Redesigning Our Theories of Theories of Change

Opens plenary video

Part 2: Starts @3o minutes

Peter Jones

We have all used “theories of change” to argue for the process by which envisioned change programs might achieve their goals, whether we call them so or not. Essentially these are the working theories by which we explain the logic of system change outcomes, and we often include quasi-systemic logic models to communicate them.

ToCs are as ubiquitous in social innovation and philanthropy as business models are in startups and VCs. “Systems change” has emerged as a major movement in the worlds of impact investing, philanthropy, and the NGOs they fund, and the proposals expected to advance studies and change programs embrace the language of the theory of change.

Looking back at the proceedings, I see that RSD has rarely used this language and we do not have many if any, talks dealing with the theory of change. The RSD community has a responsibility to better understand the framing, theory, and proposals entailed in systems change, even if only to better collaborate as designers working with the social change community. I wish to present some enduring research questions for our discussion.

  • Do Theories of Change reflect a coherent model of change in real social systems? If so, are logic models sufficient (if not corresponding to reality)?
  • Or are TOCs actually mental models for explaining the preferred causality of desired outcomes? In other words, “systemic storytelling?”
  • If they serve multiple purposes, why can’t we produce better theories for change through systemic design rationale?
  • What are the meanings, purposes, effectiveness, basis in systemics, their common applications, uses and misuses of Theories of Change?


Dr Peter Jones is a co-founder of the Systemic Design Association and professes the discipline at OCAD University, Toronto where he teaches in the Strategic Foresight and Innovation and the Design for Health graduate programs. Peter leads systemic design research in new economies, healthcare, media, community governance, social system and policy design, through collaboration in international networks. Since 2001 Dr Jones has led the strategic innovation consultancy Redesign Network. He connects research and practice through founding commitments with the Flourishing Enterprise Institute, Drawdown Toronto, Bounce Beyond, the Agoras Institute, and OCAD’s Strategic Innovation Lab. Peter is convening the 12th year of Design with Dialogue, a community of practice to educate and socialize creative facilitation of dialogues for transformation. His publications are found at

Posted Oct-2020


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Author(s) (20XX). Article title. In Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSDX) 20XX Symposium. City, Country, Month X-X, 20XX.

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