Social Systems and Transformational Change

Transformational change depends primarily on changing social systems.

A social system — an economic or political system, for example — is how a society is organized. It is a pervasive and powerful pattern of social arrangements that shapes people’s lives and interactions.

Any time we seek to do something with other people, we run into the structures, processes, institutions, technologies, and beliefs of our dominant social systems. These then powerfully shape and channel our efforts.

If we want to get or give a product or service, we have to use the economic system — which in the dominant form usually involves money, buying and selling. If we want to change a law or a war, we have to use the political system — which in the dominant form usually involves fighting against those who oppose us and convincing politicians we have votes or dollars to influence their next election.

Whenever we try to do something with others, we have to use the existing systems — or else create new systems that those other people will use with us.


Political and economic systems have a certain omnipotence. The vast majority of efforts to meet personal and collective needs are constrained or facilitated by the ways our politics and economics are set up. Furthermore, these two systems are tightly intertwined. Money is a form of political power and those with political power decide how public and private monies are handled. Money shapes policy and policy shapes who has money and how it is used.

Thus anything which brings justice, sanity, health or sustainability to our political and/or economic systems will have repercussions in virtually every corner of our society. These two systems govern how EVERY other issue we face gets handled. They are truly basic.

Education, journalism and other knowledge and information systems are also high leverage targets for transformational agents. These systems powerfully shape how today’s citizens and future generations think about what’s happening and what should be done about it.

Then there are the companions of social systems — factors that aren’t social systems themselves but significantly influence those systems. Virtually all social systems are impacted by — and impact — technology, culture, and public consciousness. There is tremendous leverage for change in any well-conceived and well-designed effort to generate awareness, technology and cultural stories that help people see clearly, think systemically, and work together more coherently and effectively — with each other and with the realities of the world around them.

Other social systems — health care systems, transportation systems, family systems, justice systems, etc. — are all profoundly shaped by the economic, political, and social knowledge systems — and by technology, culture, and public consciousness. These primary social systems and systemic factors define how everything else in our society gets handled, and therefore deserve priority attention from change agents, especially those of us who believe that major transformation is critical.


Social systems shape how people behave, how people and nature are treated, where the life energy and resources of society are invested and — perhaps most important — what futures people believe are desirable and possible.

Economic systems determine the life or death of entire human and natural communities. Political systems determine who shapes the rules of the game and the quality of life for generations to come. Education and knowledge systems shape what citizens know and believe about what’s happening, and whether they will do anything about it. All these are shaped by cultural stories, technologies, and individual and collective consciousness.

Dysfunctional systems generate messes, destruction, suffering, apathy, insanity and catastrophe. These messes, ruins, sufferings, apathies, insanities and catastrophes attract our attention. We can experience them quite directly. We want them fixed. So we naturally turn our attention and resources to directly fixing them.

But this doesn’t work as well as we’d like. Since these problems are generated by the larger social systems we are part of, our fixes keep getting unfixed and new messes, destruction, suffering, apathy, insanity and catastrophe keep emerging all around us. The only way to change this, to reduce this habitual co-creation of messes, destruction, suffering, apathy, insanity and catastrophe, is to change the social systems that create them — or, more accurately, change the social systems that cause US to co-create these problems over and over and over again.

  • If we created an economic system that accounts for the full social and environmental costs and benefits of economic activity — a system that brought that accounting into the costs of products and services and decisively into the deliberations of governments and corporations — we would suddenly find the free market healing and preserving the world, instead of destroying it. 
  • If we created a political system that calls forth and responds to the collective wisdom of the whole society more than to the money and manipulation of special interests — we would suddenly find politics and governance cranking out policies and programs that nurture — rather than undermine — the best things in life. 
  • If we created education systems, knowledge systems and journalism that spread big picture, co-creative, possibility-rich perspectives more than the boundaries and battles of segregated events, ideologies, and academic fields — we would suddenly find more listening, learning and life-serving collaboration toward sensibly shared goals rather than life-draining battles over turf, control and abstractions.



If we want to be transformational change agents, we cannot afford to lose ourselves in the immediacy of the destruction, suffering insanity and dangers we see increasing all around us. We need to focus on the social systems that generate that destruction, suffering, insanity and danger.

As the dysfunctions of our current systems accelerate, we need to help people realize and address the systemic causes of our problems. This takes courage as well as insight, and an ability to see through real-life pain to the seemingly abstract sources of that pain…. and to stay focused on systemic transformation that will replace that pain with co-creative, wise collective action.

It is extremely likely that, despite how things seem, we have more resources, time, and space to make these vital changes now than we will have in the future. System changing action today will make make more difference, and come with less cost, than similar efforts in the future.

It is time to shift our attention, our activism, our philanthropy, our citizenship, and our transformational agentry from fixing up symptoms — however painful and upsetting they may be — to transforming the causes. That shift can bring about the world we all long for.

(For more information about systems-oriented transformational work — including specific high leverage initiatives you can support — see Chapters 9 and 13 and Appendix C of REFLECTIONS ON EVOLUTIONARY ACTIVISM — available from as a hard-copy book or a free pdf download.)

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