TALKS | Methodology, philosophy and theory of systemic design

The Social Construction of Systemic Change: Our Working Theories of Change

Author: Peter Jones, OCAD University, Toronto

+Breakout discussion with the authors after the session

Read working paper ⇒

I propose a formative discussion to inquire theoretically and pragmatically into “theories of change” (Tapling & Clark, 2013) and the quasi-systemic logic models employed to communicate them. “Systems change” has emerged as a major movement in the worlds of impact investing, philanthropy, and the NGOs they fund. The RSD community has a responsibility to better understand the framing, theory, and proposals entailed in systems change, even if only to better collaborate as designers working with the social change community. A larger theoretical question is considered. Do Theories of Change reflect a coherent model of change in real systems, or are they primarily mental models for explaining the preferred causality of desired outcomes?

What are the meanings, purposes, effectiveness, basis in systemics, their common applications, uses and misuses of Theories of Change? Both systems and design studies deal constantly with theories of change (TOC), whether or not they are explicitly presented in program reasoning and design briefs. We can observe from the practice of constructing change logic models that the presentation of a preferred theory of change represents advocacy for the adoption of a common narrative shared by changemakers in a social system. The acceptance of a theory of change denotes the adoption of a systemic model for a preferred outcome, especially in the types of social change projects supported by philanthropy. Accompanying the discourse of TOC, and associated with many funding application is the logic model for a TOC, representing a presumed template for action toward outcomes. The endorsement of a given TOC is sustained by persistent reference to it within organizational discourse, in a shared language between an organization and its sponsors or stakeholders, and through the presumption of individual updates to mental models.

The users of TOCs have expanded from funding agencies (many of whom are known for requiring a logic model of change with applications) to impact investing, normative social research, government policymakers. The provision of a theory and logic model was presumed to represent an empirical and measurable basis, encoded in causal logic, to define how a program’s implementation would develop or result in preferred definite outcomes. However useful these models might be for the organizations involved, the pragmatic effectiveness and the theoretical support for such models is open to question. As systemic designers, we are expected to be familiar with or to develop sophisticated logic models demonstrating the effects and outcomes of change interventions. What should we know about the state of the art of TOC and the systemic reasoning for their rationale?

In social innovation studies, Paul Brest (2010) discusses both their value to philanthropy, and their issues, and the responses from “skeptics and agnostics.” Agnostics, in particular, raise the questions to which systemic designers should be attending: “They believe that it is difficult to create a meaningful theory of change because social problems are complex and ever-changing. Rather than spending time and money trying to craft or assess theories of change, agnostics think it is more productive for funders and grantees to focus instead on building great organizations.” We might consider this outlook representative of any change model, however. There are tensions between direct action (that benefits from relationship and learning) and designed interventions (that benefits from analysis of leverage anticipated to effect long-term impacts).

Typically, systems approaches to value and build upon systemic reasoning from careful observations, such as leverage analysis of complex systems to determine the most productive investment of efforts or programmatic support. Complexity approaches favour more short learning interventions, coordinated iterations, and experiments to deploy proposals as learning probes. Might there be systematic differences in supportive systems theories underwriting theories of change, if we analyzed their different applications?