Charlotte Burrows is Social Innovation Programme Manager at Design Council. Here, she discusses our Transform Ageing learning journey on system change.

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

There seem to be many similarities between Alice’s adventures in wonderland and our Transform Ageing journey into system change. Trying to get to grips (at speed) with system change is messy, and moveable. There is however a light at the end of tunnel working with those who have a mindset that removes the organisation as the central focus and focuses on the system instead.

While it is difficult to either describe or allocate a definition to what is meant by system change, for the purposes of this blog the best description comes from a fantastic report written by Harries, Wharton, Abercrombie (2015).  In their report they talk about systems change as an intentional process designed to alter the status quo by shifting the function or structure of an identified system with purposeful interventions.1 Using this as a starting point this blog explores the experiences, reflections and still to be answered questions of Transform Ageing’s journey into system change.

When the Transform Ageing programme started, it was planned we would have a system change group, with a remit to solve system challenges and act on improving the ways things are done locally. This was reviewed in light of:

  • The geography of the programme working over 3 large rural counties
  • The ongoing changing landscape in health & social care
  • The ability of one group to achieve system change
  • A desire to understand how the activity of the program itself may help us to generate understanding around system change

Time to focus on what is most practical and actionable?

  • What is the scale of our ambition for system change?
  • What are we aiming to achieve? What would it look like/feel like? What is the legacy?
  • What system(s) are we looking at transformation in?
  • What is possible/realistic given time and resource constraints for the programme?
  • What is our unique contribution?

I won’t pretend that all of the above questions were answered. However, through our questioning (employing of course the use of few design methods along the way such as clustering and theming), we were able to start to define what the Transform Ageing programme wanted to understand and gather some insight in relation to system change.

Stage 1 (June 2017): Agree the system change we want to catalyse in the south-west to achieve our ambitions

We want to ensure that the best innovations will enhance the lives of people in later life and reach them as quickly as possible.

What is the context? (not space for details here) but in short:

  • Unprecedented pressures on the Health and Social Care system, people and finance
  • Areas of market failure focus on large scale commissioning reducing budgets and risk adverse
  • Diverse players across VCSE/social enterprise and private sector often competing for resources, (be that financial/human) often providing pockets of innovation that are not necessarily shared/or replicated across the systems

What’s our approach for system change? Phase 1 (The systems Scenario workshop July 2017)

With the help of Jennie Winhall (@Jeneralife) we employed a systems scenario technique. Probably best described as a cross between service design and systems thinking.

The Seven scenarios we looked at were:

  • Venture led – entrepreneurs will emerge if the conditions are favourable
  • System shifting ventures by identifying ventures that exemplify or drive system shifts we can identify common characteristics or mechanisms to support system change.
  • The uncommissionables support should focus on radical innovation and create permission for failure
  • Local ecosystem all the solutions exist already – they are just unevenly distributed
  • Challenge driven – we take a laser focus on the smallest, most radical things we could scale
  • By older people for older people – the main system changes we want is the full engagement of older people and their communities in innovation and provision
  • Make do and Mend – we are in a ‘frugal’ situation – we just have to share resources in a smarter way, find the workarounds, create ways for people to solve it themselves, invite the public to solve it with us

Armed with post its and sharpies we worked in groups, discovering, defining/re-defining and developing the scenarios. The conclusions? We needed to focus on one of the above scenarios to prototype and learn.   While we acknowledge that many elements of the above scenarios were important for looking at system change and innovation, we felt in the context of the Transform Ageing programme and timeframe, system shifting ventures best captured where we felt the programme could help make a modest input.

The theory for system shifting ventures is by identifying, understanding and working with system shifting ventureswe can indicate the system conditions needed;

  • For more ventures like these to flourish
  • Exemplify a future system
  • Reveal demand

An important point to this proposition is, no one venture does it alone, unfortunately there are no heroes/heroines in this tale but collectively they can support systems shifts.

More questions?

  • What types of venture are driving shifts in the ageing sphere (or outside the ageing sphere for that matter?)
  • How can we find or catalyze the creation of such ventures?
  • How might we increase their system influence?

Next steps find some examples: Where are all these systems shifting ventures hiding?

With more questions than answers we turned to some research. As part of a process of seeking to achieve system change in the ageing sphere we were seeking to identify ventures which have delivered key system shifts in any social sphere, including but also outside of ageing: we undertook the following qualitative research

  • Reviewed 80 ventures to identify if they were system shifting against our below criteria  
  • Examined their scale, business model and governance.
Design for system change

The results from the 1st stage of the research, highlighted that very few organisations demonstrated an intentional approach to system change with a focus on altering the status quo through shifting either the function or structure of an identified system with purposeful interventions 1.  

Phase 2 (Dec-Feb 2018) Selected 11 ventures for more detailed review

In light of the 1st stage of research we looked more closely at 11 ventures, whom we felt may demonstrate system shifting qualities. What we found was many of those we researched seemed more focused on the impact of their own product, service, solution, rather than the fabric of the systems they are working within. So, despite some inspiring reading on what others are working on we found little evidence that demonstrated those we researched were substantially changing the way the system works for everyone.

Phase 3 (Feb-March 2018)

Finally, we interviewed a few ventures to explore in more detail if they demonstrate the system shifting characteristics, this was most insightful stage of the research and the current learning is shared below.

Current learning from our research and exploration into system innovation

Not really a light bulb moment, but an important factor to consider when working on system change, given it means different things to different people and its meaning changes across contexts and time consider carefully what you’re interested in learning and where you think you can bring some helpful contributions. Or in the words of one interviewee, it’s like “Walking through a minefield with a blindfold on!” (interview participant from systems research)

Many of those we researched, operated in more built up/urban areas, as their models required a scale of demand/supply. This brought new questions to play in our thinking. The added dimension of how you achieve system shifts across rural areas where successful urban models often do not apply. An example from another context is Uber. Love them or hate them, they caused a shift in consumer behaviour regarding the use of the traditional taxi service. This shift in consumer behaviour remains unchanged in rural areas where it is not viable for the venture to operate.

Some Social Entrepreneurs/organisations are interested in system change (they have a mindset that removes the organisation as the central focus, and focuses on the system instead), many others are not interested in system level thinking and want to continue to focus their energy/resource into their focused delivery. It was hard to find many who spent any significant time/resource focusing their energy on systems versus the importance of their more immediate impact. I mean our big challenge going forward is how do we go beyond where we are, so maybe that will be a real system change (interview participant from systems research).

Many of those we researched, shared an approach based on the “sharing economy” in which the assets and resources of individuals/communities are utilised and coordinated for a wider common good. This sharing approach lends itself to a collaborative approach, that is, if your model is already based on sharing, why not share the burden of trying to make a difference at a system level. However even those with different models that challenged the system were not trying to change the system in the short term, but saw system change as a journey/aspiration for the future.

The answer is not just about scaling organisations, scaling does not necessarily necessitate system change. Scaling should be viewed more holistically, whereby scaling impact, reach and influence on a system is taken into account, and supported.

Linked to the above, few seem to fund Social Entrepreneurs (or any other sector organisations for that matter) to invest in system resources or work. “We would love to receive funding to enable us to work on areas that would create system change, but we currently do not receive any. We have the capability to do it, but we are not able to do so as we do not have the funding in place” (interview participant from systems research).

Equally the investment community tends to be about prove it, then we will invest. While there is investment for some for scaling the organisation and arguably part of this is scaling impact, where is the investment to work with others across systems to navigate the linkages, interconnections, reject their predefined solutions and collectively reshape the landscape?

Where is the evidence of system change? Given the often intangible and complex nature of this work it is perhaps not surprising that those we interviewed were not aware of much local evidence or research on system change (neither were they collecting any evidence of their role in system change).  However, all those we interviewed would be interested in evaluating the role they play with others in system change. “We do not currently record anything. It’s probably one of our weakest areas” (interview participant from systems research).

Let’s get practical and prototype  

Fueled with a little more insight, our next step is to test our learning with Social Entrepreneurs interested in systems change, and to consider ways that they might move in this direction and identify ways in which they are already working towards systems change so we can learn from this and encourage others.

In July 2018 we will be hosting a workshop: Systemic impact in Ageing with the aim to:

  • Bring together Social entrepreneurs/social enterprises to explore the role of their own organisation in system change in relation to ageing
  • Share learning on system change and apply that learning to their own work
  • Connect with others who are addressing the same system shifts
  • Start to build a shared identity as system entrepreneurs

What next is a path unknown, but in the words of one remarkable system thinker;

“The uncertainty exposed by systems thinking is hard to take. If you can’t understand, predict, and control, what is there to do? Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them. We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them! (Donella Meadows 2009)

With thanks to Jennie Winhall (social innovator/service designer @Jeneralife) for guidance and support, and Sophie Reid, Design Council, for review.

Transform Ageing is a pioneering programme taking a community and design led approach to improve people’s experience of ageing. It brings together people in later life, their friends, family and carers, social entrepreneurs and public sector leaders to define, develop and deliver new solutions that better support the needs and aspirations of our ageing communities.

System Change. A guide to what it is and how to do it. Rob Abercrombie, Ellen Harries and Rachel Wharton June 2015 (New Philanthropy Capital/LankellyChase Foundation 

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