Friday insights round-up (1 Mar)

1 March 2019

Welcome to Friday, and to the beginning of March!

This week our Impact Manager, Caitlin has been thinking about systems approaches, and reading what some pretty smart folks have to say about them.

It’s all here in the Friday insights round-up:


But first – congratulations to Big Change project partners Voice21 and Franklin Scholars, who both won grants from Nesta’s Future Ready Fund! The fund backs projects that seek to help young people build social and emotional skills and resilience. The fund winners were announces yesterday at Nesta’s Shaping the Future, Shifting the System conference. We know Voice 21’s fantastic work in oracy and Franklin Scholars’ excellent peer mentoring programs will be great additions.

Sticking with yesterday’s Nesta conference, we want to give a special shout out to our own Heather Vernon who represented Big Change and the funder perspective on a panel about the role of schools in social mobility. Check out our Twitter feed to get a flavour for some highlights.


Before we launch into some musings about systems thinking and approaches, we have some announcements from around the space on health and happiness:

A Newham school is piloting a four and a half day week to increase teacher happiness, and the government has announced that all pupils will be taught about physical and mental wellbeing in schools from 2020 – particularly the link between the two areas.

We look forward to following these changes as they are implemented. Measures to increase teacher and pupil wellbeing are a positive step towards making sure young people are equipped with a broader education that sets them up to thrive in life.


Shift Design‘s CEO Nick Stanhope has written about designing ecosystems, not just products or services – acknowledging that while product and service design have their place, they may narrow our focus too much.

One of his conclusions from reflections on the shortcomings of product design resonates in particular, and is in line with the systems change work we’re trying to do at Big Change :

“Most of these solutions suffer from challenges that affect the whole system, such as dysfunctional markets or missing collective assets, which can’t be addressed by one actor”.

A systems approach to designing solutions helps us to address the underlying causes to a problem by making sure we keep our views broad instead of narrow, encouraging us to incorporate diverse voices into our processes, and by helping us identify our place among many other actors that need to work together to solve an issue.

We’re always encouraged when we see others in our orbit adopting this viewpoint, and we look forward to seeing how Shift puts its ecosystem view into practice.

Nick points out in particular the importance of community relationships in ecosystem design, an element that is pointedly missing in our provision of high-needs services across the country, according to new research from the Dartington Service Design lab.

Their report, released earlier this week, showed that most high-needs children in the UK are not receiving the services that they need. Furthermore, there appear to be some children in receipt of high-needs services that do not have high needs.

What is causing this mismatch in need and service provision, even in the wake of increased government spending on high-needs services? Dartington suggests that this is due in part to a lack of systems thinking. They suggest that government needs to rethink the roles of families and communities in service provision, and use system dynamics to assess the complexities in each region to allocate local authority resources.


At Big Change we know that systems change is about much more than funding – sometimes, it involves looking inward and making sure that your own internal workings as an organisation do not accidentally uphold the system you are trying to change. We as funders and as charities can sometimes inadvertently do this by maintaining a social distance between ourselves and those we aim to serve – especially when the populations we’re looking to serve are young people.

That’s why we commend the Blagrave Trust on their recent decision to reduce the social distance between themselves and the end users of the services they fund – young people – by enabling them to take up leadership positions on their Board. We look forward to the reflections they’ll share as they implement this new element of their governance structure – there’s sure to be lots of valuable learnings.