#SystemsChange part 1: What are We Learning?

Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies
5 min readJan 17, 2022

by

, Director — Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies

We’ve been talking a lot about systemic shifts lately. What are they? How do they work? Why are they so important? In these blog posts, we’ll explore key lessons we’ve learned about systemic shifts in philanthropy. Stay tuned!

What are Systems?

In the late 1800s, agricultural settlers moved to North America’s Yellowstone National Park region with their livestock. Soon, native grey wolves began to attack their livestock and were quickly perceived as an undesirable nuisance. As a result, settlers began to cull the wolves rapidly and killed nearly a million wolves within half a century.

Without a natural predator at the helm, livestock, elks and deer burgeoned in number, leaving smaller herbivores without enough food. This, in turn, harmed smaller predators like eagles, hawks, and weasels.

Without beavers and smaller herbivores, the soil and stream ecosystems changed. Water bodies widened, and soil eroded. By 1995, the entire environment was denuded. However, by this time, the understanding of ecological systems had shifted considerably: large predators were no longer viewed as threats to be extirpated. Instead, the idea of a ‘keystone species’ had emerged: a species with vast influence on ecosystem resilience. The grey wolf was recognised as the species that determined a more extensive, if invisible, set of factors at Yellowstone that were critical to the balance of the environment.

In 1995, 31 wolves were reintroduced to the area. Within ten years, there were 15 packs of wolves. Regulations mandated that only those wolves that attacked livestock or humans could be shot, and wolves remained undisturbed. With the key predator back in the ecosystem, elk and deer populations were balanced, vegetation began to thrive, smaller animals grew in number, and the stream ecosystem was slowly restored.

The grey wolves of Yellowstone were a key influencing feature in maintaining ecosystem resilience and equilibrium. Their presence, and an understanding of their role, helped change a rapidly depleting system. With an understanding of the interconnected nature of things: and the links between various ecosystem features, the system could be influenced, and change could emerge.

With an understanding of the interconnected nature of things: and the links between various ecosystem features, the system could be influenced, and change could emerge.

The example of the grey wolf helps us think about the different kinds of systemic problems we encounter in the world. It shows us that there can be many approaches to recognising and solving problems and that no single solution is complete in and of itself.

The view of the wolf isolated from its role in the ecosystem created the problem in the first place. Seen in isolation, the wolf is merely a threat or the tip of the iceberg. When the wolf was recognised as the apex of the food chain that maintained equilibrium, the system’s complexity was understood — the remainder of the iceberg, as it were, or the fuller picture.

Then, what helps us recognise a system are the many interconnected relationships within which an event tends to unfold.

Seen in this way, a system is an interconnected set of elements coherently organised in a way that achieves equilibrium. It is a network of actors, rather than individual parts, that come together to make things work. It is adaptive and dynamic.

We have seen organisations such as Agami use systemic lenses from our work. As Supriya Sankaran, Co-Founder of Agami, articulated in this conversation, “At Agami we have taken the stance that we are looking at the legal and justice system … [As] we have said, it includes anything and anything that directly affects or changes the justice system, which is a court, police, prisons, legal profession. We have boundaries and within those are certain elements that we think are important and certain connections.”

We have also seen the importance of systemic thinking as we have expanded our work in the climate adjacent space. This paper was published relying on research we supported in applying scientific ‘systems thinking’ by communities in India to integrate solutions for sustainable livelihoods. The goal was to help the organisations and communities see themselves and their roles in the emergence of newer equitable and sustainable progress models.

Report: Identifying Climate Adjacency for Enhancing Climate Action Using Systems Thinking and Modelling

The first step to fixing systemic problems is recognising that it’s not just an isolated event. It might be the result of systemic failures, which can often be invisible and hard to see. This means we need to recognise the system before we can fix anything. Recognising these problems as part of bigger systems help us all work together on solutions for them because it won’t only affect one person or group in society — but everyone. Have you ever used systems thinking in your work? What are some examples where this has helped you?

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