Large Systems Change: an emerging field of transformation and transitions

Steve Waddell, Principal, NetworkingAction

This article was first posted on the NetworkingAction blog. See the original here.

What is meant by “large systems change (LSC)?” How can we “do it” much better? What must change and what are the strategies to realize it? What does a comprehensive picture of the field of LSC knowledge and methods look like? These are some of the questions that a just-published Special Issue of the Journal of Corporate Citizenship on LSC investigates. Contributors include David Snowden, Mari Fitzduff, Otto Scharmer, Rajesh Tandon, Pieter Glasbergen and Derk Loorbach.

The Issue’s lead article, of which I’m lead author, is freely available here. It presents responses to the questions with an eye to the emergence of a new field of knowledge and action that draws from multiple issues and disciplines that remain highly fragmented. One goal of the issue is to support cohesion and community identity, to support development of LSC as a field.LSC Knowledge

The editors of the Issue went back and forth with terms of “scale” and “complexity” being in the title, reflecting their assumption that these concepts are intimately part of the LSC concept:

By large systems change (LSC), we mean change with two characteristics. One we refer to as breadth: change that engages a very large number of individuals, organisations and geographies across a wide range of systems. Indeed, given the interconnectedness of humanity, we see the need to think about global systems change engaging local-to-global (glocal) dimensions. The second characteristic we refer to as depth: LSC is not simply adding more of what exists or making rearrangements within existing power structures and relationships, but rather changes the complex relationships among these elements at multiple levels simultaneously. LSC means fundamental revisioning of what is possible and ways of sensemaking that lead to previously unimaginable outcomes.

Fragmentation also results from the various points of departure inWhat changes circles terms of the object of change attention, the lead article notes. Some, such as Scharmer, place particular emphasis on the role of the individual and the need for change to start with them; some focus on the importance of technological change impact, such as those looking at technological innovation systems; some stress the need to transform institutions and structures, which are often the focus of social movements; more recently attention has increased on the role of culture and memes of beliefs and values which create possibilities such as Thomas Kuhn associated with scientific revolutions; and the rise of the anthropocene as an new geological era associated with the period since the industrial revolution, points to environmental transformation of the natural environment.

LSC, the lead article proposes, involves spheres of interacting change: although one may be the focus of attention at a particular time and by a particular group or intervention, transformation involves change amongst the spheres. As with the proverbial problem of the blind man determining the actual shape of an elephant by touching different parts, there is a natural tendency for interveners to focus on specific parts of what needs changing to realize transformation.

LSC is also currently characterized by strategic and methodological parochialism: interveners and their interventions tend to have a highly restricted view of what ways transformation arises. They naturally come from what they know and feel comfortable with, supported by a particular focus on a particular part of what has to change. An attempt to distinguish between types of interventions and build a comprehensive picture of options led to the distinguishing between four types of interventions. Most, the lead article notes, focus on strategies associated with a co-creation logic grounded in reciprocal respect and willingness to change, since it embodies the values associated with peaceful transitions arising out of a sense of equity. However, other change strategies such as war and capital strikes can blow collaboration strategies out of the water. Another goal of developing a comprehensive picture of strategies is to explore sequencing and relationships amongst them. For example, it has often been noted that collaboration strategies often only arise after parties have exhausted themselves from other approaches. Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 11.18.02 AM

The Special Issue hopefully makes a contribution to the emergence of ties across strategies and fields of action and knowledge that are critical to advancing our capacity for LSC. Unquestionably, this emergence is part and parcel of our ability to respond to the increasing urgency for large scale interventions.


Steve Waddell is Principal of NetworkingAction. Responding to the 21st century’s enormous global challenges and realising its unsurpassed opportunities require new ways of acting and organising. For 30 years Steve has been supporting this with organisational, network, and societal change and development. He does this through NetworkingAction with collaborative consultations, education, research, and personal leadership. For the last 10 years he’s focused largely on multi-stakeholder global change networks (Global Action Networks) as a large systems change strategy. Currently he is deeply engaged with development of the Potsdam Initiative as a network of LSC stakeholders.

One thought on “Large Systems Change: an emerging field of transformation and transitions

  1. I should think that any large scale system change should not exceed the realms of change, but here I see that the breadth of coverage far exceeds that. The field surely should be limited to international macroeconomics and even now our present understanding about national macroeconomics is badly restricted by the many unnecessary assumptions usually included in current part-theories. The least we can do to improve on this situation is to rewrite the theory from the beginning so as to include the whole of our social system.

    I wish to point out that I have actually achieved this aim, although it seems to be a hard-sell so that most of the interested readers, even the more idealistic ones who would like to change the world, have not seen it not tried to take it seriously. My new book: “Consequential Macroeconomics–Rationalizing About How Our Social System Works” may bee seen by writing directly to me at for a reviewers’ copy.

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