?

The response to each of these challenges may be different for different foundations, but there is much that they can learn from one another.

If we are going to realise the speed scale and lasting impact that systems change approaches offer – then we need to learn fast and we need to learn together.


Practical steps to unlock systems change

Scott Hinkle

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"Complex problems are the unwanted outputs of systems that are working. And so If we went to tackle these problems we have to change systems that produce them. But just how do we do that?"

In this short blog by Wasafiri’s Scott Hinkle and published by ALNAP – the leading network for learning accountability and performance in the humanitarian system – Scott shares a few of his practical learnings for unlocking systems change within an organisation.


Transforming Youth Employment with Systems Change in Africa

Originally posted at Jobtech Alliance

The looming jobs crisis for young people in Africa

In the next 10 years, African countries will add more people to the workforce than the rest of the world combined. However, while 10 to 12 million youth will enter the workforce each year, only three million formal sector jobs will be created.

There simply won’t be enough jobs for the people that want them. This shortage of quality jobs, particularly for Africa’s burgeoning youth population, risks creating high levels of unemployment, social and economic disparities, and potential migration pressures.

Jobtech Alliance believes this mismatch between youth skills and market demands would hamper productivity and persistent unemployment would pose risks of social unrest and undermine innovation and development potential.

Without the addition of significantly more quality jobs for young people, Africa will not achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Transforming youth employment programming through jobtech and systems change

The world of work is undergoing significant changes, prompting development actors to experiment with new approaches in youth employment programming. This shift is driven by the necessity to adapt to evolving economies and a rapidly changing technological landscape, coupled with mounting evidence challenging the effectiveness of traditional labour market interventions.

Two prominent trends have emerged in recent years to address these challenges:

  • Applying systems change methodologies to labour markets. ‘Systems change’ is an intentional approach to transform the underlying structures, processes, and relationships within a system to address persistent challenges and achieve positive outcomes. In the context of labour markets and youth employment programming, systems change involves re-evaluating and reshaping the complex web of interconnected elements that influence employment dynamics, such as policies, institutions, education, and economic structures. We see it as a holistic, adaptive, and long-term approach that emphasizes partnering with relevant market actors to change the way the system works for young job seekers (Market Systems Development for Employment).
  • The emergence of jobtech which leverages technology to enhance job access, delivery, and productivity. The essence of jobtech are platforms that connect people to work, or which enable them to manage their livelihoods. This includes gig-matching platforms such as ride-hailing, e-commerce, and online job-matching (see Jobtech Alliance’s taxonomy of the jobtech sector in Africa). It is becoming a cross-cutting theme around everything to do with the future of work and how people find work. It is estimated that 30-88 million Africans will earn from jobtech by 2030.

Jobtech Alliance: pioneering systemic solutions for job creation in Africa

Founded in 2021, Jobtech Alliance recognises the potential for ‘jobtech’ to transform the generation of quality, sustainable jobs and do so at a continental scale. The heart of our job-generating ecosystem is jobtech platforms.

We are building an ecosystem around inclusive jobtech to create viable, scalable platforms which provide quality jobs for Africans. We recognise that technology won’t solve youth unemployment on its own, but it plays a crucial role in shaping the skills and opportunities for future generations.

We use a systemic lens to ensure that jobtech interventions go beyond isolated solutions, contributing to shaping the jobtech sector for increased sustainability and inclusivity. Overall, this comprehensive approach acknowledges the changing landscape of youth employment and maximizes the potential impact of jobtech as part of a broader systemic strategy.

How systemic change happens in the jobtech sector

Practically, this means we are working across multiple fronts to shift the dynamics of the current jobtech system, including:

  • Building awareness and knowledge of jobtech, and what works in jobtech: While ‘Jobtech’ gains recognition, a weak understanding persists. Elevating awareness is vital for unlocking the sector’s full potential. We conduct research and host a blog and newsletter to keep the community informed.
  • Nurturing an engaged, informed, and inspired community: Establishing a cohesive community is crucial, and bridging gaps between interconnected stakeholders and fostering collaboration, is essential to share learnings and drive innovation. We host a large community with over 1000 stakeholders including jobtech startup founders, investors, and others to connect and collaborate around our shared vision, with a range of events to connect stakeholders.
  • Nurturing appropriate policies, standards and tools: Striving for policies that consider and align with systemic dynamics is imperative for effective jobtech sector development. We’ve worked with the International Labour Organization to develop a standard tool (currently being piloted) to assess quality of work on jobtech platforms from a user perspective.
  • Fostering a funding network: The jobtech sector faces funding setbacks, with a notable decline in investment. Addressing this challenge is critical for sustained growth and impact. We’re building a Jobtech Investment Network of venture capital and philanthropic funders to ensure that informed funding reaches the right startups.
  • Venture support: Acceleration activities (through advisory and management support as well as capital) for high-potential platforms that can propel the entire sector, fostering successful businesses, generating excitement, and attracting more entrepreneurs and investors. We currently have a portfolio of almost 20 platforms we’re working with.
  • Stimulating global demand for African talent: Jobtech’s essence lies in connecting labour demand (and products and services) with supply. In Africa, addressing the employment shortfall requires stimulating global demand for labour on the continent. This is a big long-term focus.
  • Inclusivity focus: Jobtech can help include groups that traditional labour markets often marginalise – such as women and refugees.

What have we learned so far about applying systems change across Jobtech Alliance?

Jobtech Alliance was started as a systems change initiative and with support from the Small Foundation, the Jobtech Alliance team at Mercy Corps, and BFA Global, have engaged systems change practitioners, Wasafiri, to help more thoughtfully embed this approach into its work. Two early learnings are:

  1. Importance of shared language and concepts. We have integrated Systemcraft as a tangible and applied framework to help gain shared language and concepts that guide our decision-making and implementation. With so many stakeholders involved across the jobtech sector, building a shared language and understanding of how the system works (and how we interact with it) is critical. As we’ll share soon when presenting our systems change model, we’ve integrated multiple overlapping concepts – how the system works, our theory of change, our workstreams, and our principles (see below) – into one common vision.
  2. Need to embed systems principles into everything we do. Whilst the Jobtech Alliance team has been doing systems change for a few years, we have never been able to articulate what such an approach (as opposed to ‘activities’) really means. We were missing some simple, high-level guidance that recognised the interconnected nature of what we do and helped us maintain our mission and character as the Alliance grows. We therefore developed ‘Principles’, which have allowed us to identify blind spots in activities and workstreams and be more comprehensive in our work, from new country engagement strategies to the newsletter and planning events.
Jobtech principles

What’s next, and how to get involved

Systems change doesn’t happen in a day, and even though we’re two years into our work, we’re still early in our systems change journey.

Over the coming months, we’ll share our systems change model for the Jobtech Alliance and how we hope to influence this emerging sector.

We strongly believe that cultivating an inclusive jobtech sector that creates and improves jobs across Africa is key to advancing the prosperity of the African population and offers promising prospects for financial returns and social impact. We are building a movement, and we’d love to get you involved.

To get started, please head to our website to Join our Community.


System Change in Action: The Wigan Deal

We are often asked for stories and examples of when system change has happened. And examples can be hard to spot. But they are out there. And so we try and share them; those we have been involved in and those that have been the work of others.

We won’t all agree on what is or is not system change. That is because complex problems don’t have a fixed end state where the work is done. And so there is always more work to do.

It is also because complex problems are contested – there will be different views on what needs to change and what ‘better’ means and for whom. And complex problems are produced by systems that are (in some way) working, and so there will almost always be some form of loss for someone somewhere.

What makes something system change anyway?

So I use four rules of thumb to help judge if something feels like ‘system-y’ change:

  1. Is there more equity? (e.g. do the less powerful have more control of decisions and resources?).
  2. Has there been a shift in the mindset or paradigm that shapes this issue?
    (e.g. have different assumptions about who are agents of change, who should control resources or what ‘better’ means driven this change?).
  3. Is there some sort of ‘scale’? (e.g. can we reasonably expect that people or nature not directly involved in this intervention at this time will experience that change? – this ‘scale’ might be over space or time).
  4. Has something structural shifted? This too is part of scale. That something has shifted that will outlast the protagonists involved, that changes the conditions in which this complex issue blossoms (e.g. a change in national or organisational policy, a permanent shift in the locus of control of resources, etc).

Welcome to Wigan

Wigan, a former mill town in the North West of England, is often over shadowed by its bigger more famous neighbours – the city of Manchester to the East and Liverpool to the West. But in this story it gets to take centre stage. For, since 2011, Wigan Council and its partners have been working to change the very relationship between the Council and the people that live and work there. Known as The Wigan Deal, this a story that challenges the dynamic that ‘the state knows best and will fix everything’ and that citizens are passive recipients.

What happened?

In 2011 Wigan Council, like many in the UK, found themselves facing significant financial pressures. The wider political climate of ‘austerity‘ (a package of policies that limited public sector funding) meant no more money from central government. And so the Council decided it needed to find a new way to relate to and work with citizens in order to deliver services. It was time to try something radically different.

The provision of public services is complex. Traditionally in the UK, there is a fairly paternalistic relationship between the state and citizens. In practice, this means the state controls the money and gets to decide what sorts of services are needed and citizens, while they may lobby and campaign for certain things, are not decision-makers or seen as creators of solutions.

A non-paternalistic model would require that the role of communities be taken seriously with a genuine commitment to collaboration and co-creation of solutions.

Wigan Council decided that if they were going to create a better town and do so with shrinking budgets, then they had to change this underlying paternalistic dynamic. They had to truly and deeply work in partnership, sharing power with local communities.

And so, together the council, citizens, community groups and businesses of Wigan created a series of ‘pledges’, covering everything from creating a ‘vibrant town’ to ‘care for adults with disabilities’. These pledges committed everyone to play their part – they required specific commitments from the council but also from businesses and from residents.

For example, under the ‘Vibrant Town Centre’ pledge the council committed to providing free city centre parking and residents committed to using it to visit local shops, businesses and leisure facilities rather than using it to travel out of town. Pledges were formed across a host of different areas and together they formed ‘The Wigan Deal.’

In 2019, ‘The Kings Fund’ – an independent health think tank did an evaluation asking ‘Is the Deal Real?‘ They concluded there had been a ‘genuine transformation’. The scale and consistency with which ideas have been applied significantly trumped other attempts, illustrating ‘the kind of work that is needed to shift to a new model of public service delivery’.

How did system change happen?

As system change practitioners, The Wigan Deal is intriguing. We have evidence of transformational change in a complex system driven through collaboration across institutional boundaries. And whilst the Kings Fund pointed to ‘bold leadership’ and ‘a long-term strategic commitment to working differently with local people and communities’ we want to go a bit further and unpick the approach through a systems lens. Does the approach differ from the linear approaches that we know complex systems resist?

Work to wire the system together

At the outset, there was a recognition that no single institution could tackle this alone. Change was going to require a shift in mindset. It was going to require disparate parties to come together, build relationships, build understanding, share ambitions, share challenges and commit resources for doing work together.

This ‘wiring of the system together’ is fundamentally important in system change – and – goes beyond just bringing people together. It requires the patient work to really get to know and understand different agendas and perspectives. It requires the willingness to share resources and power.

The “Be Wigan Experience” attended by people from different parts of the system was one tool which helped build collaboration and shift mindsets regarding how residents, citizens and others viewed each other. And it took time.

Donna Hall (former CEO of Wigan Borough Council) described how everyone danced around each other for 2 years before getting on with the real work. But through that dancing the ambition for the work was reframed as “it doesn’t belong to any one of us – it belongs between us”.

Get practical

“The Deal” – the pledges between the council, citizens, community groups and businesses to create a better borough – represents a shared, but big and abstract ambition. In system change work we also have to work on concrete goals to create a focus that mobilises resources and pulls you towards the big ambition.

Below the headline Deal are “deals” for adult social care, “your street”, communities, children and young people, health and wellbeing and businesses. There are co-created pledges in specific contexts such as housing in which the provision of council homes for people with disabilities was supported by private landlords willing to let their properties through the council.

This is a tangible, measurable goal that moves towards the bigger, more abstract, ambition.

No single story

Another aspect of the approach that speaks to systems change is the diversity of storytelling. For example, “Rekindling hope: the story of the Wigan Deal” is told by young people, NHS, community groups, council employees, and businesses.

It is not the Council, ‘the state’, telling one story. It is different parts of the system expressing what matters to them.

In systems change, there is no single story and the Kings Fund research highlighted this. Focus groups found that people’s concerns about issues such as crime and antisocial behaviour were overshadowing incredible progress being made in social care and public health.

Build on what's working

Social care is providing help with day-to-day living because of illness or disability. And it is one of the fastest-growing areas of need and cost in the UK.

People’s social care needs vary significantly depending on their circumstances so providing services that meet needs is highly complex and not well suited to a centralised, paternalistic, one-size-fits-all approach to public service delivery.

Because The Wigan Deal was a collaborative effort it had access to an incredible body of collective intelligence, both about people’s needs and also about the varied way these needs could and were being met.

One of the central successes of the Deal was the closure of expensive Council-run day care centres – predicated on a mindset of ‘come to us, use our services’. Instead, investment was channelled into a network of existing community organisations and neighbourhood groups already connected to people with care needs in their community and better able to understand and provide tailored and localised support to those who needed it.

In system change, this is an example of investing in and building collective and adaptive capacity. Day Care Centres focused on ‘the problem’ (e.g. an isolated elderly person) – a very expensive endeavour. Investing in community organisations focused instead on creating the conditions in which the existing organisations who know and represent local people were better able to thrive and adapt to local needs.

Demand was stripped out of the Council’s social care system and there was an improvement in health and wellbeing metrics.

What next?

What makes the Wigan Deal distinctive and an example of system change in action is the focus on building collective and adaptive capacity. The work of ‘wiring the system together’ better has been fundamental in the co-creation of solutions.

It successfully drew on what already existed in the spaces between different stakeholders, addressing unmet needs in a highly resource-constrained context. The Wigan Deal mobilised resources across organisational boundaries, changed the narrative and amplified the visibility of under-utilised strengths, delivering change at scale.

The Wigan Deal is by no means a panacea and it is now four years on from the Kings Fund analysis during which the Pandemic and UK Cost of Living Crisis has hit. Undoubtedly Wigan was better able to adapt to those shocks having adopted aspects of a systems-based approach.

We hope the people of Wigan have managed to hold their nerve and not relapse, under significant pressure, to a fallacy that the Council can solve these challenges on its own.

Image courtesy of Rept0n1x, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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Rethinking our leadership approach to tackle complex food systems issues

In 2017, millions of farmers in East Africa faced a devastating drought and a new threat; the fall armyworm. The pest devastated maize and wheat producing regions in South and Central Rift Valley regions of Kenya.

The pest spread rapidly, it was unresponsive to traditional pesticides and worst of all, had devastating effects on farmers’ crops. Extension service providers were deployed, intervention strategies by governments were formulated but still, the problem prevailed.

To begin addressing the challenges we face in our food systems we must first acknowledge that we are tackling a complex problem. Complex problems have no single owner, no single root cause, they are dynamic, constantly adapting, and the system is in fact working for some people, somewhere, some of the time.

Transformational change is required to tackle the challenges we face in addressing the complexities our food systems. This entails various shifts across multiple components, leading to changes in the system.

Transformational change requires systems thinking and systems leadership. Systems leadership and thinking will allow our food systems leaders to acknowledge the interconnectivity and the relationships between different actors and the need for collective action.

Take for example the paradox of Climate and Nutrition and the unintended consequences on women. Empowering women to employ climate smart practices at farm level would have a positive effect on the environment and contribute to climate change mitigation.

The unintended consequence would subsequently be the increase in women’s labour and workload needed to adopt climate smart practices which takes away from their child caring capacities affecting their children’s nutrition. To address such a paradox, a systems thinking approach is required.

There is a great need for leaders in the food systems space to think and act systemically. Food systems leaders can apply a systemic approach to solving problems by applying Systemcraft. This framework applies five dimensions for action which work on underlying system conditions.

Applying the five dimensions of Systemcraft

  1. The first is to Organise for Collaboration since no single person or institution can make change alone. A great example of this is the African Food Fellowship which is a community and a network of practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and influencers across the food system in Kenya and Rwanda working jointly across different capacities such as aquaculture, sustainable land use, and agri-finance to transform food systems.
  2. Second is to Set the Direction. Transforming food systems needs big ambitions to mobilise resources. An example of this is Rwanda’s ‘First 1,000 Days’ health campaign of 2017 which aimed to eradicate child malnutrition. The ambition was big enough to rally support towards developing strategies to attain the end goal.
  3. Third is to Make it Matter. Change can be hard and so the issue must matter to those that need to do the changing. Due to the great significance of livestock (both socially and economically) to several communities in Africa, we have seen governments actively invest in developing the Livestock Development Strategy for Africa to increase the sustainability and resilience of the sector.
  4. Number four is to Change the Incentives. As individuals, we all make decisions that make sense to us – whether it is what food to eat or what job we do. For example, in Malawi, the 2006 Farmer Input Subsidy Program aimed to incentivise resource-poor smallholder farmers to reinvest in maize production by accessing improved agricultural farm inputs against a background of bad weather causing poor yields. This attracted farmers back into maize production.
  5. Lastly is to Harness Collective Intelligence. A system best serves those with the most information. Asymmetries of power in how information flows create a broken system. The 2021, Lead Mothers program in Uganda is a great example of this. Due to the lack of nutrition information on maternal health, a group of women called lead mothers were trained on good agronomic practices, and nutritional benefits of consuming biofortified crops and they became community-based information hubs which in turn holistically increased the community’s understanding of the importance of nutrition.

These dimensions of action can be applied in any order by any food system leader. When it comes to systems, changing what is right, and what is possible, are not the same thing.

It is not enough to simply understand the problems we are facing in our food systems and have some great ideas to shift them. We also must understand the wider context in which we are trying to create change and prompt our leaders to think and act systematically.

This was first presented by Brenda Mareri at TedX AGRF 2023, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

More on systems-leadership and systems approaches


AGRF 2023: Time for Food System Leadership

A leadership gap is limiting the transformation of Africa’s food system

We (Team Wasafiri’s Claudia & Brenda) have just returned from the Africa Food Systems Forum (AGRF) 2023 in Dar es Salaam Tanzania, where we had an incredible week connecting with food system actors on the continent.

It was exciting to see that it is now mainstream to talk about food as a system; that we collectively have moved beyond agriculture production as the only issue that matters.

Taking a system view isn’t just a matter of being more in vogue or with the zeitgeist, but has a real-world practical impact on the way we understand the complexities of food. It is through a systems view that we can understand, for example, the impact of empowering women (who are the majority of the worlds’ farmers) to employ climate are the real word complexities of food systems and just focusing on one dimension – such as increased production, increased incomes, or climate adaptation may make action feel reassuringly achievable but is a mirage in terms of real transformation.

Brenda & Claudia at AGRF 2023
Wasafiri's Brenda Mareri and Claudia Piacenza at AGRF 2023

We were also pleasantly surprised to see that soil health is no longer a topic only for geeky soil scientists in a corner, but the subject of several conversations that focus on the “how” rather than the “why”.

Smallholder farmers were acknowledged, mentioned, and celebrated as the backbone of the industry but not yet seen and served as the main clients of that industry. How do we move from smallholders as ‘beneficiaries’ of well-meaning interventions designed to ameliorate the impacts of an industrial food system that is built to serve large scale producers – and into the place where smallerholders hold more of the power within food systems?

Chefs from all over the world united their creative minds and sapient hands to elevate “poor” ingredients like beans to demonstrate that healthy diets do not have to be affordable only for middle-class, urban consumers.

And yet despite this great breadth of knowledge, creativity, inspiration and expertise, we are still dealing with incredibly stubborn problems as the Africa Agriculture Status Report reminds us. Why is that?

A big part of the answer lies in the need for a different kind of leadership. Systemic leadership was lacking at the AGRF. We saw a large showcase of good intentions but very little sense-making and collaboration at a level that can truly advance systemic change. Food System transformation requires a deep appreciation of the interconnections not just between the people that produce, process, transport, sell and consume food but also the relationship to the natural world that is the genesis of it all. No one leader, institution, company, or government, however well-intentioned and well-resourced is going to be able to transform a food system alone. It just can’t be done. Collective action is the only form of action that is going to work – and this needs network-driven forms of leadership where collaboration is not an optional activity but the default mode.

Finally, we have a serious problem with the representational status of African rulers who are often over 60, while the average African is 20 years old. And we still do not have enough women leaders with access to the power they need and deserve to nurture collective change at scale. We need to talk about it and support a new generation of African leaders for Food Systems.

The African Food Fellowship is investing in African Food System leaders in Kenya and Rwanda. We are starting to see how leaders can transform food systems in their countries towards more equitable, sustainable, and healthy outcome. Reach out if you want to know more!

If you enjoyed this blog then try this one about speeding up Food System Transformation 


Systems leadership: What is it? What is it for?

As we look to step up to today’s ecological and social challenges and help our organisations and communities navigate these complex times – we are reaching for leadership approaches that speak to our interconnected and shifting world.

Systems leadership is one such approach. But what does it actually mean? And how do we do it?

Systems leadership has come to refer to two different (though potentially reinforcing) things.

Some advocate for it as a way to do leadership that recognises the nature of organisations but is agnostic to their purpose. Others advocate for systems leadership as a way to achieve positive outcomes from our leadership, driven by a sense of purpose to address social or environmental challenges.

A way to do leadership

The agnostic version of systems leadership is about seeing our organisations as ecosystems – alive with relationships, history, hopes for the future, beliefs, values, culture, personalities, and flows of resources. It is also about recognising that our organisations are subject to events beyond our control.

Systems leadership asks us to see our organisations less like machines and more like gardens, and ourselves as gardeners, not mechanics. In this context, leadership is about building collective efforts, it’s about seeking perspectives and voices from the margins. It is about tending to the enabling conditions and not just today’s presenting problems.

We can do all this stuff and still (mostly) do it in service of the current ‘system’ – that is the outcomes that our organisation, civic society, national politics and so on currently serve.

An outcome of our leadership

The purpose-driven version of systems leadership is about the pursuit of systemic change. Here we refer to the work to change the structures, rules of the game, relationships, beliefs, values, and so on that create the current state.

Let’s take as an example – food systems. At most national scales, and certainly, at a global level, the current dominant food system is wired to produce as much food as possible, as cheaply as possible.

To do this, it is built on a value set that talks of ‘natural resources to be extracted’, it measures land by productive value, prioritises private ownership and seeks efficiency. As such, our food systems have stimulated amazing advances in technology that improve the productive quality of land, increase the size of animals, and speed up the process of harvest.

This is a system that produces large quantities of food (though not equally distributed) and has allowed people in many parts of the world, such as the UK, to move their labour away from farming and towards other jobs.

It is also a system that has degenerated nature and promoted diets that damage our health.

By some estimates, we only pay a third of the true cost of our food – the remaining costs are externalised upon our environment and health care systems.

Food systems leadership is not just about changing how we do leadership inside our ‘food-producing’ organisations but also addresses the nature of the very system that produces food. It is about shifting the mindsets that determine the way we relate to nature, the relationships between producers and consumers of food, the policy and legal frameworks that shape who can own land, the incentives that determine subsidies and ultimately the purpose of food systems.

This sort of systems leadership is going on all over the place and at all scales. It is happening at the level of individual farms that adopt more regenerative practices (such as Ghyll Bank Farm here where I live in Cumbria, Northern England), all the way through to the global level efforts such as the UN Food Systems Summit.

At Wasafiri we have contributed to a number of these systems leadership efforts including the Food Systems Summit, the African Food Fellowship, and the Climate Change COPs which are finally recognising that food systems must account for a third of our net emissions reductions.

A way to lead AND a reason to lead

Leading system change does require we show up as ‘systems leaders’. We must be committed to elevating the voices and power of the marginalised (including the natural world and even future generations), be willing to operate without certainty; knowing that what has gone before won’t hold the answer to what we need to do next; accepting that traditional hierarchical power and control modes of leadership are simply inadequate.

However, just showing up in these ways is not, in itself, a guarantee of system change.

One could use a ‘systems leadership’ approach to run a large agricultural business (or a single farm) – and do so in the pursuit of the same outcomes as it has always produced.

Leadership for system change needs us to both operate differently as leaders and pursue different sorts of outcomes from our leadership – the sorts of outcomes that will create a more equitable, peaceful, and sustainable world.


Leading Beyond Our Organisational Boundaries

Responsible leadership requires meaningful engagement with system level change

By Kate Simpson, Wasafiri & Mark Larmour, Forward Institute

When Fellows from the Forward Institute met recently in York, they came together to explore how best to understand and experiment with systemic change in complex organisations.

The Forward Institute teamed up with Wasafiri, and their Systemcraft model, to help their Fellows work out ‘so, what do I do next?’.

Leading change in complex organisations to create responsible, sustainable, or even regenerative outcomes requires leaders who are willing and skilled up to take a systems-based approach to making change happen. And here is why.

Responsible and sustainable leadership in any organisation demands that we consider the impact our organisations have on people, communities, society and the environment. All the impacts. All the people. Not just the impact that we might desire. And not just the people – employees, shareholders, customers – that we set out to serve. It requires us to consider all the impacts and all the people.

Often, this requires responsible and sustainable organisations to absorb the additional burden of the impacts that lie well beyond their perceived organisational boundary. This, for instance, might mean taking responsibility for the impact on the environment through the waste produced, transportation used, or the natural resources required in their processes.

It could mean taking responsibility for the (sometimes hidden) impact on the communities that they serve or are located within. It should also include taking responsibility for the impact of what the organisation does, and how it does it, on the well-being and health of its people.

Taking responsibility as leaders for these wider impacts, across the complex systems in which we operate, requires more than just good intentions.

Often our business models work more efficiently, and more profitably, by externalising certain environmental or social costs.

Sustainable, responsible shifts within organisations are not about doing current things better, but about doing current things differently. And that ‘different’ is systemic change.

This is not a shallow, woolly or abstract call for things to just ‘be different’. It requires specific attention to the incentives that drive current choices within our organisation.

It is the need for better collaboration between organisations, across all sectors, and with wider society – we can only make a responsible and sustainable change when we work collectively.

While there often aren’t quick fixes or easy wins, there are still many things that we can change for the better, and for the long term.

The Forward Institute is focused on encouraging organisations to consider the wider impacts that they are having on society, and encouraging senior leaders to think for the long term. Wasafiri has created the Systemcraft model through reverse engineering their extensive experience of working with organisations and communities on leading complex, systemic change.

Working together as thought partners, we are collectively committed to helping senior leaders and their organisations to make good change happen.

It is only when we look outside our organisational boundaries that we are able to identify the opportunities to make positive change in the complex systems in which we operate which can benefit everyone.


The Great Race to Make the Deep Sea Matter

A passionate coalition of scientists, indigenous leaders, Hollywood stars, and other Ocean champions are trying to persuade enough governments to vote against the granting of mining concessions. Their work is an inspirational example of how to “Make it Matter” when addressing complex issues.