The Social Construction of Systemic Change: Our Working Theories of Change

Format: Papers, RSD9, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Peter Jones

OCAD University, Toronto

I propose a formative discussion to inquire theoretically and pragmatically into “theories of change” (Tapling & Clark, 2013) and the quasi-systemic logic models employed to communicate them. “Systems change” has emerged as a major movement in the worlds of impact investing, philanthropy, and the NGOs they fund. 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. A larger theoretical question is considered. Do Theories of Change reflect a coherent model of change in real systems, or are they primarily mental models for explaining the preferred causality of desired outcomes?

What are the meanings, purposes, effectiveness, basis in systemics, their common applications, uses and misuses of Theories of Change? Both systems and design studies deal constantly with theories of change (TOC), whether or not they are explicitly presented in program reasoning and design briefs. We can observe from the practice of constructing change logic models that the presentation of a preferred theory of change represents an advocacy for adoption of a common narrative shared by changemakers in a social system. The acceptance of a theory of change denotes the adoption of a systemic model for a preferred outcome, especially in the types of social change projects supported by philanthropy. Accompanying the discourse of TOC, and associated with many funding application is the logic model for a TOC, representing a presumed template for action toward outcomes. The endorsement of a given TOC is sustained by persistent reference to it within organizational discourse, in a shared language between an organization and its sponsors or stakeholders, and through presumption of individual updates to mental models.

The users of TOCs have expanded from funding agencies (many of whom are known for requiring a logic model of change with applications) to impact investing, normative social research, government policymakers. The provision of a theory and logic model was presumed to represent an empirical and measurable basis, encoded in causal logic, to define how a program’s implementation would develop or result in preferred definite outcomes. However useful these models might be for the organizations involved, the pragmatic effectiveness and the theoretical support for such models is open to question. As systemic designers, we are expected to be familiar with or to develop sophisticated logic models demonstrating effects and outcomes of change interventions. What should we know about the state of the art of TOC and the systemic reasoning for their rationale?




Citation Data

Author(s): Author: Peter Jones
Title: The Social Construction of Systemic Change: Our Working Theories of Change
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 4 October 2020
Last update:
Publisher Identification:

Copyright Information

Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (ISSN 2371-8404) are published annually by the Systemic Design Association, a non-profit scholarly association leading the research and practice of design for complex systems: 3803 Tønsberg, Norway (922 275 696).


Open Access article published under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License. This permits anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or form according to the licence terms.

Suggested citation format (APA)

Author(s). (20##). Article title. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD##. Article ##.

Publishing with RSD

Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design are published online and include the contributions for each format.

Papers and presentations are entered into a single-blind peer-review process, meaning reviewers see the authors’ names but not vice versa. Reviewers consider the quality of the proposed contribution and whether it addresses topics of interest or raises relevant issues in systemic design. The review process provides feedback and possible suggestions for modifications.

The Organising Committee reviews and assesses workshops and systems maps & exhibits with input from reviewers and the Programme Committee.

Editor: Cheryl May
Peter Jones
Ben Sweeting

The Scholars Spiral

In 2022, the Systemic Design Association adopted the scholars spiral—a cyclic non-hierarchical approach to advance scholarship—and in 2023, launched Contexts—The Systemic Design Journal. Together, the RSD symposia and Contexts support the vital emergence of supportive opportunities for scholars and practitioners to publish work in the interdisciplinary field of systemic design.

The Systemic Design Association's membership ethos is to co-create the socialization and support for all members to contribute their work, find feedback and collaboration where needed, and pursue their pathways toward research and practice outcomes that naturally build a vital design field for the future.


Verified by MonsterInsights