I am pretty sure that at various times in your career, you’ve asked yourself questions like: “Why are the problems we are working so hard to eradicate still a problem?”.

“Considering the dedication and hard work of our organisation, the third sector striving to make their part of the world a better place, and millions of pounds spent, why does progress seem slow, intermittent and sometimes, in the wrong direction?”

“Why is it so hard to implement a vision that every stakeholder, including governments supports and wants to succeed?” 

Amongst the many reasons, the answer I want to examine here is the system or more specifically the goal of our economic system. Systems are interconnected sets of elements organised to achieve goals. Our economic system includes institutions, infrastructure, governance, people, stuff and finance. Its goal, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, unfortunately ensures that these are put to work in a way that causes the environmental damage, poor health, poverty, inequality and unfairness that members of SCVO strive on a daily basis to address. Without changing this goal, we will continue to fight our battles uphill and against superior forces.

In this guest blog, I have been asked to set out some answers to how we can contribute to changing the system so it works with us, not against us. I will use as a guide, knowledge on how to intervene powerfully and quickly in systems by finding leverage points – points where relatively small efforts can have significant impacts overall.

In her seminal 1998 article [1] Donella Meadows explains, in order of power, twelve different places to intervene in a system. Worryingly for many current efforts to affect change, she describes taxes, regulations and standards as examples of the least effective category. At the top, she describes changing mental models as possessing potential for deep transformation. These mental models include, changing the goal of the system, and being able to imagine that new systems goals are possible. 

The goal is so important as everything within a system, all the infrastructure, institutions, stocks of money, knowledge and materials, rules and processes, work toward achieving it. Importantly for the fast transitions we now require for our response to climate change, this means that changing the goal leads to existing infrastructure becoming available to work toward the new aim. 

Think of it like this, the current goal of our roads network is to allow cars and other motor vehicles to move quickly and safely. Change this to a goal to allow those engaged in active travel to move quickly and safely then immediately roads can become cycle paths and paths for walking, running and skating and we no longer need to spend as much building separate infrastructure. Edinburgh did something similar when its old railway lines were re-designated cycle paths and some of its roads were designated ‘spaces for people’.

In order to help us imagine that new systems goals are possible, we need to make the case against the current goal. These arguments are well known and not new, but perhaps thinking of them with a leverage point framework will give them more prominence and power in your minds?

As mentioned earlier, the key goal of the current economic system is GDP measured growth. It is the number governments worry about above all else and the one most regularly reported and scrutinised by the media. But GDP growth is not always good or desirable. As producing the stuff we buy requires other stuff to make it and produces waste, GDP growth lies at the heart of the environmental crises we face and more growth of this type is incompatible with effective action on climate change. That is not just the conclusion of a wishful-thinking green movement, it’s the cold hard conclusions from many years of academic study too.

Indeed as observed by Robert F Kennedy[2]: “it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.  The worthwhile items he spoke of “the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play” are things to which members of the SCVO are dedicated: good health, connection, fairness and opportunity, cohesive functioning places and communities, nutritious food, clean air, safe transport. 

What the third sector provides is well beyond measurement by economic impact. Indeed, rather than grow, ultimate success for much of the third sector is achieved when an organisation closes its doors, knowing that the social or environmental ill they were fighting has been eradicated or the project they were championing, has been achieved. When we do cure cancer for all, Cancer Research UK or Maggie’s will have to find a new mission, when there are paths for all, then Paths for All’s role will change. Success for part of the third sector is ultimately in it shrinking not growing.

So if I have convinced you of the problems with the existing goal then what could the new goal be? Katherine Trebeck and Jeremey Williams talk about an economic system focussed on sufficiency or enough. Here, those of us causing most of the environmental and social damage, the top 10% recognise and welcome the notion that we have enough and we need no more, with resources redirected to those in need who in turn seek sufficiency. The principles of the Wellbeing Economy then provide more specific dimensions for which we can seek this enough. Scotland’s current economic misunderstanding is that it is trying to complement a GDP based growth economy with a wellbeing economy. The wellbeing economy producing sufficiency has to be a replacement.

Beyond recognising the need for new goals and what these can be, what can we do to influence change? Whilst no-one is powerful enough to change the system on their own and systems dictate in many subtle and explicit ways our behaviour, they also comprise individuals and each of us has differential influence on other actors and actions within the system. We work within layers and nested systems, organisations for example are nested within specific and broad regulatory and stakeholder structures. We work within and are connected to narrow and broader formal and informal networks and it is at the junctions in and across these that we can have our effect. 

We can demonstrate good practice through organisational visions and how we measure success.  We can work as powerful change agents through removing structural barriers – a key role here is in the creative destruction of institutions. The institutions that have embedded poverty are not the ones capable of solving it, so we need new ones. These should be transparent, open, democratic and recognise that in time, they too need to be creatively destroyed. Our role can be internal such as changing organisational purchasing or travel policy. These actions contribute to changing the rules, stocks and norms of the broader system.

To help others imagine new goals, we need according to Angheloiu and Tennant[3] to move beyond just advocating for change to truly recognising that we too must change.

Thomas Kuhn tells us to keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm and we must consistently and with purpose, live the new goal and insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. We have to find stories that work and repeat them, we need to stand up in meetings and gently, yet firmly challenge power. To help those invested in the existing system see they have nothing to fear from the new, we can bring the old and new closer together. For example, we want growth, but its growth in our health, our knowledge, our levels of care for each other, growing forests and woodlands, growing kelp and coral. But let’s agree that defining our success on growing the amount of plastic transported across the globe is not desirable?

We need to encourage self-organisation as a way of new ideas flourishing and embrace the reality that losing control is a consequence of diversity. We need to encourage and live variability and experimentation.

We have to live the goal we seek and live the truth that transformations need structural, institutional and systemic change. More strategies and more money, more initiatives, more regulations, however well thought out and well-meaning, are, without a new system goal, unlikely to succeed at the scale and speed required. So next time you consider the pace of change, think about smashing the system, by changing its goal.


[2] The full speech is available here and I would urge you to find time to read it: https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/the-kennedy-family/robert-f-kennedy/robert-f-kennedy-speeches/remarks-at-the-university-of-kansas-march-18-1968

[3] Angheloiu, C. and Tennant, M., 2020. Urban futures: Systemic or system changing interventions? A literature review using Meadows’ leverage points as analytical framework. Cities104, p.102808.