Towards A Theory Of Systemic Action – Part II

“The biggest myth I’ve encountered in my life is as follows: that the road from practical know-how to theoretical knowledge is reversible – in other words, that theoretical knowledge can lead to practical applications just as practical applications can lead to theoretical knowledge… it is very hard to realize that knowledge cannot travel equally in both directions. It flows better from practice to theory…”

— Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan


As our world increases in complexity, more and more resources are being directed at addressing challenges such as climate change, public healthcare, inequality and poverty. The success of these efforts however is a function of how effective our strategies are as opposed to simply how many resources we can throw at a challenge.


Many of these challenges are growing faster than our attempts to address them. For example, acidification of our oceans, greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, demographic shifts leading to either an unemployed youth-bulge or an ageing population dependent on healthcare systems. We have a choice of intervening at the level of symptoms or at the level of causes. Systemic responses can be understood as attempting to address the causal drivers of a situations and not simply operating at the level of symptoms.


The scale of these challenges when taken together threatens to reverse much of what has been accomplished in the modern era. And in the face of such vast challenges we have to ask ourselves- what does action that can address these causal challenges look like? What, in other words, does systemic action look like?


The aim in outlining a theory of systemic action is that it allows us to make better distinctions between these and actions that are non- systemic.That is, between actions with a lower probability of resulting in changes at a root/causal level and systemic actions; those that contain a much higher probability of causal change.


The theory outlined here is grounded in the disciplined experimentation of running multiple social labs. Social labs are interventions in complex challenges that have three characteristics:


  • Firstly, they are social, in that the people doing the work re ect the social diversity present at the level of a challenge, as opposed to a homogeneous group (e.g. of scientists, academics, civil servants, etc.).
  • Secondly, the approach taken is experimental in which ideas for solutions are either tested early or prototyped. This prototyping approach represents a sharp departure from traditional planning-based responses to complex challenges.
  • Finally, social labs attempt to address challenges at a systemic level, taking the stance of not simply seeking to alleviate symptoms but of addressing root causes.


The approach towards constructing a theory of systemic action has been to start with the particulars of historical social labs. Each element of the theory is derived from hard-won experience and reflection on that experience. From these I have taken an inductive approach and articulated twelve axioms (or rules of thumb) about systemic action. This approach gives rise to four requirements for constructing effective systemic action.


The twelve axioms are:

  • Axiom 1. Systemic action has multiple owners
  • Axiom 2. Systemic action takes place at multiple levels
  • Axiom 3. The terrain of systemic action is always contested
  • Axiom 4. Systemic actions generate and welcome friction
  • Axiom 5. Causal power structures and relationships within systemic actions are negotiable
  • Axiom 6. Roles within systemic actions are fluid
  • Axiom 7. Participation in systemic actions is self-determined
  • Axiom 8. Systemic actions display clear intentionality
  • Axiom 9. Systemic actions display emergent rationality
  • Axiom 10. Systemic actions are iterative
  • Axiom 11. Learning is an output of systemic action
  • Axiom 12. System action generates non-local impacts


Download the paper for the full text about the Twelve Axioms of Systemic Action:

Download the paper for free


An earlier version of this article was originally published in October 2014 on Quaderni della Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini / Studi e Ricerche / n.49 Enabling Social Innovation Ecosystem For Community-led Territorial Development. You can see our original post about it here.