Making Sense of ‘Systemic Change’

FROM: Marcus Jenal – 26. January 2020

The market systems development (MSD) approach has a big elephant in the room: not knowing about or agreeing on what systemic change is all about. 

But why should we care?

First, the concepts and terms that we use, argues Sarika Bansal, “shape the stories we construct of people and places, and ultimately, the policies and decisions we make.”

Second, the inability to clearly explain systemic change will more and more push the discussion to just about impacts – jobs, income, etc. – or other simplistic ways of measuring systemic change, putting aside essential elements that are key to understanding and bringing about transformative change.

In this blog post, I present a conceptual framework that I believe can clarify the current conceptual confusion about systemic change. This will enable us to move on and focus our discussion on how to measure this change and better decide what measures are good measures.

The confusion around systemic change criteria

Why do we need a conceptual framework, you might ask? A clear conceptual framework will allow us to choose the right measures but also to better interpret results – i.e. decide whether a result we observe is actually good or not. Let me explain.

In an Outcome Harvesting workshop held last week in Belgrade among six projects implemented by Helvetas and its consortium in Eastern Europe, we identified four criteria that were essential to assess whether a change was systemic: scale, sustainability, inclusiveness and transformation.

Scale and sustainability are often mentioned as defining measures of systemic change – see for example, the Donor Committee for Enterprise’s implementation guidelines for measuring systemic change, which use scale, sustainability and resilience as criteria. Inclusiveness is less frequently mentioned as a criterion and transformation is quite unique a criterion (yet an important one, as I will argue below).

Some of the questions the group of participants was discussing at the Outcome Harvesting workshop on a very high level included whether we need all of these criteria, or if we can collapse two into one (transformation into sustainability or the other way around), or whether some are more important than others (scale and sustainability for some, transformation for others).

Conceptual clarity would certainly facilitate this discussion. Furthermore, if we agree to a criterion like scale, how do we interpret the connected measures? Is more always better? Or at what point is there enough scale to call it systemic? A conceptual framework that is rooted in a body of theoretical knowledge will help answer this question.

Why a change is only systemic when it is transformative

For me, transformation is the central criterion to decide whether a change is systemic. This doesn’t mean that scale, sustainability or inclusiveness aren’t important criteria. For example, scale and scalability can be important measures to assess transformation – if placed in the right analytical or conceptual framework to make it meaningful. Yet, if a change is systemic, it needs to transform the way we do things. What does that mean? This’s exactly where the conceptual framework that I want to present comes into play.

The framework is called the ‘multi-level perspective’ and it comes from the body of knowledge on socio-technical transitions. It describes three levels: 

  • The niche level, where small networks of actors come up with and support new ideas based on what they think people need. This is where a lot of learning happens, both within organisations and between organisations, which eventually turns into innovations that have the potential to become transformative. There’s a whole body of literature that describes the level of niches and how they can most effectively be managed in order to stimulate innovation.
  • The regime level, which is the level of the main way of doing things. It’s built up of a dynamic equilibrium where industry, policy, technology, culture, society and markets work together to produce the things and experiences that make up the biggest parts of our daily lives. It’s about the things we’re used to and the way we expect people to behave.
  • The landscape level, which shapes what can happen in a system. In practice, it includes physical features like the topographical landscape or the weather and climate, but also the influence of other, larger systems and cultures. For example, when the system we look at is a city, part of the landscape level would be formed of the country around the city as well as the global level, both of which we cannot directly influence but have an influence on the city.

In this framework, the simplest way to describe a transformative change would be an innovation that comes from the niche level and is mature enough. It can enter the regime level at a specific point in time given the right opportunity and either enhance the regime by becoming part of it or indeed replace the regime – or in other words enhance what we deem normal or replace what we deem normal.

Examples that are often used are the automobile that replaces horse carriages as the normal way or transportation or the steam ships that replace sail ships for freight shipping overseas. While these two new technologies replaced the existing regime as they required quite different social arrangements and organisation, technologies like electric cars have just been added to the regime of transportation, as they aren’t disruptive enough to make other modes of transport obsolete and also they are built around the same physical and social arrangements (roads, traffic rules).

Re-interpreting the systemic change criteria: scale, sustainability and inclusiveness

Now that we have the conceptual framework, we can have a new look at the criteria of scale, sustainability and inclusiveness. The easiest one to start with would be scale, which becomes a measure of whether an innovation has left the niche level and made the step to becoming part of the regime. But again, it isn’t about scale for scale’s sake, but about understanding when an innovation has reached a critical scale to enter the regime.

Sustainability is a tricky one because there are essentially two different ways (and maybe more) to define sustainability. I don’t like the predominant way of how it’s used in many parts of development: the perpetuity of a solution that is introduced by a project. As I wrote in a blog post for the BEAM Exchange: current views on sustainability seem very much about trying to ensure that the plasters (band-aids) we put on stay on as long as possible. Or in other words that a fix that a project puts in place (a new business model, a new service, etc.) will be continuously provided also when the project stops funding it and, ideally, forever.

I’m more in favour of using sustainability as a concept in its original meaning: how we can live on this planet happily in a way so future generations will also be able to live happy and fulfilled lives. This way of looking at sustainability is a whole different challenge, which I believe, isn’t considered enough in market systems development.

Finally coming to inclusiveness. For a long time, I saw this as a purely moral ambition (which isn’t a bad thing). But I now believe that it’s more than that. Inclusiveness has become an important principle in the creation of a better-off society and as such is backed by various strands of research. Recently, I read ‘How Nations Fail’, which makes a strong case that inclusive political and economic institutions build the foundation for the wealth that developed nations have created over the last centuries and are not just nice-to-haves.

So, while scale helps us understand the prevalence of a change, sustainability and inclusiveness show us the quality of a change, which is at the same time an indication that there has been a change in the structure of the system – in social norms and/or mindsets. Now we need to explore more and better ways to show changes happen on that structural level – the question here would be: how do we map constraints and changes in them that shape the behavioural patterns of entrepreneurs and other market actors?


Systemic change is for many people still a difficult concept to understand, as it’s very abstract. The consequence is that, at least in many projects I work in, there’s a lot of confusion around and misinterpretation of what is and what is not systemic change.

This’s unnecessary as we do have ways to explain systemic change: systemic change is a transformative change in the structures and mindsets in a system that leads to changes in the patterns of behaviour of the system actors. A change becomes systemic when it enhances or replaces the regime (as described in the multi-level perspective). Current measures of systemic change often only look at the surface but neglect the importance of changes in the structure.

So, I suggest we stop talking about systemic change and talk directly about transformative change, because that’s what we want to achieve – and we know how to define it.


This blog post is adapted and republished based on an earlier version published here.

Additional sources


Cover picture: Utility

Marcus Jenal has been working in economic development for more than ten years. He started consulting in 2011 and is now a partner of the international consultancy Mesopartner. Marcus’ work has a particular focus on gaining a better understanding of economic systems and options to shape their evolution in a positive way. He also developed approaches to monitor and evaluate programmes that are facing uncertainties and complexity. He provides strategic advice to organisations and programmes on developing strategies and processes of discovery and sensemaking in complex and challenging contexts and is also an active researcher aiming to apply new economic theories to development.