How to ride a wave of systems change when it sweeps past you

5 min readSep 26, 2023

If we look back a decade ago, we thought the Arab spring, the election of Barack Obama and the arrival of social media would bring us a world with greater democracy and diversity. Move forward 10 years and we’ve got the opposite. Which goes to show how much can change, that progress is never linear and that here is hope amidst the black hole that the end of the 2010s has left us with.

Systems change can take an eternity, but sometimes changes in behaviour accelerate like a butterfly effect and you need to anticipate, spot and take advantage of them. Look at how the disposable coffee cup has gone from almost a fashion item when branded coffee shops started opening to becoming an item of shame. The same goes with “fast fashion” where people used to love going and buying cheap clothing for a night and then throwing it away just because they could to now the fashion in second hand or “pre loved” clothing. Look at how renewable technology has grown far greater than expected.

Blowing bubbles

While people overall are becoming more inclusive and environmentally friendly, politics is also becoming more divisive and extremist movements have been taking power across the world, from Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil and ISIS in the Middle East (even if they have been quelled, for the moment). But however powerful these movements, the planet has shown it won’t take any prisoners, as we’ve seen most of the biggest disasters over the last decade influenced by climate change, be it the tsunami in Japan, the floods in Pakistan, the earthquake in Haiti, or the wildfires in Australia. The irony of course, is that however much people blame the EU for all its shortcomings (as if Westminster was the panacea), that doesn’t stop people protesting to join the EU in Ukraine or people risking their lives to cross the dangerous seas to live in Europe. But people are self-organising in different ways towards greater solidarity, be it art collectives or movements organising against discrimination or tech abuse

We want companies to not just focus on profit, but on social purpose, but we don’t always trust them when they fund good causes. It’s no longer enough for businesses to think they can compensate fundamentally exploitative practices — whether that’s of their workers, their supply chain or the environment — through a sprinkling of cash in a developing country or planting a few trees to offset their carbon cost.

With growing examples of companies pioneering ethical practices, while still being able to make money, it’s time for the others to disrupt their models. For others, it’s about creating partnerships like the hedge fund BlackRock with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to launch its first circular economy fund. Some newer businesses or even markets might just leapfrog incumbents. Walmat have stopped selling ammunition for military-style weapons, New Zealand unveiled its first “well-being budget” and many organisations are divesting from pension funds that invest in fossil fuels.

For me, the litmus test in whether these trends are genuine rather than superficial, is whether they actually reduce inequalities and above all inequalities of power, between people, communities, cultures, economies. Who will benefit from these trends? Who can influence them?

We’ve seen through the evolution of the digital that even idealistic & utopian endeavours like the world wide web are colonised by the most powerful companies or social media (re)captured by dictatorships. We’ve seen how new technologies like artificial intelligence are given a bad name because of discrimination through algorithmic bias. If we don’t change the underlying power inequalities, the main benefit of these new tools will be to put these inequalities even more in the spotlight. But, like throughout humankind, resistance has always been the first step to re-invention. The contradictions I surfaced earlier show that people are resisting to the way they’ve been brought up and trying to re-invent together ways of living that they want their loved ones and future generations to live in. Let’s not forget that includes people seeking asylum who’ve risked everything to re-invent their lives in a better world.

We need to put ourselves into other people’s shoes, not just when we’re designing services for people, but as everyday citizens. Brexit has shown that people’s views on the world have only hardened since the referendum, be they Brexiteers or Remainiacs. I remember a few weeks after the referendum, I took part in an initiative organised by More in Common which brought together people from the area that most voted Remain (Lambeth) with the one that most voted for Brexit (Boston) and over Skype and then face to face, we tried to understand each other better, and it wasn’t easy, some people bit their tongue, others cried, others argued, but we tried to get under each other’s skin not to understand why we voted in a particular way, but how we went about our different lives. Art, film and music need to do better at capturing the impacts of inequality, as Ken Loach has done so well, but sometimes creativity can be displayed through activism.

So what do we need to move from…to?

  • Move beyond binary choices to deliberative ways of people deciding. It might take longer, but as Brexit has taught us, binary choices might feel simpler and more decisive, but engineer division.
  • Don’t just bring in more technology into people’s lives, bring in more human and trust into technology. We need to reverse the trend of Google searching us, rather than us searching Google.
  • Don’t just open data, open a conversation about how your organisation can improve, where people from frontline staff to customers can help you improve
  • Don’t just try and change people’s behaviour, help people come together to improve their streets and neighbourhoods
  • Democratise how you make decisions, whether that’s in analogue, digital or algorithm, enable people to be able to participate in that process and to decide collectively.
  • Don’t just aggregate, segment & stratify data on individuals because there are more opportunities to do so, help people understand and use the insights to help them make better decisions.
  • Don’t just measure impact on the bottom line, but impact on the wider environment. Likewise don’t just measure how you’re helping meet someone’s needs, but also their ability to thrive.
  • Don’t just evaluate the end result of the change, but how people are able to navigate and influence the change

How would you move from designing your services or activities for individuals or users to communities?

What do you do when you can see a wave of change sweep past you? Do you hide from it, do you ride the wave or do you go all in?

What other things do you think we should move from…to?




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