Transformative change: from parts to systems

5 Apr 2024

Aimée Aguilar Jaber from the Hot or Cool Institute, Mariana Mirabile from the OECD Environment Directorate, and Anna Birney, Dan Ford, and Laura Winn from the School of Systems Change, reflect on the outcomes of a workshop on transformative change, hosted by the OECD in collaboration with the Pathfinder Initiative.

Image showing transformation, with an image of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly on an abstract background
Image credit: Chan2545/Shutterstock.com

The IPCC has underscored that “a systemic change is required across all sectors to reduce emissions at the pace and scale needed”. The term “systemic change” (often referred to as  “transformative/transformational change”) has since made its way into the discourse among  a growing number of institutions, including the COP28 Presidency whose aim was to “deliver transformational progress.”

In collaboration with the Pathfinder Initiative, the OECD (a core partner of the Initiative) conducted a workshop in 2022 to discuss transformative change for the climate and health nexus. The workshop convened researchers and policy analysts from more than twenty international organisations and research institutions. Workshop findings, complemented by work from the School of System Change, highlighted three messages.

1. Triggering transformation requires thinking that matches the complexity of the problems we are trying to solve

When faced with complex problems, such as how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining and supporting human health, the highest potential for change lies in addressing the system as a whole, rather than the properties of its individual parts. To do this we need to first challenge our worldview and way of thinking about how problems can be solved.

Mental models (or worldviews) can be thought of as the lens through which we observe reality. Diverging definitions and understanding of transformative or systemic change can be associated with ways of thinking and understanding the world: analytical thinking (focused on parts, also referred to as a mechanistic worldview) and systems thinking (focused on how parts are organised, also referred to as a complexity worldview).

Analytical thinking describes the way in which most of us have been educated to solve problems. From this perspective, the world is understood to be objectively knowable, particularly through dividing complex phenomena into parts to analyse them. When using the term “transformative change” from an analytical mindset, the “object” of transformation tends to be parts, and a central assumption is that if we are able to “fix” or “improve” the parts we will have solved the problem. It is not surprising that from this view, technological improvements in system parts (e.g. vehicles, buildings, products, etc.) are labelled as transformative changes.

Systems thinking involves a shift away from improving parts to changing how the different parts interrelate or are organised. In doing so, it allows to link the notion of transformative or systemic change to the emergence of a system that is qualitatively different: as its parts are re-organised in ways that can lead to better results (e.g. less emissions, better health).

As part of the preparation to the workshop, participants were asked to define transformative change. A majority (67%) of responses were in line with a complex or systemic worldview, explicitly mentioning the need for either a fundamental change to the current system and/or the emergence of a new system (the rest of the responses were not explicit enough to assess the alignment with one of the worldviews described above).

2. We need scalable solutions that are transformative, but mere scale should not be conflated with transformation

Rooting the definition of transformative or systemic change in a complexity worldview also changes what we put behind the notions of scale and effectiveness. Thinking in systems allows us to focus on understanding the feedback loops (non-linear cause-and-effect relationships) that characterise our socio-economic systems. This is linked to an insight of complexity science: that there are “places” to intervene in complex systems, located in key feedback loops. These places are often referred to as “high leverage points”: points in the system where a relatively small effort produces large change.

While often requiring public acceptability and collaboration across actors not used to working together, policies “pushing” on “high-leverage points” have the potential to trigger large-scale behavioural change that would be otherwise unfeasible. For example, road space reallocation – identified by OECD analysis as a high-leverage point for transport policy – can reduce private car use by liberating space. The new available space can change the interactions of system parts (e.g. of vehicles, transport users, activities and urban functions, etc.). It has therefore a large transformational potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions while benefiting human health through pathways such as improved air quality and the promotion of active travel.

3. The biggest gap is how to make transformation happen in practice

We also need to develop tools and criteria for identifying transformative actions. During an interactive component of our workshop, we asked attendees to prioritise policies based on their transformative potential. The discussion shed light on the fact that despite most definitions of transformative change being rooted in the same worldview, there was a lack of clarity and consensus on the criteria and tools to identify transformative from non-transformative policies and solutions.

To address this gap, the OECD has developed a methodology to help governments categorise policies by their transformative potential, via a combination of system thinking tools. So far, this methodology has been applied to the passenger transport sector in Ireland and in Catalonia, Spain.

Further information:

Find out more about the OECD’s transformative change work.

Find out more about the work of The School of System Change.

Note: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the OECD or of the governments of its member countries.