Emerging Technologies

Why 'systems change' in 2021 demands better technology

Old cogs and mechanical parts

Systems change efforts target problems that defy simple solutions because of their complexity. Image: WikimediaCommons/Emmanuel Huybrechts

Jim Fruchterman
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Tech Matters
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Technological Transformation

  • We need systems-level change to meet the SDGs as traditional approaches and solutions are too expensive or have failed;
  • To respond to these complex challenges, systems change efforts need technology to help them successfully scale;
  • The tech needed may already exist: software and data to change human behaviour is already extensively deployed but these capabilities could also boost the effectiveness of people solving society’s big problems.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are focused on giant goals such as zero hunger, zero poverty, gender equity and climate change response. They were designed to be met by 2030, but the latest projections show we’re on track for 2092. Business as usual is clearly not working.

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Policy experts often describe these as “wicked problems,” not because they are evil but because they are resistant to being resolved. They are hard because:

  • There is no one particular cause, but many different elements that contribute to the problem or challenge;
  • The solutions aren’t obvious and cause and effect aren’t always clear;
  • They require many groups coordinating and focusing on different aspects of the problem – a single organization isn’t enough.

Traditional approaches and solutions are too expensive or have already failed: we need systems-level change to meet these goals in our lifetimes. Systems change is not a new topic in social-good circles and many of these efforts are already focused on the SDGs – consider the promising work of Catalyst 2030 and its member organizations. However, what is missing from many of these efforts is technology. Responding to these problems with successful systems change efforts requires a level of scale that will simply not be possible without the better application of technology, especially software and data.

What are the biggest risks facing the world in 2021?
What are the biggest risks facing the world in 2021? Image: World Economic Forum

Three challenges met by technology

1. The challenge of learning

Systems change efforts target problems that defy simple solutions because of their complexity and interactions among multiple root causes. The world is changing quickly and human beings often do not behave as we expect. Modern tech platforms have made it much cheaper to collect massive amounts of data about human behaviour, allowing us to build solutions that incorporate rapid feedback and learning. Smart innovators adapt as they learn more, setting aside their original ideas in favour of much better ones.

Tech now enables learning at scale for a relatively low cost, providing insight into whether our interventions are making things better or worse. It makes it easy to listen and respond to both individual and collective voices. Even better, it makes it possible to put tools in the hands of people to solve their own problems, an approach which is likely to lead to even more learning and, eventually, lasting change.

Three challenges of systems change met by technology
Three challenges of systems change met by technology

2. The challenge of coordination

No single organization solves a systems-level problem. Truly addressing a systems-level challenge often requires thousands of organizations and many millions of people to align even as they work on different aspects of the solution. This is a communications and data challenge and modern technology has created new ways to affordably address this. Common metrics and data standards lower the cost of coordination and make the creation of shared software platforms easier.

For funders, it becomes possible to responsibly support more innovation in the creation of portfolios focused on attaining desired social outcomes. It becomes practical to focus on the outcome (the “what”) and less on specifying the programme activities (the “how”). This shift to more coordination is already evident in the trend to multi-donor funds focused on systems change.

3. The challenge of resources

Many social and human services programmes were developed in an era where scaling up meant adding more people and more money. If a problem doubled in size, addressing it the old-fashioned way meant doubling the funding or that many people went unserved or under-served.

To do more with less necessitates technology. The only way to double impact without doubling funding is to have smarter solutions that enable staff to help more people with less effort or, even better, enable people to solve problems themselves. The same kinds of technology which allow a bank to serve far more customers with fewer staff need to be applied to meet the social needs of far more people with fewer resources.

Societal Platform’s DIKSHA project is a great example of where technology was instrumental in achieving systems-level change. They’ve already had an impact on more than 100 million students by inserting QR codes into printed textbooks. This is a mechanism for distributing materials to improve teaching by educators as well as enriching the experience of students.

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The way forward

Luckily, there are two powerful facts working for the social sector and its efforts to reach positive systems change. Firstly, most social change work is highly dependent on information put to good use. Creating a solution that is five or 10 times more cost-effective is much easier when the solution is moving knowledge rather than people or physical objects. It’s hard to deliver twice as much food or twice as many in-person training sessions without doubling the budget. Programmes providing information on how to grow more food, route it more efficiently or how to waste less, can be scaled much less expensively. Providing digital content instead of in-person training can potentially reach far more people at a lower cost.

Secondly, the tech needed probably already exists. The use of software and data to change human behaviour is already extensively deployed but to date has been focused on selling products and politicians. It’s beyond time that we adapted these existing capabilities to boost the effectiveness of people solving society’s big problems.

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Successful systems change in 2021 demands better tools and better data:

  • We need to use data to understand what’s working and what’s not working to better target our limited funding;
  • We need to take advantage of modern communications tools to enhance the ability of multiple organizations to collaborate on solutions to society’s big problems at local and macro levels;
  • We need to use existing productivity tools to make every organization more effective in delivering services;
  • We must build rapid learning, better coordination and technological advantage into our efforts to change unjust social systems.

Technology alone can’t solve systems problems: we need social innovations to drive better behaviours. But social innovation without making the most of tech will never reach scale. Social innovation plus enabling technology is essential to systems change and reaching society’s shared social goals.

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