A new framework for assessing systemic change

Over the last year or so I was hired by a large market systems development programme in Bangladesh to develop a new framework for assessing systemic change for them. We did an initial feasibility study and then a larger pilot study. The report of the pilot study has now been published. Rather than to bore you with the whole report, I would like to share the conceptual thinking behind the framework and the framework itself in this post. In a later post, I will share the methodology. This is not the end of all wisdom and the silver bullet framework everybody has been looking for. For me this is an important step to bring my work and thinking over the last couple of years together into something practically applicable. But this work is not done as I am embarking on a longer research project on systemic change. So there is more learning to come and with it more development of this tool. Please share your thoughts, which would help me to further improve the framework.

Conceptual background

Markets can be characterised as complex adaptive systems[1]. Complex systems are dynamic and involve a large number of elements. In market systems, these elements are people or organisations interacting with each other.

The interactions of the individual actors lead to emergent structures that cannot be observed on the level of the individuals (Figure 1). This adds capabilities to the system that cannot be obtained by individual actors. A simple example of an emergent structure is a community. The community enables a small population of people to live together in close proximity, profiting from each other’s presence in terms of security, social integration, etc. A community enables individuals to do things they could not have done alone. At the same time, being a member of a community constrains individuals in how they can behave.


Figure 1: A stylised depiction of emergence, where individual interactions lead to an emergent structure which both enables individuals to do things but also constrains the individuals’ options.

Complex social systems are unpredictable on the level of the individual actor. They are, however, somewhat stable and predictable on the level of their emerging structure[2]. Hence, systemic change can be defined as transformations in the structure of a system. Positive transformations enable individuals to do things they could not have done before. In this way, the changes contribute to the development of the system.

Systems never exist in isolation. While a system can show consistent new patterns of behaviour locally, it can be forced back into a previous pattern by its environment over time. Changes can only be sustained if they reach a critical mass. One way to get some indication on whether the change is going to sustain is to look at the scale or spread of change. Scale not in a sense of bare numbers of people, but rather in a sense of a process of change spreading through a series of open systems. Such systems could be neighbouring communities or interconnected market systems. If the changes can be seen in a critical mass of people beyond the location or group of people where it originated, it will likely influence the future path of the system.

The structure of a system is also reflected in its institutions. The more an emerging structure is formalised in institutions, the more stable it is[3]. Institutionalisation can be seen as a sign of stability of the new structure of a system. It is a mechanism to formally embed the new capability into the system. Hence, institutionalisation of informal behavioural patterns can be a sign for advanced and sustainable systemic change. Institutionalisation can take different forms such as changes in processes, rules, manuals, training curricula, etc. It can take place in networks of people, businesses or government agencies. Institutionalisation can also be about changes in relationships between different types of actors, for example between farmers and service providers, businesses and the government, or universities and businesses, if these changes are seen as ‘the new normal’ of interaction.

The systemic change framework

The new systemic change framework looks at three different dimensions of change:

systemic change framework

Figure 2 Illustration of the new systemic change framework used for this study

  1.  To discover a transformational change in the way of ‘how things are done’ by the relevant actors is the starting point. The beliefs and predominant attitudes of the actors in the system largely define what can and what cannot be done, i.e. ‘how one has to behave’. An effective way to capture change in beliefs, attitudes and behavioural norms is through capturing everyday narratives. Using sophisticated research techniques, the changes in narratives are quantified, not only described qualitatively.
  2. Scale investigates whether change is reaching a critical mass. For doing so, it asks whether people are affected by changes in the system rather than by the project directly. This shows that change is not only driven by the project but actually happens in the system itself, affecting a wider number of people indirectly.[4]
  3. Institutionalisation looks for signs that indicate that the changes are embedded in the institutions of the system and also captures commitment to maintain and potentially further spread the changes by the system actors.

Scale and institutionalisation in the framework above are similar to the stages of expansion and response in the AAER framework, but defined using a complex systems perspective. Scale is not simply seen as others copying an innovation introduced by the project. Instead, it asks whether the spread of changes in behaviours and attitudes of different system actors has reached a critical mass. Institutionalisation specifically scans for formalisation of new behaviours and attitudes.

[1] Jenal, M. & Cunningham, S. (2013). Gaining systemic insight to strengthen economic development initiatives – Drawing on systems thinking and complexity theories to improve developmental impact. Mesopartner Working Paper No. 16.
[2] For more detail, see Juarrero, A. (2000). Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System. Emergence, 2(2), 24–57.
[3] Formalisation and institutionalisation can also be dangerous if the institutions become too rigid. This can lead to a catastrophic breakdown if they are not changing fast enough with the context.
[4] As a side note, I have been having quite intense discussion on the topic of scale with with my colleague and friend Shawn Cunningham. He suggested that scale does actually not matter that much. What matters is whether the change has been significant to the system. I haven’t made up my mind yet but I tend to agree that significance might be a better, although more difficult to capture, measure for systemic change, as scale might not be happening immediately.

2 thoughts on “A new framework for assessing systemic change

  1. Elizabeth D.

    Marcus–I like your conceptualization of transformational change + scale + institutionalisation = systemic change. I especially like the melding of the first two components. I know that people working in this area get frustrated with the emphasis on scale and want to stop talking about it, but scale matters when it comes to accomplishing development objectives that benefit a substantial number of the poor. I think I understand what you mean by “institutionalisation” but I am not sure: could you give an example?

  2. Marcus Jenal Post author

    Hi Elizabeth. Thanks for your positive feedback. Institutionalisation is a bit of a difficult one to grasp I guess. At this moment, I don’t want to over-define it as I think it is a bit of a ‘you know it when you see it’ phenomenon and I don’t want to exclude potential manifestations that I could not have imagined. Examples are new services by meso-level institutions that support, amplify or sustain the new behaviour or the change introduced. Another example is updated university curricula or organisational training programmes that formalise the new way the organisation works. I’m not sure if this is helpful.

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