Systems Innovation hosted their second conference in London at the start of September, following their kick off in Barcelona in Spring 2019. The conference brought together almost 200 researchers and practitioners who are applying complexity science and systems thinking in their work, and enabling systems innovation and change throughout the realms of economy, society, technology and environment. Our Partnerships and Growth Manager, Josiane Smith, attended the conference and writes about it below.
Calling 'Systems Innovation' what it is
I started my career working with social enterprise support organisations in the UK, a relatively niche but burgeoning field at the time. I didn’t have the language of systems then, and throughout five years of working on social and economic development in the Middle East, I didn’t actively start thinking in terms of systems until the very end of my time there. I landed back in London to work at the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) this summer, and begun weaving threads through social entrepreneurship, social development, social innovation and systems change.
There are subtle distinctions between these domains; for instance, in how deeply they intervene in societal issues (at a root or surface level), who and what enables or inhibits the work to happen, and what the overall vision or scale of change is. There are lots of ways to talk about this, most of which I overheard at the recent Systems Innovation Conference:
systems change, systemic change, systematic change, social change, social innovation, systems innovation, social entrepreneurship, systems entrepreneur, systems intrapreneur, systems thinking, systems design, systems map, systems theory, complexity theory, context mapping, consequence mapping, systems mapping, landscape mapping, impact measurement, outcomes measurement, change measurement, transition measurement, process, approach, projects, interventions, inquiry, iteration, interaction, influence…
A few things are interesting about this and they largely centre around the tensions between research and practice: Do terms matter? Does a neat definition correlate to reality? Does our language change the work we do? Can something be specified to death? If we don’t call a thing what it is, are we still doing it?
One major takeaway from this conference is yes - language matters. While the map is not the territory, borders often lead to walls. It is therefore important to pay close attention to the descriptors of what we do and what kind of change we are working towards.
That said, we can never let language stop us doing socially relevant and needed work as practitioners in the field. Just because we haven’t found the right way to frame our work in a proposal, or whilst pitching to our friends, or on our communications channels, it doesn’t mean there isn’t still a need and an opportunity to get to work.
Systems Change vs. Systems Level Operation
Another takeaway from the conference is that systems (or systemic) change is no small feat, and not all can lay claim to shifting the fundamental structures within a system. Some may question whether the work we do at SIX is fundamentally systems change work, and I’ll speak to that more in a future article. But we do work on a systems level for social change - cross-sector, with institutions, as the convenor of communities of practice, around the globe. Of course, while we are often removed from the direct impact on the ground, the benefit of working this way is our rich and wide perspective on how to help social change happen across silos and without being too enmeshed in the complexity of things.
Systems Thinking in Practice
Systems thinking is the way in which we seek to understand everything our work is connected to, and everything that everything else is connected to… This applies to SIX in lots of different ways: in the way we find diverse people and bring them together (for instance, our Social Labs), the way we design our events and meetings to make social innovation less elite (for instance, our Unusual Suspects Festival), and the way we run trainings for organisations to understand themselves as part of a bigger system (more on that here).
The Value of Facilitators and Conveners
Systems are emergent, messy and not easily mapped. It may sound simple, but people often need support and guidance on how to come together, who to invite into the room, how to design an experience that enables productive learning, sharing and working together effectively, to decide on meaningful things to do, to ask the right questions and get to new answers. There is therefore great value in being facilitators and conveners.
Since so much of our work at SIX is about bridging several audiences, all of whom have different languages and ways of working, it makes sense to lead with the things we want to see changed, such as how universities rethink their purpose and how foundations operate, as opposed to the “impact” we want to see. The Systems Innovation Conference helped me see why working at a systems-level is valuable: it paints a picture of where it makes most sense to put in resources; it shows what places have the most interconnections and it reveals where there is the most opportunity to influence real, meaningful change.