Change Through Irrigation

by Sarena Chan

November 1, 2023

Sarena is the Partnership and Programs Lead at the School of System Change. This article, Change Through Irrigation, is part of a series exploring our intentions for inquiry and storytelling through six key themes as we live into our new way of being at the School.

As the story goes, the first fish asks, “Hey, how’s the water?”, to which the second fish responds blankly and asks, “What is water?” Those steeped in the language and concepts of systems see and breathe in the water daily. The challenge becomes, how do we get those we work with to see the water and speak the language of the water; to see the policies, practices and worldviews that underpin our systems, and to strive to bring water to the very systems we are steeped in?

Since 2017, the School has offered open enrolment courses and partnerships to a range of changemakers and organisations from the civil society, public and private sectors. Working one-on-one and in small cohorts we dive deep into systems change, raising complex questions on the surface, and helping people sit in the dynamism of a changing world. Yet, we routinely return to the challenge our partners feel - sustaining their practice and starting to influence their contexts through this systemic approach.

This article looks at how we have evolved our strategy, after five years of running courses and gathering insights from our partners, to one where we see the need for deeper irrigation of systems change learning, as well as inviting you to get in touch if you are interested in being one of those partners.

Photo by River Fx

What irrigation means to the School

Like water running through the soil, what we mean by irrigation is supporting changemakers to do the work by creating and sustaining collective learning throughout their own existing networks and ecosystems to enact deep, lasting change.

Irrigation: Supplying water through channels (in our case, the continuous process of capacity through learning) to nourish and help growth of plants (in our case, transformation).

Photo by Jordan Opel

But how do we bring systems change learning to wider networks and ecosystems? 

Our pioneering partnerships in the health sector, bringing systems change learning to global health practitioners, has informed our irrigation strategy and approach where we bring a powerful combination of:

  • Designing and hosting courses and learning journeys - supporting changemakers in positions of influence to use systemic practices for change 
  • Coaching and supporting individuals, organisations and networks to continue to cultivate and support wider capacity in their contexts
  • Curating and making accessible resources for changemakers on the ‘how’ of change 
  • Community building towards wider influence and narrative shaping

All weaving together to enable deeper conversations, co-creation, and more systemic responses for lasting change.

As we reflect on what we have learnt in health and finance, we are now seeking to take the model to other potential areas of transformation such as climate, education, development, and resilience, and across different geographies.

Irrigating in health

In 2021, the School partnered with the Johnson & Johnson Foundation to pilot our first Basecamp for Health System Transformation course to build capacity within the health system and start to nurture a changemaker ecosystem. Since then, we have continued to support health systems leaders across interconnected fields to build their systems change capacity, by delivering a yearly intensive six-month course for health systems leaders. We also build and deepen facilitation skills among these practitioners and develop ongoing action learning, so they may engage a wider community of health systems leaders around the globe. We provide them with resources and help build stories of transformation for others to be inspired by.

“I am more confident [in my practice], more out in the open and more collaborative, I create spaces for prototyping, experimenting and doing stuff that is safe to fail.”

- Basecamp Health alum

Basecamp for Health System Transformation cohort 2022

In a recent session with the current cohort, a participant shared their desire for systemic re-imaging, “I wish the change I wanted to see in my health system happened 10 years ago. It didn’t happen and I won’t allow it to stay the same for the next 10 years without significant re-imagining.”

After three years, we are starting to see the ripple effect of this work, both in the participants, but also in their organisations, contexts, and by engaging with additional partners across the field of health. ‘We tend to overestimate what can be achieved in one year but underestimate what can be done in three.’  We are seeing how creating the connective tissue between our different activities in health can start to have an additive effect.

You can explore the resources and sense-making profiles from the Basecamp for Health System Transformation course and our wider health system network on our website.

Irrigating in finance

With the scale and pace of our social and environmental challenges today, the need for change in the global finance system is undoubted as a key driver to catalyse government, the private sector and civil society to make changes for positive impact. Last year, the School launched the School of System Change in Finance in partnership with Aviva Investors and Forum for the Future, our second irrigation approach. For year two of this partnership, we are delighted to also be joined by Edge Effects.

“The most valuable thing for me [was] connecting to a cohort who is open to thinking big and creating systems shifts in finance.”

- School of System Change in Finance inaugural participant

This cohort of multi-sectoral actors across the UK, Europe, the US, and South Asia operating within the finance system, now in its second year, is looking to build a movement of changemakers across the finance system to create, accelerate and support one another to amplify change; recognising that the economic system cannot be transformed without changing the finance system itself.

Interested in joining this movement? Apply by 16 November to join our next School of System Change cohort, running Jan-Jun 2024.

School of System Change in Finance inaugural cohort

Where will we flow next?

The irrigation strategy ensures we don’t stay stagnant and instead look to adapt and flow with what our changing world needs. Now, we want to find ambitious partners who see the potential of systemic ways of working being brought to their ecosystems. We are actively exploring the fields of climate change and education as well as where there is interest and excitement for this call. Please get in touch at [email protected] to express interest and find out more.

Our ambition has recently been supported in part by the Cisco Foundation Climate Initiative to help grow our network of systems-minded leaders in climate. We want to work with passionate, values-led individuals seeking to make an authentic contribution to their ecosystems. This includes those who wish to galvanise people and resources, who are excited to do this through systems change learning as the connective tissue, and who are grounded in their humility as learners themselves with the aspiration to facilitate others with their learning.

Together we can irrigate and seed cultures of sustained learning and transformation within networks of changemakers who are ready for new approaches to change and inspire new ways of thinking, being and working systemically.

To keep inquiring with us as we explore our themes for 2023, subscribe to the School newsletter for reflections, articles and resources, and read the opening article, Our Seeds for Storytelling, to learn more.

by Sarena Chan

Sarena is the Partnership and Programs Lead at the School of System Change.

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