The world stands at a crossroads.

The world stands at a crossroads. 

We can continue to invest in yesterday’s economy — a decision that will intensify climate change, accelerate biodiversity loss and deepen socioeconomic inequities — or we can embark upon a new path that will lead humanity toward a more sustainable, prosperous and just future for all. 

While the latter path is the obvious choice, actions to date have largely failed to spur change at the pace and scale needed to mitigate these three global crises we now face. Limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, conserving nature and building a fairer economy instead will require fundamental change across nearly all major systems, according to the world’s most authoritative scientific bodies on climate change and biodiversity.

What is a system? 

A system is an interdependent set of elements that are connected through a web of relationships. These elements can include living organisms (e.g., plants, animals and fungi) and physical entities (e.g., buildings, rocks and water), as well as immaterial social, political, economic and cultural institutions. Together, these components interact to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts like a forest or a city.

Systems exist at different scales. They can be as minute as a single beehive that produces honey to as large as the global food system comprised of fertilizer and seed companies, farmers, traders, manufacturers, distributers and grocery stores that, together, produce, process and distribute food to the world’s rapidly growing population. Smaller systems can also be nested within broader systems, such as a beekeeper within a national collective of farmers within the global food system.  

Not only can systems’ boundaries be drawn at different scales, but they can also be organized around different parts or relationships within a system. For example some focus primarily on the interactions among people and technology (e.g., public transit networks), while others prioritize the connections between people and ecosystems (e.g., managed wetlands). But in practice it remains difficult to divide our world up into neatly defined and discrete systems. Food systems, for example, involve technologies, people and natural resources like soil and water. Bounding any system, then, is ultimately a subjective exercise that requires deciding to emphasize certain components, interactions or scales over others.

What is systems change?

Scientists’ calls for systems change, transformations and transitions have increasingly gained traction among leaders across government, civil society and the private sector in recent years. Yet there is no widely accepted definition of these terms, which are sometimes used interchangeably, nor is there a shared understanding of the features that distinguish “transformational” change from non-transformational change. This lack of clarity risks rendering these powerful concepts vague buzzwords that can be co-opted to describe any change, making it difficult to distinguish business-as-usual action from true systems change.

To avoid diluting these terms’ utility in describing the enormous effort needed to hold global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, protect nature and reduce inequities, we draw on shared concepts across widely used definitions of these three terms to understand systems change as the reconfiguration of a system, including its component parts and the interactions between these parts, such that it leads to the formation of a new system that behaves in a qualitatively different way. Critically, systems change does not always result in a positive outcome for all — the transition from horse-drawn carriages to fossil-fuel powered cars, for example, is just as much of a transformation as that from a transportation network dominated by these vehicles to one that relies on public transit networks. Systems Change Lab, however, focuses primarily on systems change that can mitigate today’s climate, biodiversity and equity crises. 

Transformations are often demarcated from incremental changes, which do not fundamentally change the existing system. Policies that increase fuel efficiency in passenger cars, for example, can help reduce greenhouse gases emitted from the current, fossil fuel-dependent transport system in an incremental way.

But fuel efficiency improvements alone will never fully eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Achieving net-zero GHG emissions will require a transition to an entirely new system that relies on different forms of energy, such electricity generated from renewable sources. Although sometimes seen as a binary, these types of change are not always mutually exclusive. Incremental shifts can create an enabling environment for future transformations, and in some instances, a progressive series of these lower-order changes can come together in ways that successfully “lock in” a transition to a new system.

In translating the systems changes needed to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C, conserve nature and build a fairer economy, Systems Change Lab identifies both transformational and incremental shifts that, taken together, can help transform nearly all major systems — power, industry, transport, cities and the built environment, carbon removal, forests and land management, ocean management, freshwater management, food, finance, circular economy, good governance, social inclusion and equity, and new economics. 

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Photo by Alex Berger