Chris Clements explains the name and origins of our incubator events.

1 minute read

I was recently at a party with like-minded people. A small circle emerged and we proceeded with the inevitable ‘what do you do for a living’ conversation. “Teacher”, the first explained. “Senior Charity Leader”, “Nurse” it went on. Until one person confidently said, “I’m a system change agent.” If I’m honest, it all felt a bit awkward.

It nicely highlights a dilemma we had when organising the events we’re currently running. How do we describe ourselves and the types of people we want to bring together? ‘Change makers’? Clichéd. ‘Leaders of social change’? Yes, but maybe not in the traditional sense of leadership. ‘System changers’? Sorry, what?

You see, system change to many feels like an almost abstract concept, and so it’s no surprise we haven’t got comfortable with a vocabulary around it.

Finding the right words

Those who have tried to bring the concept to life talk about “addressing root causes”, saying that these problems are often “intractable and embedded in networks of cause and effect”. You’ll see, its hard not to lapse into jargon.

Others have described it as “a way of thinking about complex problems”, and point to the recognition that different perspectives will define the system differently. What appears clear to me is that systems thinking needs us to create opportunities to engage with others, so that they challenge and shape our thinking. You can’t do this alone.

Darren Walker, the President of the Ford Foundation, put it like this:

“Your value as individuals in the ecosystem of social change will be limited if what you do can’t be sustained through institutional mechanisms, policy change… if you want transformational impact, sustained movements, you have to invest in institutions, and you have to invest in leaders.”

We doubt the institutions required for real change will solely be those that exist today. But it’s likely that the people who drive them (within or from the outside) have the ability to draw on different perspectives outside their current situations and take advantage of the opportunities that are revealed. And we want to speak to them: we know we can’t do this alone.

What is Learning in Plain Sight?

Our Learning in Plain Sight events, and this supporting website, are our way of doing this.  

We’re not here to tell people how to do systems change. But we know from experience that the best way to learn more and achieve more is by having an open, honest dialogue with our collaborators.

So we wanted to identify those who are already demonstrating interesting thinking or practice in different settings. Then talk to them – so we can learn from one another.

What does that make us? ‘Learners’ was the closest we got. But that still feels a bit awkward at parties.