For black children growing up in South Africa in the 1980s, the only schooling available was in the Bantu education system. For me and my contemporaries in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, this was our reality. Our parents did everything they could to find schools for us that were better than substandard, but ultimately their choice was hardly a choice at all. All schools were equally bad.
They realised that, if they were going to secure a decent education for their children, they had to come up with a solution based on their shared belief in what their children deserved. They agreed that we deserved teachers who were empowered to recognise and nurture our potential. So they pooled their resources: an unused hotel room became a school and they head-hunted a teacher and a principal who shared their views and values and started their own school.
Rather than believe what the system told them — that they had limited power and choices — they leveraged their agency through collective action to create a different outcome. Although it was not a term that anyone would have used at the time, they were enacting a form of systems change. They were finding new ways to navigate an oppressive system to deliver alternative, more just, possibilities.
This positive re-imagining is at the core of systems change work. As frustration at the slow pace of change grows, and the world’s wicked problems — such as climate change and wealth inequality — proliferate, people are increasingly recognising that we need to find ways to tackle the root causes of these issues rather than just addressing the symptoms. If we want transformative change, we need to dismantle and rebuild the way existing systems function.
But social systems are complex and many of them are resilient — for good or bad — and difficult to change.
Most of us in the global south know this from our lived experience. Decades after the last imperial powers left, the legacy of the systems they created remain. Despite the championing of democratic principles and human rights, elements of the old colonial systems that excluded the majority of citizens remain stubbornly resistant to change.
So, what will it take to shift these systems? We’re seeing in South Africa that, if left unheard, anger and frustration can erupt into protest. This can bring about changes, as did the Fees Must Fall movement on university campuses in 2015, which led to some key shifts in how those institutions are run. It was also possible to support this action by listening to and elevating the generative message in the protest action.
Our work at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business has shown that in addition to being able to imagine new possibilities — what Oxford academic Peter Nicholls calls the “adjacent possible” — there are at least two other elements that must be in place if we want things to change for the better.
First, we need more effective platforms for sharing and collaboration and, second, we believe that the voices of those who are most affected by systems problems must be active in the conversation about how to change them.
Just as it took our parents mobilising to build a better system to ensure we got a decent start in life, it is vital that those who understand the context and who appreciate most what needs to shift, are involved in bringing about this shift. This does not necessarily mean disregarding other voices. Systems work does not seek to merely tear down everything and disregard all ideas that we didn’t come up with ourselves. Rather we are identifying what is not useful and replacing it with what might be.
At the Bertha Centre, we are collaborating with others around the world to build such platforms and foster much-needed dialogue, for example through our work with SystemsPlay, a global network of practitioners working in “systems innovation”. This network is curated by a collaborative of three regional hubs: in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The Bertha Centre, as the African hub and the institutional host of SystemsPlay, is seeking to build capacity and learn from the work of systems change practitioners, pracademics and academics working towards a social and environmentally just and equitable world. Practically this involves creating systems change courses for changemakers working across all sectors and generating context-specific case studies to enable others to learn from these. We want to paint scenarios — especially from the global south — that exemplify key concepts. We also want to contribute towards generating pathways for exchange and partnership among systems innovators.
Through our association, we can learn from the work in Delhi, India, where the Asia hub of SystemsPlay is enabling people to empower themselves through micro movements. These are outwardly small actions that challenge the status quo, but collectively accelerate shifts in behaviour and the flow of resources.
A powerful example is Prabha Devi, a woman living in a village in Bundelkhand. She was one of the first women in this patriarchal area to start her own enterprise, but her mother-in-law was so against her breaking cultural norms that she forced Devi out of the house. Devi persisted, however, and a year later her income has increased five-fold and she is able to provide financial support to her family. She has not only reversed the roles in her own household, but has inspired other women to start businesses of their own.
On the other side of the world in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Latin American hub of SystemsPlay is steadily mapping and connecting entrepreneurs, both in companies and government, and entrepreneurs who are working on social and environmental solutions to address the sustainable development goals. By making them visible to one another a stronger group identity is emerging, speeding up the dissemination of systems innovation and systemic thinking throughout the region.
My colleague Monica Picavêa reports that many people struggle to feel themselves to be part of a complex system but that “when they get inside this new approach they feel more comfortable with uncertainty and much more connected, and able to co-create alternatives for the challenges we are living”.
If I look back at what our parents did in Mthatha in the 1980s, I see that it has much in common with these examples from Brazil and India. To shift an unjust system, people need to reject the assumptions that are holding them back and curate something new to take its place. Those citizens closest to the problems need to take power and be at the core of developing the solutions.
These empowered citizens show us that the seeds for system work lie all around us. By identifying and connecting these innovators we can build narratives, share solutions and amplify the effect in the service of creating a more just and equitable world.
Ncedisa Nkonyeni is the social systems innovation lead at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship