How to transform a system by shifting its purpose

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In the complex tapestry of human societies, systems play a pivotal role in shaping our lives. From education and healthcare to employment and social welfare, systems are the underlying framework that governs our interactions and progress. But what if we told you that the key to unlocking their true potential lies not in overhauling every element but in redefining their purpose? As Donella H. Meadows once wisely stated, "A change in purpose changes a system profoundly, even if every element and interconnection remains the same." However, putting this concept into practice is no easy task, as it requires challenging the status quo and reimagining the fundamental goals of established systems.

The SIBs.Co Initiative: A Shifting Narrative

One concrete example of the potential of changing the purpose of a system lies in the Social Impact Bonds initiative in Colombia, known as SIBs.Co and led by SECO, BID Lab and Fundación Corona. This innovative program targeted placement and employment retention for vulnerable populations. Before the inception of SIBs.Co, the employment system in the country was driven by two main ambitions: increasing the coverage of services (mainly training services) and improving employability (making people more employable). While these goals had some positive effects, they fell short of addressing the core issue faced by vulnerable populations: the need to obtain and retain a stable job.

Over the course of seven years, the SIBs.Co initiative succeeded in shifting the narrative and goals of the employment system in Colombia. The new objective became focused on enabling vulnerable populations to not only secure employment but also retain it. This subtle change in purpose is having a profound effect on how the system operates. Public institutions, NGOs, funders, and international organizations have began to assess their actions and impact based on this more ambitious target. Even though power relationships remained largely the same and resource flows didn't change significantly, the system now measures itself with more substantial and relevant outcomes.

Lessons Learned and the Path Forward

The most valuable lesson learned from the SIBs.Co initiative is that changing a system's purpose can be achieved by aiming for more substantial and relevant outcomes. In the domain of employment, the change in focus from mere employability to retention illustrated the positive impact such a shift can have on the lives of vulnerable populations. This transformative effect is not limited to employment alone. In education, we are witnessing remarkable changes when the purpose is to create better life opportunities and nurture problem-solving skills among students. Similarly, the health sector has seen remarkable improvements when the purpose shifts towards prevention and mitigation, and towards an integration of health services within the community, rather than focusing solely on emergencies. Purpose creates a framework for thinking about how a system should work to achieve the outcomes it seeks.

The Challenge Ahead: Reimagining Systems for Greater Impact

As we celebrate the successes of initiatives like SIBs.Co and witness the transformative potential of changing system purposes, we must ponder upon a crucial question: What better aims exist out there to improve key systems? By reevaluating the goals of education, healthcare, environmental protection, poverty eradication, and more, we can unlock new capacities and new avenues to address some of our wicked social problems. And what other ways exist to shift the purpose of a system?