Systems Innovation | Geoff Mulgan and Charlie Leadbeater | January 2013 | Nesta

For innovators looking for an applied view of systems thinking, @GeoffMulgan and @LeadbeaterCh have written chapters for Nesta (the UK innovation foundation) on Systems Innovation.  The chapters are bundled in a single volume.

Systems Innovation (Nesta, 2013)

Here’s an outline, with some highlights from the text.

Joined-Up Innovation:  What is Systemic Innovation and How Can It Be done Effectively (Geoff Mulgan)

    • Introduction
    • 1. Background and definitions
      • Definitions
        • … we can define systemic innovation as an interconnected set of innovations, where each influences the other, with innovation both in the parts of the system and in the ways in which they interconnect.
      • The impulse to be systemic
        • Figures like Norbert Wiener, Gregory Bateson, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Stafford Beer and Geoffrey Vickers turned systems thinking into a coherent field. [….] Complexity thinking provided a parallel set of ideas from the 1980s onwards, led by figures such as Ilya Prigogine and Stuart Kauffman, while one strand of systems thinking engaged with issues closer to innovation – learning and adaptation – led by writers such as Kurt Lewin and Chris Argyris.
      • What’s easy and hard in systemic innovation
    • 2. Understanding systems


      Example system 2: System analysis of the supply chain for a cup of tea
    • 3. Understanding how to change systems
      • Knowing what kind of system you want to influence
      • Knowing what kind of system you want to influence
      • The rhythms of systemic change
      • Scale: do you have to be big to be a systems innovator?
      • Good and bad systemic innovation – and scale
    • 4. What can you do?
        • First, where possible it’s useful to situate individual actions within the context of a broader movement of change, and with a sense of the bigger picture.
        • Second, if they don’t already exist, the creation or mobilisation of intermediaries can be crucial, to articulate the direction of systemic change, and link big ideas to individual innovations.
        • For any individual there are then a range of options for action.
      • Tools and skills for systemic innovation
      • Knowing what kind of system you want to influence
      • A few conclusions
    • Endnotes

The Systems Innovator:  Why Successful Innovation Goes Beyond Products (Charlie Leadbeater)

  • 1. The Art of Arriving Late
    • Steve Jobs was often late. Apple has not always been first to market with cutting edge technology.
  • 2. The Need for Systems Innovation
    • The very features that make systems so powerful – the way they bring together different components to achieve a purpose – also make them difficult to change.
  • 3. Schools, Containers and Tweets
    • Education
      • The education reformers of the 19th century created a new system out of fragments created by social entrepreneurs.
    • Containerisation
      • Containerisation was not just a way to get goods onto and off ships economically. It became a new way to get freight from its origin to its destination.
    • Social Media Platforms
      • Twitter has grown precisely because the founders did not try to control it.
  • 4. Infrastructures, Alliances and Movements
      • Infrastructure
        • Systems need infrastructure and infrastructures need investment.
      • Alliances
        • Building these alliances usually involves three ingredients: economics; governance and design
      • Alliances: The law of shared value
        • The studios set up a shared financing scheme, the Virtual Print Fee, which gave movie theatres a subsidy of up to 80 per cent of the costs of shifting to digital projection.
      • The governance of alliances
        • Systems innovation depends on alliances, and alliances need to be governed, explicitly or implicitly. That takes political innovation as well as financial and technical innovation.
      • The design of alliances
        • BAA managed to deliver this system–of–systems by creating an alliance among its partners and contractors.
      • Movements and behaviour change
          • System innovation involves a powerful combination of new:
            • Products, services and technologies (tablet computers, containers, stamps, digital projectors);
            • Infrastructures that make these innovations widely available;
            • Alliances of partners who provide complementary services, software and assets;
            • Consumer norms and behaviour, which often emerge peer–to–peer, through a process
              of social learning, copying and emulation.

        These basic common ingredients of systems innovation, however, can be combined in many different ways.

  • 5. The Variety of Systems
    • Heavy/light
      • However, a huge opportunity for disruptive system change comes about when old and heavy systems are suddenly confronted by new alternatives that are lighter and cheaper.
    • Adapting/creating
      • Adapting and reforming existing systems is difficult for all sorts of reasons, but one of the most important is that it usually involves conflict.
    • Dominated/negotiated
      • Some systems are dominated by a few players: electricity generation and distribution. Some are dominated by a single player.
    • Stable/fluid
      • If the underlying knowledge base is more fluid and open, then the opportunities to create new models are much greater.
    • Tight/loose
      • Tightly coupled systems can be highly productive and yet they are also prone to catastrophic failure.
    • Public/private
      • There are very few entirely private systems, in which the government plays absolutely no role in shaping, even if that role is limited to standard setting, regulation and access.
    • Complicated/complex
      • Most modern systems are both hideously complicated and bewilderingly complex.
  • 6. Leading Systems Change
    • Drive
      • The most common approach is relentless, incremental innovation to drive a system to higher levels of performance.
    • Repurpose
      • When the goals and ends of the system are in question then systems innovation has to focus not merely on new means but on a new purpose.
    • Reconfigure
      • A third strategy is to reconfigure established systems, by overlaying them with a new system – primarily an information system – that will allow the physical resources to be used in different ways.
    • Leapfrog
      • Huge new opportunities are opening up for innovators to leapfrog old systems using new technologies.
    • Conclusion
  • 7. The New Rules of Innovation
    • These are ten tips to follow to become an effective systems innovator.
      • 1. Even a great product is no guarantee of success
      • 2. Different systems need different approaches
      • 3. Systems innovation turns on alliances
      • 4. No value will be created unless it is shared
      • 5. System innovation needs behaviour change
      • 6. Systems innovation requires a mix of leadership styles
      • 7. Move at the right time
      • 8. Intervene at the right point
      • 9. Blank sheets are very rare
      • 10. Learn to leapfrog
  • Endnotes

Download Systems Innovation at

The pointer to this Systems Innovation book came from a blog post by Tim Draimin, Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG).  On that blog post, he included SiG’s view on systems principles.

Core Elements of Systems Thinking

SiG’s Knowledge Hub, which has a section on Systems Thinking, lays out the following Principles in its resource Introduction to Systems Thinking:

  • Systems are a way of thinking about the world
  • Systems behave as a whole
  • Systems understanding is observer or perspective dependent
  • A systems approach requires multiple perspectives
  • Where WE draw systems boundaries affects the system
  • We need to be aware of what is going on inside the system but also outside
  • Systems are ‘nested’ – we should always think about the system we’re looking at as being made up of smaller systems and being part of larger systems

Introduction to Systems Thinking suggests three stages to employ in order to look at a problem using the lens of systems thinking:

1.    Frame the Situation – Begin by generating a systems description or map of what is involved and the important relationships that define the system

2.    Describe the Dynamics – Develop an understanding and description of the dynamics of the situation

3.    Synthesize the Understanding –Capture what was learned from the first two phases of analysis into narratives about how the situation might or could unfold in the future

See Tim Draiman, “The Social Innovator’s Guide to Systems Thinking” at


#nesta, #sig, #social-innovation, #systems-thinking