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Systems Change: How to Make the Impossible, Possible

Updated: Oct 14, 2018

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Baillie Aaron, who is CEO and Co-Founder of Spark Inside.

When Alexander Bell successfully demonstrated the world’s first telephone to his colleagues in the late 19th century, he was met with ridicule and skepticism: it would never work. Not because the phones didn’t work; but because his colleagues couldn't imagine how a system requiring above-ground interconnected cables between every phone in every house, could ever work. Rather than think outside the box – today, these cables are underground – Bell’s colleagues dismissed his vision as impossible.

Bernard Piccand, founder of Solar Impulse, made this point at the Global Shapers Annual Summit, a meeting of Hub Curators and Advisory Board members at the World Economic Forum in Geneva. As the designer of the first airplane to fly around the world entirely on solar energy, Bernard is familiar with being told that his vision for systems change is impossible. But he made it happen.

As a social entrepreneur working to create systems change in the criminal justice sector, I can relate to this feeling. My charity’s vision is of a world without crime, and without prisons. Many people have told me that our vision not only impossible, but naïve and misguided. And yet, we are committed to seeing systems change in this stagnant space desperately in need of a reboot.

So for those of us who are shaking up the status quo, here are my biggest takeaways from Bernard’s presentation:

1. Seek Credibility: Just Enough To Move Forward

With a radical vision, it can be hard to assert your credibility, especially if you’re not known as a sector expert. Bernard, for example, was not an engineer or pilot, but a psychiatrist.

So how do you go about building your reputation?

Rather than try to amass a list of endorsements, Bernard recommends focusing your attention on one credible authenticating body. In his case, this was a leading local university that agreed to support him. That endorsement gave him enough credibility for others to listen.

Every small success gives us the credibility to move one step further toward reaching our ultimate objective.

2. Find Allies In Those In Power

When we’re trying to effect systems change, it’s because we believe that the status quo is insufficient, inefficient or harmful. We may therefore have strong opinions about players in our sector that are making the problem worse, and passively or actively resisting change. It’s easy to villainise them.

But as Bernard argues convincingly, this isn’t the best way forward; we need to make the most of our opponents’ power and wealth, as they are often the ones in charge. Bernard recommends paradigm shifts: reframing our adversaries as our allies.

For example, among environmental campaigners, oil and gas companies are often perceived to be among the worst contributors to carbon emissions. However, they’re not the ones using fuel. They’re producing it, and selling it to people, who are then consuming it to meet their daily needs. They are still complicit in climate change, but their motivations are to respond to demand by selling a product and delivering a return to shareholders. Given these intentions, can we turn oil and gas companies into allies in the movement against global warming?

3. Learn From The Disbelievers

Finally, what do we say to those who are disbelievers? When people disagree with our visions for change, the natural reaction may be to defend our views through facts or emotions, or perhaps to walk away to a more amenable audience.

Bernard suggests a different approach. Instead of trying to persuade those who challenge us to change their viewpoints, ask: ‘What is it that I can learn from your experience that will teach me something new?’ There is some nugget of truth in every viewpoint. Look for the new information that can be gleaned to help you come to a better solution, that brings everyone together with you.

In addition, ask skeptics: ‘What is it within this vision that makes it impossible?’ By focusing your energy on shifting just that paradigm, you can leverage systems change much more easily.


Systems change requires building motivation and momentum to defeat the inertia. We must convince resisting organisations and people that it’s riskier for them to remain in the same place than to change – all while bringing them on board with us, despite their cynicism.

It’s not an easy task, but no matter what others say: it is possible.

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