Kezia Jackson Harman

Renaisi has been researching, evaluating and facilitating place-based and systems change approaches to social change for many years. While there are similarities to the approaches, especially their focus on relationships, they do have distinct characteristics.

I’ll go into more detail about similarities at the end of this article. But before then, it is helpful to understand the differences, which are:

  1. Who is involved
  2. How it’s designed
  3. Your starting point

Who’s involved

Place-based change

Partnerships for place-based change often develop through anchor organisations that have deep connections with people and organisations in the place. This will often be a voluntary sector organisation that is geographically rooted in the place and has strong relationships with local people alongside the Council and voluntary and community sector, such as the Onion Collective in Somerset. The early stages of a place-based partnership often focuses on establishing trusting working relationships across a group of organisations united by their shared interest in the place.

In place-based work, the risk is that these partnerships are only formed through established relationships. Partnerships for place-based change need to both build on strong, existing relationships and develop new ones to  enable new ways of working.

Systems change

A systems change approach stresses the importance of having the “whole system in the room”. When moving from a place-based to a systems change approach, a partnership may have to involve others that hold power over the structures, policies and ways of working that shape local outcomes, such as community leaders and public sector decision-makers such as commissioners, councillors and council officers. 

That change must not be at the expense of engaging community members with lived experience of the issue in designing how work progresses.

Bringing together public and voluntary sector service providers, policy makers and community members can enable a deep understanding of a system and what needs to change.

Compared with local systems change, regional, national or global systems change will often be more top-down and focus on targeting visible ‘powerholders’ in the system. We regularly see funders, commissioners and policy-makers as the target for systems change because funding can drive behaviour in the rest of the system.

How it’s designed

Place-based change

Place-based working often involves an organisation ‘putting its arms around a community’. The approach necessitates slowing down delivery and shifting towards becoming a trusted anchor in the area by investing in relationships. We saw this across the Empowering Places Programme. People that we interviewed as part of our evaluation regularly referred to named individuals, rather than their organisations, when describing how change was catalysed in the place. 

With place-based working, there is often a clear cohort to engage with for co-production (the people experiencing and working on an issue in a place). This is the approach that national charities often take when exploring place-based approaches to drive impact on their target issue, as seen in Save the Children’s Early Learning Communities.

In  smaller places, it can develop more organically through word of mouth and as people notice the impact. We’ve seen this in neighbourhood-level work like the Wick Award.

Systems change

Systems change approaches are often developed through intensive research to ‘map out the system’, by digging into the root causes of issues, exploring narratives that shape system behaviours, identifying how different key players in the system interact and tracing how outcomes are created.

Systems change approaches aim to see and understand complexities and connections around an issue. Being aware of the dynamics of a system – how interdependent issues shift and impact each other over time– is key to systems change approaches. This means that at a regional, national or global scale, we often see funders and practitioners engage in research into the historic and current influences of an issue, and then aim to develop tools to understand and monitor complex dynamics – such as through causal loop maps.

Taking a systems change approach also requires understanding the mental models and narratives that drive a system by exploring the behaviours and attitudes of key actors at multiple levels and interrogating how these create outcomes.

Throughout the process of designing and implementing a systems change initiative we’ll see intensive data collection to support constant adaptation as we learn more about the system. It is often hard to know what data will be useful when this begins. 

Your starting point

Taking a place-based and/or systems change approach is often driven by how you enter into work on an issue, but the methods overlap as your ambition for change deepen. As we’ve highlighted above, these different entry points have implications for how to approach partnership building, and how to design a place-based or systems-change initiative.

Place based change

Working in the boundaries of a place can be a useful way to contain complex issues, so you can understand how to change them. For example, working within Local Authority boundaries can be useful when the intervention requires relationships across a system of public and voluntary sector actors. The Health Foundation is taking this approach where it’s trying to strengthen relationships between economic development and health. 

We often see this starting point to place-based change:

A process of diagram of when it's the right time to take a place-based approach

When moving from a systems change approach to a place-based systems change approach it’s important to reflect on if you are really seeing and hearing the local system for what it is.

Ask yourself:

  • Are we really hearing from a range of voices that represents the key stakeholders that are connected to an issue?
  • Does it feel possible to do this at this scale?
  • If not should we go smaller?

Systems change

We often see this starting point for systems change approaches:

A process diagram of when to take a systems change approach.

When moving from a place-based approach to a place-based systems change approach it’s important to reflect on whether your goal is to optimise or change the systems in a place. Ask yourself:

  • Are we aiming to improve outcomes in our place or do we think the structures and attitudes that underpin it need to change?

Looking at systems at a large scale can help you to identify national policies, structures and narratives that are holding harmful dynamics in place locally. We have seen this in the Connected Futures programme. Systems mapping across seven places has helped us understand distinctions and similarities in the systemic issues faced by young people across  the UK, and identifying how some of our national systems (e.g. those around education and benefits) shape attitudes and patterns that manifest at a local level alongside patterns across places where geography, demography and transport shapes the local employment landscape. We used an ‘iceberg’ model to analyse and visualise the systemic issues that Connected Futures partnerships are uncovering.

Regardless of your starting point, an effective place-based or systems change approach will often take both a top-down and bottom-up approach. For example by supporting community organising and community-led action enquiries around an issue alongside engaging with national powerholders to bring the two together.

What are the similarities between place-based and systems change?

As mentioned at the start of this article there are similarities and overlaps with place-based and systems change approaches. Both approaches call for you to understand that an issue doesn’t exist in isolation. Place-based and systems change approaches necessitate:

Consideration of power dynamics in relationships, and how they impact the experiences of individuals and the functioning of organisations with a place or system. This means place-based and systems change approaches often aim to shift relationships, build new ones and push for equity and inclusion both as a mechanism for change and an outcome.  

Taking a holistic view on an issue, through understanding that how a single issue or experience is driven by a range of factors that must be tackled in combination to make lasting and meaningful change. This means both approaches can drive and sustain the development of more diverse partnership working and pooled resources around an issue.

A long-term perspective. Both approaches necessitate a patient view of change, given that they require deep foundational work to begin bearing fruit and aim to create change that can grow and be sustained over time.

These factors mean that we endorse both approaches as they have the potential to tackle the root causes of stubborn issues such as poverty and discrimination.

Get in touch

Whether you want to take a place-based or a systems change approach, Renaisi’s team can help you develop, facilitate and evaluate it.

Kezia Jackson-Harman

Meet our Place & Systems team

Beth Stout

Associate Director of Place & Systemic Change

Lily O’Flynn

Principal Consultant for Place-based Evaluation & Learning (on parental leave mid-November 23 – September 24)