Dec 8, 2021
Books Driving Change: François Bonnici and The Systems Work of Social Change
Matthew Bishop (MB): Hello, this is Books Driving Change with me, Matthew Bishop. And today I'm talking with François Bonnici, co-author with Cynthia Rayner, of _The Systems Work of Social Change__: How to Harness Connection, Context, and Power to Cultivate Deep and Enduring Change._
Obviously, this is a book that goes right to the heart of the mission of Books Driving Change, where we're looking at how do we build back better in this moment of crisis that the world is facing. And this book, I highly recommend it because it is full of great practical insights and wisdom, and some great case studies that I think many people will not be familiar with. And also, some very big thoughts about the way change happens globally and the way systems change could be brought about going forward.
But François, I wanted to start by asking you, as I ask all of our guests, in a sentence - given our audience of people who are either engaged in social change work or considering it - why should they read your book?
François Bonnici (FB): Thank you, Matthew, for having me. I'm delighted to be on your podcast, and hello to everyone listening. Probably the same reason that I would want to read the book. Initially, Cynthia and I wrote it, and we thought, well, if we're the only two people who learn from this, then that's almost sufficient.
So as both a practitioner and an academic and also working in the foundation space, and really a bit paralyzed by the overwhelming challenges we have, the complexity of it, and the narrative around systems change, that we didn't feel like we necessarily could take that back to working on a day to day basis. And so the book is called “systems work,” to imply and emphasize the day to day work we all need to do, and to emphasize that to achieve some kind of future systems change that we aspire to, whatever that might be, it's about the process of change. And it's about the people who are involved in that process of change that we wanted to emphasize. So we really hope it's a very practical approach, one that is rooted in 200 years of social change making, deep case studies, hundreds of interviews with experts. But coming away with both stories that move, that inspire, and a set of practical tools and lessons at the end of each chapter. So we hope it will be a contribution to the collective journey many of us are on to try and understand what do we mean by, and how do we do, this work towards the deeper systemic change, what we call deep and enduring change. And I'll unpack a bit further with you where we go with it.
MB: I want to start just by asking you a bit about how you and Cynthia came to write this book, which obviously came out of your work together at the Bertha Centre in South Africa. But, and I should say before we go further, that you are now currently head of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, which is funded by two of the founders, or the founder and his wife, of the World Economic Forum. [That fact] is in itself quite an interesting focal point of discussions about the role of the system, and how you do systems change, and whether top down organizations can really deliver that. But how did you come to write this book?
FB: It's been a long journey. It's been five years. And so it started pre-COVID and got revised and updated during COVID, for reasons I'll explain. But I had started the Bertha Centre at the University of Cape Town as the first center for social innovation in Africa, dedicated to understanding approaches to social change that were innovative, that thought about social enterprise, that looked at what movements were doing. And we very quickly recognized the superficial approaches, or even the kind of service delivery type mindset, was not getting to the deep challenges and structural and systemic barriers that lay in my home country, South Africa, from hundreds of years of history. And that no fantastic solution was going to undo all of that.
And that was a great barrier, actually a source of failure, for both myself and projects that Cynthia and I had worked in and organizations we'd worked for. Many organizations we worked with had these deep frustrations. But we also saw amazing organizations overcoming that on a day-to-day basis; overcoming the systemic and structural barriers around stigma, around poverty traps, around lack of opportunities, and turning that into agency.
So at the time we started exploring, and researching, and working with global collaborations, like the Rockefeller Social Innovation Fellowship. We did a piece of work commissioned by the Schwab Foundation, when we were at the Bertha Centre, called _Beyond Organizational Scale_, looking at how social pressures create systemic change. And what we found happening in the global conversation around systems change was quite different to what we were seeing with organizations we were working with, initially in South Africa, and then we were looking and working with organizations in Latin America, and India, and even in the U.S.
MB: When I was reading, one of the things that hit me was, there seems to be this real difference of opinion as to what systems change is, and how you do it. In the sense that a lot of people view it as a kind of fixing a system with a top down approach, and you found, fundamentally, a different experience on the ground with people doing the grassroots work.
FB: I think that's right. And I think we had quite a frustration with even the term “systems,” because we all do mean very different things. And if you ask someone sitting at the World Economic Forum or if you asked grassroot activists, you're going to get very different answers. And so I grew a little bit allergic to the term, and then ended up writing a book on the topic. And it's not to discount any of them. And I think what we talk about in the book is that these challenges have complexity, they have scale, and they have depth. And what we had seen was that the focus of the conversations were around scale - if we can solve problems, and that everyone is doing it in a particular way, that is systems change.
If we can do it in that complexity lens, where we have levers, and we can intervene in a system, and we are able to shift the balance of actors and systems and relationships, that is a form of a complexity view of systems change.
But what we felt wasn't part of the conversation was really the steps. And that we felt that both those other dimensions and approaches could represent a perpetuating of the system of actors of power - if the existing actors, who are architects and gatekeepers of a system, are the ones redesigning it. And so what this book seeks to do is really emphasize a depth component; and more than just say this is an additional component, say it's also the critical necessary one to take all those three lenses on how we are strategic and start to meet the bottom up with a top down.
MB: And why do you think we've got to this position where even at a moment like this with COVID, and the World Economic Forum, and the great reset and all that, there's this very top down approach to social change? That, at least in terms of the general discussion, it is about how Biden's going to spend 3.5 trillion on infrastructure, and it's these big numbers, big change, very industrialized approach. And I think everyone that's been on the frontline in some way or another, quickly recognizes the very people who so much as these activities are intended to benefit, are the last ones to get asked what they think should be done or given any power to say that. How have we got to that situation?
FB: Chapter one of the book actually covers the industry of social change. And I do think there are some deep historical roots, both in terms of the industrial era, but also the kind of postwar period. We talk about the Green Revolution and how some of these big moments in history of social change reinforced certain practices, approaches, mindse…