Creating the Conditions for Systems Change

Systems change can be the catalyst for social change. A strategy that shifts the function or structure of a system to address the root cause of a problem.
Figure 1. SPARCC Acceleration of Systems change provides an overview of the process.
Credit: Stephanie Gidigbi

Over the next decade, the public sector will invest trillions of dollars in infrastructure, as private markets make their own investments in communities across the country. The Strong Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) seeks to leverage these investments to change the systems that shape the built environment.

From Atlanta to Chicago and the Bay Area, gentrification is leading to massive displacement of residents and business that once called these regions home. If current and past development trends remain the same, patterns of segregation, concentrated poverty and displacement will mean we fail to meet the needs of America’s increasingly diverse population. However, there is an opportunity to disrupt the status quo and produce better outcomes for everyone. That is systems change—a strategy that shifts the function or structure of a system to address the root cause of a problem.

Our definition of systems change is based on three key components required for transformational systems change adapted from John Kotters’ approach to accelerating change—1) create the conditions for change by organizing; 2) mobilize action; and 3) implement and institutionalize systems change.

Gentrification, rising inequality, and the fact that most people in major metropolitan area can no longer afford to live where they work because the rent is too high, continue to drive the conversation on the absolute need for systems change.

 SPARCC has defined these events as a “catalytic moment,” an opportunity that can be leveraged to fundamentally reshape the built environment, such as a major public-sector investment, change in political will, or a new policy.

However, no major movement can occur without people. SPARCC partners have made a commitment to support the people in a community and provide resources to activate greater power and voice that create communities in which everyone, regardless of race or origin, has the opportunity to thrive.

SPARCC projects encompass housing, transportation, health and the environment, and they are accomplished through regional “collaborative tables” whose members include resident leaders, advocates, practitioners, and public officials. A guiding coalition of collaborative table members organize to advance the “theory of change” that we can be build a society where everyone thrives.

 In order to mobilize action, key Influencers and barriers are identified to help make the case for why change is needed, incorporating various techniques ranging from a data-driven approach to storytelling. The final phase of implementation and institutionalizing SPARCC systems change includes the executions of quick wins through an impact-effort analysis, fostering a learning culture, and institutionalizing change through policies, process, projects, and programs to establish the “new status quo.”

Transformational impact requires a plan that communicates to the hearts and minds of people who invariably influence the systems that affect our lived experience as a society. Leaders, advocates, and practitioners often look to policies, practices, and resource tools to change the status quo. However, these strategies are the tip of the iceberg (See Figure 1.) toward transformational systems change. 

At SPARCC, we are exploring the norms, values, and assumptions that occur below the surface of observed behavior to offer a deeper understanding and the opportunity to shift the “business-as-usual” mindset.

As a nation, we simply can’t afford more of the same failed approaches—economically, socially or environmentally. We must divest from the systemic inequalities that divide us and invest in equitable development—a range of approaches for creating healthy, vibrant, and sustainable communities where residents of all incomes, races, and ethnicities have access to transportation options, affordable homes, clean air and water, and basic rights to thrive.

We must build more inclusive, heathy places and bridge the economic divide by investing in equitable infrastructure that spurs positive change.

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