Bringing an Entrepreneurial Mindset to the World’s Failing Systems
by Charmian Love & Rachel Sinha
A white-haired clergyman leans forward in deep, intent conversation with a lady with a shaved head. To the right, three shiny-suited investment bankers cluster around a banking reform activist in his twenties. Over the course of the evening, 60 people drink red wine and laugh together in the heart of London as they watch an improvisational opera singer sum up the findings of the day: the characteristics of a financial system they would collectively be proud to put their name to.
This is not a surreal scene painted by Salvador Dali, but rather a workshop convened by The Finance Innovation Lab (which Rachel co-founded). The purpose? To capture the energy created by the financial crisis to bring together people who don’t normally talk to one another to design a new financial system. This group knew that unusual solutions were needed — ones that acknowledge the complex interconnected issues that make a failing system so hard to transform.
It can be a daunting task. After all, when a disaster like the financial crisis hits, which problem do you tackle first? Bankers’ bonuses? The failure of legislation? Consumers’ over-reliance on credit cards? It’s clear that a focus on one problem in isolation will be ineffective. To address this complexity there is a growing breed of experts who identify the root causes of problems and set about finding long-term and long lasting solutions. We call them “systempreneurs.”
Systempreneurs focus on addressing some of the largest, most complex challenges of our time — from healthcare to food to politics — by taking on our most entrenched and broken systems. Consider this example: the Future of Fish. To tackle the growing problem of overfishing, they mapped the current supply chain, identified entrepreneurs who are working to fix failing parts of the process, and then supported them to succeed. Another example is the Finance Innovation Lab, which hosted the meeting of unusual suspects mentioned above. To create a system that is more democratic, responsible, and fair, they run an accelerator program that supports new business models that could bring diversity to the financial system. To break down barriers to new entrants they also build coalitions of civil society players to jointly lobby for policy change, recognizing the importance of this stakeholder group to open the door for new financial models to emerge.
The range of activities systempreneurs undertake is broad and heavily dependent on the system they are working on, but there are some common themes in how they get their work done:
- They create pathways through seemingly paralytic complexity.
Systempreneurs avoid playing the “blame game” and instead point at root causes, highlighting the interconnection between problems. Masters of translation, they use language that connects people to a larger purpose and dissolves sides. They are conveners rather than activists, careful not to align themselves with positions that would harm neutrality, but they often sweep in after public discussion to bring together people who have been disturbed by a debate and turn that energy into action.
Systemprenuers are experts in using quick feedback loops to correct the direction of their work. They acknowledge how delicate new projects, new business models, new strategies feel during the creative process so they create safe spaces where pioneers can meet, test, and refine their ideas over and over before being released into the world.
- They host “uncomfortable alliances” amongst friends and foes.
Systempreneurs are skilled hosts, bringing together unusual suspects. They identify the right people to bring to a party – carefully considering the individual’s personal qualities, rather than just a job title. They often have limited power themselves and rely on their role as a trusted, neutral, and honest peer to facilitate difficult conversations between people who don’t agree. They never want to be the star of the show, but they aim to cultivate the conditions for meaningful conversations.
They act with humility and welcome people with style, dignity, and gratitude. Systempreneurs appreciate that the process of convening is as important as the content discussed and go to great lengths to empower people who hold potential solutions. They are notorious for their hours spent thoughtfully connecting people by email and know that the secret is to nudge business partners to become friends, encouraging bonds to form in a deeply human way.
- They create groundswells around new solutions.
As Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Systempreneurs make things happen. They may spend their time:
Supporting entrepreneurs who run businesses that play a particular role in the system. For example, the Civic Foundry, which supports citizens to launch new services to create stronger local communities and economies;
Experimenting with building more effective public services and embedding the most promising results back into incumbent public service systems, as Participle does working on topics like ageing;
Building projects that support the emergence of a new market, as Criterion Institute does by promoting gender lens investing; or
Supporting activists to develop new campaign strategies that can build the capacity of NGO’s, as Campaign Lab does in the U.K.
Many of our current systems — energy, finance, food — were designed at a different point in history when we didn’t consider how limited resources are. All of these systems now need to be redesigned with sustainability in mind. Systempreneurs are playing a critical role, experimenting with how to change these outdated, incumbent systems and strengthening them to fit our current reality, but this small but growing group aren’t yet getting the support they need.
What would boost their chances of success? For starters, we need to find ways to bring the global community of systempreneurs together. They know from their own work that a sense of camaraderie and a place to connect, learn, and share challenges can accelerate success. Yet this group hardly know one another.
Second, we need to get them funding. Systempreneurs are still pretty rare, funders often don’t know about them, and their projects don’t fit the typical funding profile. Their strategies are emergent and the outcomes of their projects cannot be easily predicted making it difficult to assess their effectiveness. But funding is critically needed to get these projects off the ground and to sustain them. We need to continue to build a pipeline of these systems changers. And while systempreneurs often incubate others’ efforts as part of their strategies, there are currently no intensive incubators designed specifically for systempreneurs. This group is so busy running their projects that they rarely have a chance to write down what they’re learning, but we need to capture and share their best practices.
Changing the status quo sometimes feels impossible. Systempreneurs bring a breath of fresh air to that challenge. They create spaces outside of the current system with a “can do” attitude. They dodge the same-old power dynamics and focus on building solutions that work.