Why ‘systems change’ in 2021 demands better technology

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Jim Fruchterman, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Tech Matters


  • 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.

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. https://www.youtube.com/embed/MCBYi1pqoGY?enablejsapi=1&wmode=transparent

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.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Social innovators address the world’s most serious challenges ranging from inequality to girls’ education and disaster relief that affect all of us, but in particular vulnerable and excluded groups. To achieve maximum impact and start to address root causes, they need greater visibility, credibility, access to finance, favourable policy decisions, and in some cases a better understanding of global affairs and access to decision makers.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship is supporting more than 400 late-stage social innovators. By providing an unparalleled global platform, the Foundation’s goal is to highlight and expand proven and impactful models of social innovation. It helps strengthen and grow the field by showcasing best-in-class examples, models for replication and cutting-edge research on social innovation.

Meet the World-changers: Social Innovators of the Year 2020. Our global network of experts, partner institutions, and World Economic Forum constituents and business members are invited to nominate outstanding social innovators. Get in touch to become a member or partner of the World Economic Forum.

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.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Top UN rights official urges transparent probe into Khashoggi disappearance

Neither side stands to benefit in US-China trade spat, UN says

Questions and Answers on issues about the digital copyright directive

EP President calls for emergency assistance to migrants stranded on Open Arms boat

Women’s rights face global pushback from conservativism, fundamentalism – UN experts warn

Team Europe: €34 billion disbursed so far to tackle COVID-19 in partner countries

Here’s why China’s trade deal with Mauritius matters

Data marketplaces can transform economies. Here’s how

Eurozone: Even good statistics mean deeper recession

Primary Care: a way to provide Palliative Care in Universal Health Coverage

To solve the climate crisis, we need an investment revolution

Creating shared value: an opportunity and challenge for entrepreneurship

Bulgaria: MEPs call for EU values to be fully and unconditionally respected

JADE President opens JADE Spring Meeting 2014

Being blinded by labels stops social change. Art helps us see a better future

As threats to IoT devices evolve, can security keep up?

Innovation and entrepreneurship can cut waste and deliver the circular economy

EU Budget 2020 conciliation talks suspended

Global immunization is having its annual check-up. What can we learn?

UN cooperation with League of Arab States ‘pivotal’, UN chief tells Security Council

EU Budget 2019 to focus on young people

Three experts on why eradicating plastic pollution will help achieve gender equality

Berlin wants to break South’s politico-economic standing

This is where teachers are most (and least) respected

Understanding the gender gap in the Global South

European Parliament approves new copyright rules for the internet

Chile ups foreign bribery enforcement but flawed case resolutions are insufficient to ensure transparency and accountability

India’s economy is an ‘elephant that is starting to run’, according to the IMF

What will Germany look like after the next election?

Half the world’s population is still offline. Here’s why that matters

As G7 calls time on coal, have you checked your supply chain?

Campaign kicks off with High-level Event on #FairInternships

Could 2021 be a turning point for forests and climate change?

New UN Syria envoy pledges to work ‘impartially and diligently’ towards peace

The sustainable fashion revolution is well underway. These 5 trends prove it

Arrest of three Libyans wanted for grave crimes ‘would send strong and necessary message’ to victims, urges top Prosecutor

Rule of Law mechanism applies without further delay as of 1 January, MEPs stress

Indonesia has a plan to deal with its plastic waste problem

Rise in violent conflict shows prevention ‘more necessary than ever’: UN chief

Yemen: ‘A great first step’ UN declares as aid team accesses grain silo which can feed millions

Using CO2 as an industrial feedstock could change the world. Here’s how

Protecting European consumers: toys and cars on top of the list of dangerous products

MEPs call for the protection of fundamental values in the EU and worldwide

The West and Russia accomplished the dismembering and the economic destruction of Ukraine

WHO chief underscores need to address climate change following visit to Bahamas

After the George Floyd protests, what next for racial justice in the US?

80,000 youngsters at risk in DRC after forcible expulsion from Angola: UNICEF

Don’t take African generosity towards refugees for granted, says UN refugee chief

Humanitarian action: New outlook for EU’s global aid delivery challenged by COVID-19

Food choices today, impact health of both ‘people and planet’ tomorrow

From DIY editing to matchmaking by DNA: how human genomics is changing society

How global tech can drive local healthcare innovation in China

Here’s why the tech sector could be the next target for Chinese investment in Africa

Is South Korea set to lose from its FTA with the EU?

Artificial Intelligence raises ethical, policy challenges – UN expert

The future of manufacturing is smart, secure and stable

European Semester Autumn Package: Bolstering inclusive and sustainable growth

Can the world take the risk of a new financial armageddon so that IMF doesn’t lose face towards Tsipras?

GSMA Mobile 360 – Africa: Rise of the Digital Citizen, Kigali 16 – 18 July 2019, in association with The European Sting

Universal Health Coverage will ‘drive progress’ on 2030 Development Agenda

More Stings?

Comments

  1. It’s definitely easy to see just how much technology is going to have to advance to keep up with the findings detailed here. Businesses around the world should recognize this, too.

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: