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You Are Systemic Change

By Taylor Gray, Ph.D. on April, 26 2021

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Taylor Gray, Ph.D.

The world is a better place when companies are good corporate citizens. I remain focused on developing meaningful and actionable insights from empirical data in pursuit of a better world.

Issues of sustainability and human rights have taken on new urgency in the public discourse over the last two years. What were once issues to be addressed have now seemingly become ‘existential threats’--it’s not that the dynamics have changed, but rather that most peoples’ understandings and perceptions of the dynamics have changed.

This new awareness is most welcomed and couldn’t come soon enough in our opinion. Yet with it also comes a most unfortunate development. Along with the new attention given to the scale of the issues and challenges we collectively face comes an emerging narrative that individual actions are just about meaningless and only systemic change can save us now. 

 

We Need Change

I understand that this narrative is actually well-intended. It is used in hopes of mobilizing large-scale and institutional action which has been lacking over the last few decades. But at the same time it unfortunately neutralizes the principal driver of systemic change: individual actions.

Systemic change--big change--doesn't come from dictate and leadership, it comes from the steady progress of compounding individual actions.

Yes, we need systemic change. We need new policies, programs, business models, and leadership. We need to abandon many established industries, subsidizations, and lifestyle habits. We need change...and it needs to be big. But make no mistake, systemic change--big change--doesn't come from dictate and leadership, it comes from the steady progress of compounding individual actions.

 

Who Leads Change?

Political and business leaders--those we often think of when we say we need someone to lead systemic change--are quite risk averse. They are adept at reading the desires and aspirations of people and markets, at noticing developing trends, at spotting change as it is developing, and then jumping to the front at the right time to be the one to ‘lead’ us through a transition.

It’s all just basic supply and demand dynamics of change leadership. Politicians and CEOs will ‘supply’ change as soon as they sense enough demand for change--and in this sense 'enough' is measured as an amount sufficient to nearly ensure the successful outcomes of change. 

Political and business leaders play an important role in change: They identify a promising signal and then act to scale it.

As one example, politicians today are making seemingly bold promises on emissions reductions. I say ‘seemingly bold’ because, and although the scale of the reductions is substantial, such actions are not only supported by broad cross-sections of the public but they are expected. This is not so much bold leadership as it is the codification of what many are already working toward in their own daily lives.

As another example, consider the emergence of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, two plant-based meat alternatives companies that have opened new areas in the food industry. These two companies have been identified as ‘disruptors’, and in the sense of their positioning within the food industry they may very well be. Yet they are not disruptors from many individuals’ perspectives as they are filling a market need that has long been growing as people increasingly adopt more plant-based diets. These companies are responding to changing dietary preferences more than they are changing dietary preferences.

To focus on systemic changes while belittling individual actions will actually slow the change that is so urgently needed.

 

We Are Change

This is not to be overly critical of politicians and CEOs. Political and business leaders play an important role in change: They identify a promising signal and then act to scale it. But the signal is almost never the need for change, rather the signal is the aggregation of changes individuals are already making, or seeking to make, themselves. In this sense, systemic change is the scaling of individual actions.

To say that individual actions are not enough and only systemic change can ‘save us’ misses this relationship. Systemic change is a product of individual actions. Issues of sustainability and human rights do require urgent attention, but to focus on systemic changes while belittling individual actions will actually slow the change that is so urgently needed.

If you want to make the world a better place, take action. Every choice we make, every action we perform, and every change we desire aggregates into a signal which can be scaled into systemic change. For the most part, political and business leaders are too risk averse to initiate change. We can rely on them to scale change, but if we truly want change we need to start it ourselves.

 


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