What is systemic change?

Ethical solutions and social enterprise are a necessary but insufficient basis for systemic economic change.

Words like ‘systemic,’ are not easily comprehended from within our mechanistic culture.

The architect Christopher Alexander suggested that without the right language we cannot “see” the existing design of a system or envision a new design of how it might be. His thesis was that if we cannot name it, we cannot know what we are looking for. In this sense, normal economic activity that automatically works for the common good is almost unimaginable today because we have no name for it. In part this is because we are so embedded within the current system it is difficult to imagine anything else and hence a different way of doing things remains invisible to us.

For us at the Commons Society the word “systemic” refers to a system wide design that connects the parts of a system together. It often does so by circulatory flows and feedback systems whose function is ‘invisibly’ operated through integral mechanisms embedded in the system to sustain it. These crucially influence the outcomes, equilibrium, resilience, longevity and nature of a whole system. In ecological and biological senses such mechanisms are often the key elements of comprehensive life support systems.In an ecological system, circulatory flows that go in the right directions to take energy to where is it is needed are fundamental to supporting life. We cannot envisage an economic system that does the same without designing such equivalent mechanisms.

Our collective challenge is to create an economic system that supports life in a way similar to the self-replenishing systems of our planet. This can only be achieved at a meta-organisational level through a whole system change that can flourish and expand within the existing system.

Capitalism is a systemic design. There are at least three system wide mechanisms at the heart of capitalism – ownership, capital, and profit. Any intervention that genuinely can be classed as systemic must, in some way, address all of these integral instruments of wealth accumulation concurrently if we are to redirect the purpose of the “free market” system.

The essential problem with capitalism lies not in any of these mechanisms per se but how they combine together to extract value and consolidate wealth and power on behalf of fewer and fewer people  (with all the adverse social and environmental effects that accompany their systemic combination). A Commons Society structure in contrast uses each of these mechanisms in a different combination that reverses this direction and creates value and common wealth for more and more people.

Systemic change requires some way whereby power is restrained and restructured automatically – independent of the imposition of regulation by government or the individual intentions, ethical or otherwise, of entrepreneurs. This presents a conundrum or contradiction in terms within the terminology and cultural perspective of traditional free-market economics.

A new structural mechanism beyond regulation by government and beyond individual choice is required so the exercise of power through the mechanisms of ownership, capital accumulation and profit are contained within a countervailing balance. (2),

In a Commons Society structure, ownership is redesigned and de-commodified, capital is accumulated mutually and profit is automatically re-directed by the redesigned system towards both wellbeing creation and expansion of the structure.

The Commons Society addresses the radical question – how can we turn the whole system, irrespective of voluntary commitment or certification into one that resources people, place and planet whilst leaving entrepreneurs free to naturally pursue business opportunities? This is not to say that attempts to create voluntaristic systems of social and environmental accounting or social enterprise based upon ethical trading are not hugely significant and sorely needed – we simply suggest they can be massively more effective in creating transformational change when they are combined with a Commons Society architecture.

A better way of doing business and a vision of a triple bottom line of people, place and planet are urgently needed. All over the world, innovative projects have created tremendous achievements through social enterprise and the new economy in its many forms. However in our view, many existing ethical and innovative initiatives go to great lengths to address values and purpose within organisations but in doing so leave the systemic structure intact. We think it helpful to ask what degree of change can be achieved by asking entrepreneurs and owners to be ethical without in some way addressing integral systemic mechanisms of the dysfunctional market. In short we suggest it is possible to only go so far.

So our question is whether the voluntary certification of good intentions is enough to do more than make a system that takes power and resources away from communities, as a matter of course, more acceptable? We hope those involved in similar initiatives will take our challenge in the spirit it is intended.

The Commons Society is a whole system of political economy – of investment, distribution and governance – that can grow like a Trojan Horse within the existing system. At the same time it disadvantages no-one. In so doing it honours enterprise for its contribution to society and frees communities from servitude and dependence upon governments and corporations or philanthropy. It is a process of re-enclosing the Commons for the common good rather than for self-interest. It is a systemic structure that reconnects wealth creation with the common good through wellbeing creation and bestows sovereignty upon communities.


(1), Christopher Alexander ” A Pattern Language”

(2), Countervailing Power, or countervailence, is the idea in political theory of institutionalized mechanisms that the wielding of power within a polity having two or more centres can, and often does, provide counter-forces that usefully oppose each other for higher outcomes considered in a wider system


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Claudius van Wyk

    It seems to me that there are a few useful ideas that potentially apply in the framework of generative organisations that might function within the notion of such a Commons Society. Firstly it points to moving more decisively from the shareholder to the stakeholder model. This move then shifts the focus from simply buying a stake in the profit of the organisation, typically speculative stock-maket trading, to having an emotional stake in the value generation of the organisation to all of its stakeholders. This includes the whole value chain; from the flourishing of the soil that produces our food, to the genuine flourishing of the participating human beings/communities who utilise and offered products and services. Secondly it points to the contribution of all of the stakeholders needing to be recognised, evaluated and watermarked throughout the value-chain in respect of the contribution to systemic vitality. This will enable reward directed towards the replenishment of all the participants by means of integral criteria. And thirdly that the notion of genuine human flourishing be included in ethical criteria alongside that of equity and sustainability. Genuine human flourishing might then be seen as being promoted by goods, services and experience that feed, nurture and direct humanity to the realisation of greater evolutionary potentials. The intriguing challenge within the new emerging knowledge economy will be whether such value algorithms might be co-created on a digital coordinating platforms for watermarking all the contributions along the value chain. Whether within such a complex adaptive and self-organisaing system principles of supply and demand will still hold in respect of apportioning value throughout the system, will no doubt be determined by the holistic nature of the shared understanding of the participants. This, of itself, will surely need to be enabled through an on-going process of discovery. And that, in turn, could be rendered more stable and wholesome by a deeply shared identity – a Commons Society seems to point to that possibility.

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