Between the institution and the individual: What works for systems change (part one)

This is Part One of a Two Part Series exploring different approaches to tackling social issues in development work and the public sector. It is held in conversation between Lizzy Robinson and Josiane Smith, who connected in Amman over their mutual fascination with social development, behaviour change and the bigger forces in society that help or hinder progress.

Lizzy Robinson is a Senior Program Manager and the Afghanistan portfolio lead at MAGENTA, a social and behavioural change research and communications firm.

Josiane Smith manages Strategic Partnerships and Growth at the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), a global, cross-sector network of institutions and individuals committed to social and systems change.

Their conversation continues here:

What can behavioural science tell us about innovation and social development?

Josiane Smith: I really enjoyed learning about your work last time I was in Amman. Could you explain what MAGENTA does and a little about what you do in the organisation?

Lizzie Robinson: Sure. So MAGENTA works on development and social problems in the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa and South Asia. We use principles from several fields – psychology, sociology, and behavioural economics – to better understand why people might make harmful choices, and then encourage them to make better ones.

Josiane: What kinds of choices are we talking about here? 

Lizzie: These are choices like whether or not to pay a bribe, whether to keep your child in school or send them to work, and whether to support violent extremism. So obviously very complex choices, and with important outcomes!

And since we first met in Amman, you’ve moved back to London, right Josiane?

Josiane: Yep – I’m now working at SIX and I manage our Strategic Partnerships and Growth; a role heavily focussed on relationships and intelligence, geared towards growing our network and building a pipeline for flagship programmes like the Unusual Suspects Festival, our Wayfinder event, or our capacity building and ecosystem building initiatives.

When we first started chatting about our work, Lizzie, I remember finding it interesting how MAGENTA and SIX both put social change at the heart of our work, but treat it differently. 

Lizzie: Right. While MAGENTA works at an individual and community level to support people to make better choices, SIX seems to work much higher at the level of institutions. 

Can you explain more about what SIX does and what kinds of institutions you work with?

Josiane: Yes – so SIX’s whole mission is to facilitate purposeful cross sector conversations that challenge and inspire people to use innovation to increase social impact. We use a decade of convening and capacity building experience to foster what has become a vibrant, values-led exchange among institutions such as city governments, universities, foundations, and corporations. 

Lizzie: That’s awesome, and it’s so, so important for people working on social change to constantly be exposed to new ideas and different ways of approaching the problem and to continuously challenge their assumptions. Behavioural science tells us that confirmation bias and groupthink can compromise innovation and lead people to get stuck in a cycle of the same ideas. So I’m glad to hear that SIX is working to expose people to new ideas and even new ways of thinking altogether.

Josiane: You can pitch for us next time!

Prevalent approaches to tackling social issues

Lizzie: Haha. So maybe we could explore what approaches have been prevalent in our sectors up until now. How are social problems usually tackled in your sector?

Josiane: That’s an interesting question because when we first started out eleven years ago, the social innovation field was still new. At the time, the charity and governmental sectors were not satisfied with how social issues were being addressed – those responsible for high-level reform through grants, policy or social programmes were operating in project-based siloes of activity with short output-driven funding cycles. Social innovation, if anything, prized rationalist thought and entrepreneurialism over systemic, complexity-literate and cross-sector intervention.

We are realising more and more now that social problems are complex; they take a long time to shift and therefore need approaches which are more innovative, collaborative, evidence-based, transparent, and participatory.

Lizzie: That’s really interesting Josiane – a lot of what you say rings true for the development sector as well. I think we’re also moving from an output-driven and simplified approach – for example, thinking that distributing textbooks alone will improve learning outcomes – to one that also acknowledges the complexities of people and the challenges they face. Kids need way more than just textbooks to learn. They need a supportive environment, a good teacher, they need to feel motivated and have self-confidence, etc.

Josiane: Totally. You can give out as many textbooks as you want, but if it’s still taboo in a community for girls to be educated, for instance, then the books won’t do as much good as possible for those children. 

Lizzie: Exactly. The development sector has made a lot of progress – we are beginning to acknowledge the importance of individual and community-level factors – taboos, behavioural and social norms, attitudes, beliefs, interests, power dynamics, social expectations… 

Josiane: Real human experience and local context are both so important to – if not starting social change, then making it stick. Who was it who said something like “if you want to destroy a factory, but the mindset that produced the factory still exists, then another factory will just be built on top”? 

The individual and institutional levels of change

Lizzie: That’s a great quote about the mindsets that ‘produce’ institutions and structures – I don’t know who said it, but it’s very true! It’s interesting to look at interactions between individuals and institutions. Where does that show up in your work at SIX?

Josiane: Interesting question! Even though we work at a systems-level – meaning cross-sector, with institutions and communities of practice, around the globe – we have to acknowledge that individuals are at the heart of all institutions, structures and policies. So we also work with people’s attitudes, behaviours and beliefs in order to spark organisational and structural shifts.

Lizzie: And how do you do that?

Josiane: For instance, we often ask what people’s motivations are, what their visions of change are, what their pain points are, and how their work, lived experience or way of doing something could be valuable to others. 

Lizzie: And what effect does that have on the outcomes of your work?

Josiane: Most of the time, making structural or strategic changes with and through real individuals means blindspots are surfaced early on, proposals are more connected to reality, and there’s a greater potential to influence real change on the ground. 

Measuring impact and measuring change

Lizzie: Where does change take place for you then? At what level do you seek to make change?

Josiane: It’s something we grapple with a lot, because we basically work at a really high level as an intermediary / external convener and facilitator of change. So we’re sometimes removed from the work that’s happening on the ground.

Lizzy: What does impact look like for SIX in that case? How can you measure it?

Josiane: Instead of asking “what is our impact?”, we’ve begun asking “what change do we want to see?” and “what signals should we be looking for that tell us change is happening?”

Over our eleven years, we’ve helped universities to rethink their purpose through social labs, co-creation methodologies, and consortiums which bridge research and practice; we’re continuously shifting the dial on the way foundations operate through our funders’ retreats and reports; we’ve exposed corporations to social R&D, business for good practices, and social innovation ecosystems; and we’ve built capacity in places that have a real, broad desire for something to change.

This is Part One of a Two Part Series which explores different approaches to tackling social issues in development work and the public sector. This first article emphasises the role of behavioural science and social innovation to instigate meaningful social change and discusses the differences of measuring “impact” vs. “change”.

Next week, Lizzy and Josiane will use a case study in Afghanistan to emphasise the importance of behaviours and social norms when seeking to influence social change, and will offer organisations a way to address tensions when systems begin to inhibit progress towards positive social reform. 

You can tweet the authors @JosianeSmith and @MagentaSBCC.