Participatory Systems Change: A Primer


Addressing many of today’s most pressing problems—from climate change to unsustainable borrowing to rising inequalities—requires both engaging broad public audiences and working with complex systems of institutions, actors and drivers to mobilize solutions. Over the past thirty years, advances in the field of public engage – ment have enabled citizens to meaningfully affect government decision-making, while evolutions in systems approaches have created new opportunities for experts to understand and intervene in complex systems. Yet, until recently there has been little interaction and exchange between these two fields. 

Building on the results of a gathering of 17 thought leaders in Whistler, Canada in October 2016, this report explores possibilities for connecting public engagement and systems approaches to enable more effective and democratic ways of creating change. The report provides brief introductions to systems approaches and public engagement, their evolution, context of use, underlying values, cultures and assump – tions, their unique contributions, as well as the limitations of both approaches.

We surface challenges that practitioners, researchers and participants of systems approaches and public engagement typically grapple with, including tensions between power and equality or democracy and expertise and other considerations. The report then asks how systems approaches can become more democratic and how public engagement can benefit from systems lenses and tools. We explore how the two fields might combine or collaborate to create democratically supported systems change and showcase methods from both areas of practice.