September 2013

System change, systemic change, paradigm shift, Great Transition, Great Transformation, the big shift… Are we talking about the same thing?

Recently, Forum for the Future launched its report, Creating the big shift: system innovation for sustainability. The report explains in a nicely didactic way the six-steps approach that Forum for the Future developed and uses in its system innovation work, and it reminds us of the useful insights we can draw from the systems thinking work from Peter Senge, Donnella Meadows and others. We should use their tools and methods to get more systemic in our work. For the Smart CSOs Lab’s ambition to improve our theories of change, this report is a good resource to look at.

However, the report also made me quite nervous, as it reminded me that we often mean very different things when we talk about system change and the report talks a lot about system change.

Yes, we are talking about the same ambition to find more effective responses to our global interconnected crises: “The food system is facing critical challenges, from the need to feed a growing population while coping with the impacts of climate change, to providing secure and affordable energy to all while reducing C02 emissions.”

Yes, I believe that by using a systems approach like Forum is proposing, many good things or systems change solutions can be developed, implemented and spread in the food, energy and finance sectors and that big business can be a useful stakeholder and partner in these projects as long as it makes business sense for them. So the FSC, MSC and Nike’s sustainable supply chain initiative are examples where the approach has shown or is promising to show positive results.

But from a much broader perspective, the question is really: are these examples about system change or would it be more appropriate to call them within-the-system innovations? Of course it depends on the system boundaries one sets. Interestingly the report says all the right things when it asks to put critical attention to setting the right system boundaries. But then is there not a mismatch between the challenges we are dealing with and the system boundaries the report discusses? Yes, the examples seem to have changed, or have the potential to change some key dynamics in a specific subsystem, like global forestry or fishing industry. But then all continue to operate within the logic of today’s growth dependent global market economy serving the financial interests of a small global elite disembedded from society and from nature, as Karl Polanyi would call it.

I think we need to be much more honest and say clearly that the current ecological, social and spiritual crises cannot be fixed through better supply chain management and other technical system innovations, but require a much more fundamental approach. The growth obsessive economic system, our culture of consumerism and the economisation of almost every sphere of life are the key aspects of our global economic system that need to change if we want to really tackle today’s crises. This is what many of us mean when we talk about system change or paradigm shift. The term Great Transition as originally proposed by the Global Scenario Group for their vision of a pathway to sustainability was in clear reference to the book The Great Transformation that Karl Polanyi wrote in 1944. In his book, Polanyi explained how the market economy evolved in the 19th century to become the dominant economic system and how its disembeddedness from ecology and society unleashed the destructive power that we are now suffering more than ever. The Great Transition is a vision that aims to reverse this historical mistake and embed the economy in social relationships, cultural values and ecological sustainability. The report Creating the big shift rightly says that power dynamics in a system is a critical factor to take into account. But it is difficult to imagine that big business will have any interest in helping to design a de-growth or steady state economy as well as getting rid of consumerism and shrinking the market economy.

Consumerism is a key element of our growth dependent economic system. Only if business is successful in making people buy more stuff – regardless if it increases their wellbeing or not – will the economy grow. Nike might be interested to collaborate with others to reduce the material needs in their supply chain and to source more sustainably, but it won’t have any interest in questioning their business model which is to make people buy the latest fashion of sport shoes regardless if they need a new pair or not. Similarly Ikea might well accept sourcing sustainable timber but it will still try to maximise its sales of throwaway furniture and invade more and more markets…

The Great Transition, paradigm shift and system change could all be seen as synonymous, but the big shift that Forum for the Future proposes does not seem to have the same meaning. A business model focussed on system innovations in collaboration with big business seems to be in conflict with the need to tackle some of the core issues that could lead to real system change.

Wolfgang Sachs recently wrote an article in German with a title that translates literally to “Misinterpreted Thought Leader” [1].

In this article, he refers to the term Great Transformation (Grosse Transformation) and its current popularity in the German sustainability debates since it was used as a title for the major report published in 2011 by the German Advisory Council for Global Change (a governmental body). Wolfgang Sachs rightly points out that the Advisory Council does not question the market system in itself and that Polanyi would turn in his grave if he knew that the title of his book is being used without really addressing its core thesis. The German Great Transformation discussion would benefit from revisiting Polanyi’s book instead of riding on the latest hype that might soon be substituted by a new more fashionable term/concept.

I think we should have more conversations about what we mean when we use some of our key terms. It can avoid misunderstandings and the discussion will gain clarity. We might be surprised how often we mean quite different things…

1. ^ Sachs, Wolfgang (2013): Missdeuteter Vorgänger – Karl Polanyi und seine ‚Great Transformation‘. In: Baustelle Zukunft – Die Große Transformation von Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. München. oekom Verlag, pp. 18-23