10 Tools for systems change to a zero carbon world

By Bill Sharpe, Founding Partner, Future Stewards | January 12, 2022

Meeting the challenge of climate change involves everyone, and every organization, in society. At the centre of the global response, is the Conference of the Parties (COP) – a formal negotiation process between the parties to the UNFCCC that has taken place almost every year since 1995.

At the landmark COP21 Paris conference governments agreed that they should complement this formal process by appointing of two “High Level Champions” who would mobilize the broadest possible involvement in climate action. The hosting nation of COP appoints one champion, who then stays on to support the incoming one. For COP25 and COP26 the champions were Gonzalo Muñoz from Chile, and Nigel Topping from the UK. In the coming weeks, Egypt, which will host COP27, will announce their champion.

Topping was one of the founders of Future Stewards – a partnership set up at the time of the Paris Agreement to help drive systems change. Working with the Champions Future Stewards has created a set of practical approaches and examples that offer some key approaches to systems change and act as an entry point to the rich set of futures and systems tools that are available. As there are multiple approaches, it can help to have a small set that everyone can share as a starting point, so that they can start action quickly and learn as they go.

All the tools we’ve chosen have come from experience of working with a variety of organizations in multiple contexts, so we are confident that they have something useful to offer.

Here’s a quick tour:

Working with the future: Four ways to think about it. Futures practices help us take action in complex situations where the past is not a good guide to the future – which is what we face now. Choosing the right approach allows us to combine our ability to act with an appreciation of uncertainty.

 

Three Horizons: A simple way to convene a conversation about change and how to bring it about: moving from the way things are done now (Horizon 1) to how we want things to be in the future (Horizon 3), via the arena of transition where innovations get established as growth points of the new (Horizon 2).

Regenerative worldview: The climate crisis is part of a larger imperative for humankind to bring patterns of life back to a positive relationship to the planet. A regenerative worldview frames long-term ambition towards the abundance of regenerative futures that serve people, planet and prosperity, rather than as competition between economy and environment.

System maps: System thinking is a lens to view the world in a relational way as a set of dynamic relationships that leads to a repeatable and recognisable pattern.  To reach a zero carbon world, we have to create new patterns. We use system maps to identify who matters to a transition, how they can be part of the new pattern, and where campaigns can be focused.

Accelerating transitions framework: System transitions generally happen in three stages: emergence of new ways to do things, diffusion of those ideas into use, and reconfiguration of societal institutions as they go mainstream. At each stage, different policies, and different kinds of international cooperation, are likely to be effective in accelerating the transition. This framework helps identify the form of national action and international cooperation most likely to be effective in any given sector, appropriate to the stage of transition that it has reach

Causal loops: Modelling a situation with causal loops helps us see how it behaves over time. For example, how effects become causes, how some things are reinforced over time and others are weakened. This helps us understand the dynamic effect of policies, and see what interventions might be most effective.

Exponential goals: Changes can happen rapidly when everyone settles on one approach. We can then move along an ‘S-curve’ of exponential change, where new technology improves its performance, causing lower costs and increasing adoption by society.

Tipping points and cascades: A tipping point is a place where a small intervention can trigger a large response, sending a system into a qualitatively different future state. In transitions, tipping points can exist where a new solution becomes more affordable, accessible, profitable, attractive, socially acceptable, or higher performing than old solutions. Once a critical mass of actors has adopted a new technology or practice this can prompt the rest to follow, triggering a rapid system-wide cascade of change throughout the sector.

Ambition loop: Societal change involves those who govern, those who produce and invest in making things, and all of us a s citizens and users. Ambition loops help us explore how we all come together to create and sustain bold action, and create rapid, self-reinforcing change.

The power of convening: Expert teams with the best frameworks may still experience blockers and breakdowns if they haven’t considered how to bring together stakeholders thoughtfully. Convening diverse groups enables divergent perspectives to be heard, creating the space for shared problem solving and action.

The tools are available under a Creative Commons licence at the Future Stewards website. To view the toolkit in full, please click here.

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