The world is not short of models for systems change. Many of these models are right and a few of them are useful. The World Business Council for Sustainability and Development (WBCSD) has just published a brief on ‘Unlocking systems transformation’ which falls well into the ‘useful’ category.
Who are they and what do they do?
WBCSD was set up in early 1990s to help business leaders build not just their awareness but also their ability to confront sustainable development issues. As an organisation they are committed to creating the change that is needed to enable ‘9 billion people to live well within planetary boundaries.
The whole brief is well worth a read – and is short enough to get through in the time it takes to drink a coffee (though perhaps not if you like an expresso). The first part of the paper does a decent job of contextualising ‘transformational change’ and what it means to work with systems. Recognising that both concepts have a diversity of meaning. The bulk of the paper then offers a succinct answer to the questions:
How does system change happen? What gets in the way? and what’s the role of business?
The paper is built around the concept that when ‘megatrends’ (e.g artificial intelligence) put pressure on the status quo (employment) ‘innovations’ develop in response (e.g universal basic income). If the right enablers are in place then such innovations are propelled into the mainstream and then transformational change occurs. They argue that the role of and opportunity for business is to attend to the ‘enablers’. Whilst the relationship between the mega trends and innovations remains unclear and these seem rather ‘free floating’ – things that just ‘appear’- the concept of the enablers is nevertheless useful.
The authors of the WBCSD paper identify five key enablers. Rooting these in the acknowledged work of others. These are:
- Mindsets – norms & values
- Policy & Regulation
- Information flows
- Financial flows
These are the things, they argue, that business can and must play a role in advancing. What and how to advance these enablers are left for another day (beyond a few headlines) as is the question of what needs to be transformed. Talking about change and systems and transformation and enabling conditions can all quickly become unhelpful abstract. What the WBCSD paper offers are a few concrete things to look at and work on. They might not be ‘right’ (in the sense of offering all and everything we need to know) but I do believe they are useful in helping us to think about these big and abstract ideas in concrete and tangible ways.
The key takeaway…
The authors remind us, that impact at scale is going to require ‘unprecedented levels of action and coordination’ and therefore we are going to have to work out and be willing to work together if we seek to play a role in transformational change.