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Systemic change doesn’t fit into flowcharts

rachelnefI do love a good diagram. The blissfully clean lines of overlapping circles, adjacent squares and connecting arrows, are a reassuring bookmark for my brain, as it struggles through the messy complexities of systems change in local economies (wealth distribution, our relationship with environmental limits, where power sits, how cultures change) and tries to make sense of it all in little flow-chart labyrinths.

But let’s face it – real life does not heed flowcharts, and ‘systems change’ is, after all, not a presentation – it’s a lived phenomenon. So the best working shorthand I can currently come up, aside from theory of change diagrams, is that it’s something about habits. About when the whole physical and a virtual space within which we go about our daily activities has changed sufficiently, that we suddenly realise our habits have changed – that our collective sense of ‘normal’ has shifted.

And when we work backwards through all the factors that have played a part in creating the situation in which we construct our current sense of ‘normal’, we generally find a complex and long sequence of changes that have been happening either in a planned or unplanned way for decades, at the least.

To be a bit more specific: my background being in youth work and participation, I often found myself reflecting on those moments when, for example, a talented young person from an economically deprived corner of a city, has got a great job in a project team at a local youth leadership charity, because they’ve spent three years attending a youth leadership programme in a local organisation, which ten years ago didn’t exist, working with a staff member who five years ago didn’t work there, who is currently funded by a funding stream that two years ago was dreamt up because of the culmination of a series of conversations and pilot projects elsewhere, which in turn was launched 15 years ago, out of the learnings produced by a review carried out by another charity commissioned by a long-gone national government administration, to understand how the bleak environment of youth employment opportunities in that inner-city area could be improved…

If everything works out perfectly in your projects and strategies

then real systemic change takes twenty years to achieve

Those moments felt to me, as a practitioner working within the system, like little glimpses of system change. When, taking a step back, it felt like actually over a long period of time – 15 or 20 years – a whole infrastructure and architecture of institutions, opportunities, organisational culture, political priorities, individual skills and capacity and access to opportunities, and key people acting as ‘enablers’, had shifted enough to change the whole pathway available in one real person’s life.

And then a wave of fatigue would come over me as I considered the deeper, apparently persistent, systemic inequalities and prejudices that appeared to undercut those glimmers of real change, so that the attempt at ‘upscaling’ the change to individuals’ journeys through the system – let alone changing the system itself – still felt like a Sisyphian pursuit to me as an individual working within it.

Nowadays, working on questions of how that systemic change actually happens at a local economic level, I get to visit a wide range of organisations, institutions and projects, who are all more explicitly trying to shift the underlying economic system, to influence the way local prosperity is created, distributed and strengthened.

Amongst many inspiring stories that have come my way, local authority officials and experts at Cles have shared insights on work in Preston to build community wealth, three years into a much longer term vision, and based on a much longer period before that of work by Cles and within Preston that enabled the current project to come to fruition.

And community and local business enablers in Transition Town Totnes have been helping me understand how over the last seven years, Totnes has developed a thriving alternative local economy which is now beginning to operate more systemically. One place has a local government-led model of change, the other has been driven from the ‘grassroots’, but in both, what sticks out is that anything resembling systems change builds on year upon year of diligent chipping away, small shifts leading to larger shifts, larger shifts leading to other small shifts until the ‘new normal’ emerges.

Totnes’s Transition business network has been establishing itself over nearly ten years, and now finds itself a healthily connected, experience network of individuals and businesses who are beginning to come together to undertake more and more connected and strategic interventions in their local economy to strengthen local money flows, environmentally sustainable enterprise, better local distribution of wealth, and greater local economic resilience.

Preston’s ambitious programme has been running three years so far and has put in place a set of institutional partnerships, policy and strategy work, detailed analysis and evidence collection of the potential local spending power of local anchor institutions, and the necessarily detailed day to day systems to begin strategically channelling this spending power locally. It is just getting to a point where a key grouping of central place-based anchor institutions will be able to co-ordinate their spending power together to support the local economy directly – the really exciting impacts of which are still to be documented.

If there is any common theme between these two very different approaches to local economic transformation, it is the long term drive and vision that sits behind the process in both. To keep things moving, with a focus on the change they are seeking, through electoral cycles, through economic upturns and downturns, through radical changes in locally available funding streams from big funders or central government, and changing local contexts as well, is the key hurdle in capturing those droplets of real systems change.

And to start to feel a more seismic shifting across a nation or even wider economic system, driven by that local chipping away – what does that take?

I took strange comfort in the words of wisdom shared with me a few months ago in conversation by NEF fellow, and community economic development pioneer Pat Conaty: to the effect that if everything works out perfectly in your projects and strategies, and you get all the funding you need, hit the right model first time, and have all the right relationships, then real local systemic and cultural change takes twenty years to achieve. And if the usual odd hitch or false start, missed connection or funding pot beset you, as is the way of the real world, you’re looking at forty.

Systemic change is long term, complex and doesn’t really fit into flowcharts. But where passionate drivers of change are in it for the long haul, and if the context they’re working in doesn’t leave them high and dry or burn them out, then I reckon it is the every-day, nitty gritty world of local business, local voluntary sector, local government and local community, where those long-haul battles for change are really fought.

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