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Key Advance 2: The Imperative for Systemic Change

Explicit in Conservation by Design 2.0 is the expectation that conservationists increasingly seek to effect [simple_tooltip content='Systemic change refers to creating, strengthening, or shifting the social, economic, political, and cultural systems that comprise and sustain a socio-ecological system.']systemic change[/simple_tooltip] within the socio-ecological systems in which they work, because the future of nature and the future of human civilization are interdependent. However, the major systems commonly used to describe the forces affecting that common future -- economic, political, and social -- do not adequately reflect this interdependence. Unless we act to address systemic causes, we are likely to fail in our mission. We are therefore compelled to develop strategies that improve these systems over time. Strategies that successfully strengthen these human elements of a socio-ecological system should ensure enduring conservation outcomes at scale.

Being skilled at [simple_tooltip content='Systems thinking has been applied to social-ecological systems, governance, and resource use (a paper by Elinor Ostrom outlined how her Socio Ecological Systems framework was operationalized to assess sustainability in Baja California Sur); urban ecology (The Nature of Cities); organizations (Peter Senge); health care (WHO) and education (Waters Foundation). We acknowledge here that this field is a growth area for both the Conservancy and perhaps for the conservation community more broadly. You can learn more about systems thinking at']systems thinking[/simple_tooltip], a proven approach for developing innovative solutions to messy situations that often seem like intractable dilemmas, is critical in order to be able to develop strategies aimed at achieving systemic change.

For our conservation work, systemic change can be achieved by, for example, incorporating conservation into economic systems, so that a conservation outcome is produced via new models of “business as usual”. If consumers develop a preference for products that are sustainably harvested, they can incentivize producers to invest in those practices. If regulatory agencies embed conservation principles into their land use permitting process, a potential driver of threat to nature is harnessed to become a potential driver of conservation. By developing strategies to “mainstream” conservation into the everyday policies and practices of agencies, businesses, and communities, conservationists may be able to create far more wide-reaching and durable conservation outcomes that jointly benefit nature and people. By doing so, we seek to drive conservation actions that strategically broaden the constituency of people and organizations who do conservation work, whether they define it this way themselves or not.


What does this mean we need to do differently?

CbD 2.0 requires teams to rigorously analyze the various relationships within a socio-ecological system, and think creatively about where there may be opportunities to advance conservation as a solution to major challenges facing society. Indeed, the larger and more recognized and important the “problem for people” is, the more potential impact a “conservation solution” may have – and the more secure the resulting conservation outcome will be. In other words, embedded in socio-ecological challenges may be opportunities to institute a systems-based solution that will also work for nature. The size of the problem may well correspond to the scale of the potential impact. Moreover, a conservation-compatible change in practice or policy can potentially serve as a model that can be replicated elsewhere, enabling conservationists to extend the impact of their investment well beyond the places they directly engage.

We also note that achieving systemic change may take longer, often significantly longer, than the duration considered by a typical conservation plan (e.g., 5-10 years). Consequently, outcomes intended to be met within the planning window will likely increasingly be written as policy, practice or behavior outcomes (e.g., in terms of changed human behavior and changing the sets of “rules” – formal and informal – that guide people’s behavior). When this is the case, teams will be expected to clearly describe in results chains as well as the theory of change the relationship between achieving behavior change, policy, or practice outcomes and meeting the longer-term outcomes for nature and people. Because systems thinking is so important to this new paradigm, conservationists seeking transformational solutions to address wicked problems should consider developing a Theory of Change that is truly transformational by using systems thinking tools and approaches. Towards that end, we provide a curated library of systems thinking resources at the bottom of this page.

Here is an example of a results chain for a generic project that aims to create systemic change for nature and people through a policy outcome. The chain would be further specified in any given project case, and similar chains could be created for projects aiming for systemic change through behavior change or altered corporate or management practices.

When teams are developing strategies that focus on changing the more formal rules (e.g. laws, regulations) that guide people’s behavior, we encourage them to draw upon decades of research in the policy sciences on theories of change of how policy change happens. For example, ORS Impact and the Center for Evaluation Innovation have created practical practitioner-focused examples of common theories of change for how policy change happens in their joint report on ‘Theories to Inform Advocacy and Policy Change Efforts.’ Please see Appendix F for more guidance about how to think about human behavior-related strategies and for three common policy theories of change used in Conservancy projects.

What is Systemic Change?

Sys­temic change refers to cre­at­ing, strength­en­ing, or shift­ing the social, eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, and cul­tur­al sys­tems that com­prise and sus­tain a socio-eco­log­i­cal system.

Systems Thinking

Sys­tems think­ing has been applied to social-eco­log­i­cal sys­tems, gov­er­nance, and resource use (see Eli­nor Ostrom’s paper, and how her Socio Eco­log­i­cal Sys­tems frame­work was oper­a­tional­ized to assess sus­tain­abil­i­ty in Baja Cal­i­for­nia Sur); urban ecol­o­gy (The Nature of Cities); orga­ni­za­tions (Peter Sen­ge); health care (WHO) and edu­ca­tion (Waters Foun­da­tion). We acknowl­edge here that this field is a growth area for both the Con­ser­van­cy and per­haps for the con­ser­va­tion com­mu­ni­ty more broad­ly. You can learn more about sys­tems think­ing at The Sys­tems Thinker.

External Resources
Systems thinking library on CONNECT.

A col­lec­tion of arti­cles, links and resources con­tributed by mem­bers of TNC’s Sys­tems Think­ing Com­mu­ni­ty of Practice.

The Systems Thinker

A com­pi­la­tion of arti­cles, tools, and oth­er learn­ing resources from Sys­tems Think­ing experts includ­ing Peter Sen­ge, David Stroh, Daniel Kim, and many more.

TNC’s Theory of Transformational Change project

For TNC staff, the new vision and ambi­tion of the Shared Con­ser­va­tion Agen­da calls on us to devel­op not only a the­o­ry of change but also a The­o­ry of Trans­for­ma­tion­al Change. A team at TNC is devel­op­ing a The­o­ry of Trans­for­ma­tion­al Change frame­work and guid­ance. TNC staff can see that team’s lat­est think­ing here.

TNC’s Policy Measures Working Group Report

TNC staff can refer to this resource on CONNECT for an in-depth dis­cus­sion of how to frame and mea­sure pol­i­cy outcomes.

Case Studies
How can the U.S. Bureau of Land Management plan for solar energy, health and nature?

This case study, found on page 18 of the Bridge Collaborative Practitioners Guide, describes how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is working with Duke University to develop a systems framework to use as a reference point for BLM's energy decisions on lands across the southwestern United States.

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