Liquid or solid: what are the boundaries of a system?

4 min readJul 2, 2020

I’ve always been struck as to how certain people need to see the world through a single lens, sometimes through opportunism to get funding and sometimes just through sheer evangelical belief in a particular way of thinking. At the moment, it seems that everyone’s talking about systems change. As @aliceevans highlights, we need to avoid the temptation that “systems change” becomes the latest bandwagon that everyone jumps on, after social innovation, agile or design thinking, without forgetting government branded buzzwords, like Big Society, Total Place or Neighbourhood Renewal.

And we know what happens with that, as the experience of New Public Management has shown. More importantly, it’s those people at the very frontline of navigating very complex situations and even more contrived systems who are the often the pioneers of these new ways of doing before they get packaged up and institutionalised.

The leadership of Lankelly Chase, Forum for the Future, Collaborate and others on this shows that systems change isn’t a linear process or a highly professionalised way of doing things that only certain people can do. On the contrary, examples like Systems Changers by @lankellychase show that it’s not just about conceptual frameworks by policy wonks like me, it’s about how people navigate complex situations and often very contrived systems together.

1. How do we define the boundaries of a system?

Map of factors influencing children’s outcomes produced by the School of System Change for the North Camden Zone

To take a real example of the housing benefit system: are private landlords and regulation of the private rented sector part of this system too? Or is this system limited to the people and processes involved in claiming housing benefit and eligibility for it?

Often the boundary of a system is contested politically. For example: Is poverty caused by the behaviour of the individuals affected and the influencers of that behaviour? Or should the boundary of the system that creates poverty be drawn more broadly to include wealth distribution policy? It’s also contested by public opinion and economically.

Dark Matter worked with the different actors of the North Camden Zone to understand the different factors affecting children’s outcomes in the neighbourhood to produce the map above, part of the wider impact report produced. This helped understand people’s personal aspirations and breaking these down based on self esteem and purpose.

Map of aspirations & needs in the North Camden Zone

2. Who are the actors of the system?

We need to identify & empower people who work directly with residents in the most complex situations, often trying to navigate together often contrived systems, that haven’t been designed by them.

Like underwater divers, they can spot the connections & systems that are invisible from the formal structures & processes in place. However, they can be constrained by the specific role they have been assigned by their organisations to focus on very narrow elements of people’s lives and of the system, be it a child’s safety, an older person’s social care or a teenager’s homelessness. They will want and need to act fast to tackle the urgent needs of the people they serve, be it a family who’s been evicted, an older person who’s come out of hospital or a child that needs to go into care.

New Philanthropy Capital and Lankelly Chase have developed a helpful publication on what systems change is and how to do it and showing the spectrum of different people that are involved in this movement.

Systems Change, A guide to what it is and how to do it, New Philanthropy Capital

We want to devolve power to people on the frontline — both practitioners and residents — to build more trustworthy relationships that enable them to have different conversations and work through what could help them become more resilient. We’ll need to be conscious that we can be responsive to learning from the frontline, rather than depend on our conceptual frameworks.

How can we learn and blend in disciplines like service design, community development or agile to support systems change?

As Thea Snow recommends should we thinking more of “system horizons” rather than “system boundaries”?

How about immersing people in the field, like @forumofthefuture is doing with their School of Systems Change?




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