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Why Systems Change Will Lead to Democratic Renewal

02. Oct 2023

While leading governments, philanthropies, social entrepreneurs, and even businesses embrace systems change as a model of complex organization, they mostly need help understanding one crucial aspect. They must change themselves at a fundamental level to embrace structural reform as to how we organize, manage, and govern collective decision-making

Long reads

By Indy Johar, Dark Matter Labs & Christian Bason, DDC – Danish Design Center

The taxonomy of Systems Change, System Thinking, and Missions Design is increasingly being adopted across societal innovation practices worldwide, becoming the de rigueur of every policy person, every social and environmental entrepreneur, and business intrapreneur worldwide.

These and related approaches are publicly acknowledged as key modalities of change and how change can be realized at the scale and depth required to address the challenges societies face in a time of extended emergencies – of unprecedented complexity and turbulence.

Understanding this urgent need and transitioning the capabilities of organizations needed to orchestrate systems change will be a defining organizational and leadership challenge as the 21st century unfolds.

While this adoption is timely and relevant, we must be clear on why systems change must go together with organizational and democratic renewal.

"The very essence of our humanity consists of the fact that we are self-conscious political actors, and therefore capable of embracing a wide range of social arrangements."

Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything

Photo: Oliver Herlitschek

A World of Adjacent Possibilities

In the realm of a complexity and systems worldview, it is increasingly clear the future is not linear but a vast array of options, a landscape of “adjacent possible.” This term implies that every current state has numerous potential future states, each awaiting to be explored and actualized.

This worldview contrasts starkly with the dominant industrial-era mindset, typically organized for a linear, goal-driven, overtly projective, decontextualized action space. Instead of simply aiming from point A to point B, complexity encourages us to embrace an unfolding trajectory that requires continuous learning and appreciation of the myriad adjacencies.

However, this shift poses profound challenges to our traditional systems. Our established theories of capital allocation and resource distribution are fundamentally rooted in linear projections. Transitioning to a framework that thrives in complexity raises pressing questions about restructuring these landscapes. It prompts us to think: How do we allocate resources, how do we decide, and how do we assign capital in a world governed by ever-evolving possibilities?

Democracy at The Heart of Systems Change

Systems change at its deep structural root acknowledges the freedoms of every agent and actor in a given “system,” formal, emergent, informal, etc., to act, react, learn, and transform. In other words, it implies a radical multitude of sovereignty. This modality of organizing structurally recognizes that coherent and effective organization cannot be delivered by centralized predictive command and control (a management worldview) in a complex emergent world.

In this sense, systems change is a strategic organizational response to a world where power and agency are more distributed and decentralized than ever (not sufficiently or justly, but radically and significantly more than at any time in history). In this reality, humanity has built a massively multi-polar world, mirroring and accelerating a bio-physical complex entangled world while fundamentally breaking the illusion of a command-and-controlled, managed, manageable worldview.

This system worldview sincerely acknowledges the multitudes of sovereignty and freedoms of the actors that share a community of belief and fate. In this reality, coherence is a function of the compounded sensing, sense-making, learning, and innovation capacity of all actors across a system.

However, how current models of systems thinking and change are being operationalized fails to impact, mainly as they are being actioned in public and private bureaucracies. These institutions were typically built for a 19th-century control modality in an organizational landscape shaped fundamentally for predictability and command – from the nature of the organization to our ways of deciding innovative outputs to our models of policy making.

In our work with Dark Matter Labs and DDC – Danish Design Center, respectively, we increasingly encounter leaders who recognize this paradox but struggle to take the steps necessary to rewrite the deep codes and norms of organizations and 19th-century organizing.

Beyond Management

Our organizational structures are designed for control, from the boardroom and chief executive officers to our management teams, all of which centralize decision-making to control perceived risk. They are not designed for organizations focused on learning, adaptability, and innovation in an emergent sense. If that were the case, you would need a new type of organization or an organization rooted in driving coherence and risk mitigation through compound learning rather than a model built around the centralized control of risk and delivery quality, predictability, and coherence.

It would be organizations where we did not have CEOs, but instead chief learning officers, and it would be organizations that would share chief mission officers with other actors holding and driving missions. We would see special projects for disrupting internal groups developing and driving the mission. It would be organizations with clusters of leadership and emerging platforms for engaging broader ecosystems of actors.

Bored of Boards

It would be organizations where the role of boards was not first and foremost to control a collective or direct and approve its decisions, but to ensure the integrity of the processes to make decisions with accountability and ensure the integrity of the operations and the information internally and with wider stakeholders. In other words, the role of boards would, amongst others, shift from one of compliance and minimizing risk to one of transparency and maximizing opportunity, enabling organizations to accomplish more than they thought possible.

Indy Johar

Indy Johar

New Metrics and Accountabilities

This would be organizations where how we measure the efficacy of agency and how allocation systems change would be functional of the delta in the learning and agency capacity of the system. We would measure the growth of the collective intelligence and vibrancy of the system, the growth in the capabilities of the system to be able to adapt and be responsive to the feedback, the anti-fragility of the system as a whole and perhaps the speed and response of agents, as opposed to outputs and outcomes, because they would be an emergent function of the interactions enabled by the system.

New Sensemaking Governance Models

In this sort of future, our practices of collective decision-making also would need to change fundamentally, including our pathways for making shared decisions, from our Parliamentary committee structures, our commission models, and how we build structured open deliberative pathways to build collaborative sense-making intersectionally across embodied knowledge and specialists knowledge fields.

Further and perhaps even more fundamentally, we would need to shift from a world view where we try to make predictive a priori decisions at a centralized command and control level but instead shift to a new meta-policy landscape where approval space is not focused on deciding and approving interventions but identifying the outcomes (plural), the integrity of learning capacity, the quantum of allocation and the models of systems accountability.


Beyond the organization, finally and perhaps most critically, how do we build capability for orchestration of systems change working across a multitude of organizations and actors – which share a community of fate – say, supply chains or the food systems of place? Here, the emergent coherence has to be rooted in a rhythm of building the system scale understanding of weak signals, growing comprehensions & structural reflections of learning, and opening in a safe space compounding that learning across our system as we move through a world of extended emergencies.

Financing Systems Change

This future also requires a new practice of financing. Financing that is structural, not colonial of our future, which isn’t about predicting the outcome, but the investment in the system’s capabilities to respond, grow anti-fragility, and undertake development purposes. This is fundamentally about the financing capabilities of a system as an asset, as opposed to output.

It’s increasingly clear that unless we can build this boring revolution to match the systems change language that we’ve adopted, we will fail. Systems change is more than just a new language to describe our world and its needs better; it points to a new capability that cannot be stuck in a 19th-century command and control of our management theories.

Systems change must be rooted in a new bureaucracy, a fundamentally different model of organizational theory, organizational practice, and capabilities that take us toward a deep democracy of freedom, agency, and care.

Systems Change as Democratic Renewal

We contend that the profound changes in management, organization, governance, metrics, and processes outlined here would have a radical implication: Ultimately, they would drive the emergence of a new operational living economic democracy.

One where people, as citizens and as colleagues, do not make decisions once every four years at the election booth or have a say in their work environment during quarterly performance reviews. Instead, it would be a world in which public and “private” organizations are governed collaboratively and in interdependence, lending voice, feedback, and influence over decisions large and small. Because embracing systems change is, at heart, a belief in agency, that agency must involve all actors in decision-making. It must be radically democratic.

It is now time to embrace the full range of consequences of pursuing the systems change needed to enable our most critical societal transitions. It will not only enable radically better outcomes for people and the planet; it will, by implication, herald a coming age of democratic renewal. The energy, agency, and empowerment this will unleash bodes well for the future of humanity.

This is the deep code work structurally necessary for shifting the very nature of management and the organization if we are to fulfill the vast political capital increasingly assigned to “system change” futures across democracies present and future.

So here is our call to action: We encourage leaders of all kinds and shapes – and their organizations – to start to realize their democratic renewal.

Start by starting: Choose the entry point most compelling to you, whether it is rethinking the metrics you are measured by, the time horizon of your planning, your decision-making processes, how salaries are set, or how finance is allocated. Wherever the opportunity feels right, just start. And be sure to reflect, learn, and share along the way. The journey to systems change and democratic transition is by nature a collaborative one, and going there together will only get us there faster.

About Indy Johar

Indy is an architect by training and a maker by practice; he is a Senior Innovation Associate with the Young Foundation. He, amongst other organizations – co-founded Impact Hub Birmingham and Open Systems Lab, was a member of the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission, and was a good growth advisor to the Mayor of London. He is an explorative practitioner in the means of system change & the dark matter design of civic infrastructure finance, outcomes, and governance. Indy is a Director of 00 and Dark Matter Laboratories.

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