From behaviour change to systems change

4 min readMay 23, 2020

In a previous post, I talked about how we’re moving from the surreal to the slowburn. As we transition, what do we want to sustain from those emergency responses? What are the behaviours we’ve changed we want to sustain and what are the trends we want to accelerate or reverse? How do we ride the wave of change?

We know from past crises, that organisations and sectors can convert and quickly. In this situation too, take the Fiat factory that started making face masks or Brewdog pivoting to make hand sanitiser gel.

In Camden:

  • University College London hospital worked with Mercedes to make breathing aids easier to use
  • Our Neighbourhoods space N19 was repurposed by our partners to deliver essential suppliers via the Dare to Care collective

1. How can we change the system one step at a time?

  • Blend the experimental and the systemic
  • Don’t need to do everything at the same time
  • Develop communities of practice around the ideas
  • Continue researching even while you’re prototyping
  • Don’t just meet people’s needs, challenge what they need
  • Test different social norms

We can learn from what we need to do to influence innovation and navigate change and what our roles can be in supporting that.

2. Develop a whole place approach to resilience

In a sense, we need to develop a whole place approach to resilience, where we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes, create experiences that embody people’s values, seed change throughout the local area and assemble all the actors involved to embed that change.

As the Overton Window is still wide open, as

suggests we’ve got that opportunity to be radical before any counter narratives try and bring us back to the status quo.

We’ve covered how we can use scenarios to help people imagine different futures based on what they’ve experienced. We’ve talked about what data we’ll need to track. We’ve remembered the trends that pre-existed Covid 19, the deep inequalities that grow and the ecological emergency that isn’t looming on the horizon, it’s in the here and now.


suggests “this slowdown gives us some brief indication of what a world that has meaningfully addressed these linked crises might look like, what it might feel like”


outlines “the virus holds up a mirror in front of us. It forces us to become aware of our own behaviour and its impact on the collective…If the coronavirus crisis has brought home anything, it’s that we can change the system”

It reminds me of when I helped set up with others in Lambeth a U Lab which started out focusing on Lambeth the place before mobilising people around food and leading to prototyping a community fridge.

What I learnt from facilitating this, is how through:

  • embodying the role of another part of the system, you get to really empathise with that role
  • looking at the other roles to see how your role positions itself in relation to them, you get to understand how close or far roles are to others
  • moving about to how you see your role working in the future, you get to see how roles could influence each other

“I want to get the most out of this place” said the newcomer, towering over everyone else. “I’m different things to different people” said the church, moving between different people. “I don’t belong anywhere” said the care home, moving to the edges of the room.

In peacetime outside of a crisis, we try to outsource as much as possible to others to take responsibility. The government outsources services to other sectors, organisations outsource back office work to agencies, and even we as individuals outsource tasks to a carer, or a dishwasher or others. In World War 2, they had their own cultural challenges, and recover many of those behaviours when the war ended, but they did retain the habits of making and mending.

What behaviours will we retain and which ones will we have to reinvent?




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese