Inclusive Systemic Thinking for transformative change

By Ellen Lewis and Anne Stephens

1. Ellen Lewis (biography)
2. Anne Stephens (biography)

What is Inclusive Systemic Thinking and how can it be effective in achieving transformational change? How can it contribute to a more inclusive and equitable world?

Introducing Inclusive Systemic Thinking

We have coined the term Inclusive Systemic Thinking to describe an approach that is influenced by a field of systems thinking called ‘Critical Systems Thinking,’ as well as by the social and behavioural sciences, fourth-wave feminism, and more recently, our work in the global development sector. Inclusive Systemic Thinking uses the ‘GEMs’ framework for complex systemic intersectional analysis based on: Gender equality/equity (non-binary), Environments (natural and/or contextual) and Marginalised voices (human and non-human). We described the GEMS framework in a recent i2Insights contribution, A responsible approach to intersectionality.

In our work, Inclusive Systemic Thinking is inclusive because we actively reflect on, advocate, mentor, and adapt our practices through an ethos of engagement that is widespread and that uses non-conventional approaches. We engage with local voices and collectively identify other relevant stakeholders, including non-human voices, as well as people pushed to the margins. In our global development practitioner and academic work, we aim to contribute to the present-day decolonization of knowledge, access, and power. What that means is that we practice two crucial activities:

  1. critical reflexivity on all our ideas and decisions; and
  2. in partnership with our country level colleagues, creating a mutual learning environment to design and implement our projects.

These practices get to the heart of a systems thinking truism, ‘we don’t know, what we don’t know’ and to find out at least some of what we don’t know.

Why is Inclusive Systemic Thinking needed for transformative change?

Transformation ideally means the ability to sustain wanted changes in attitudes, behaviours and practices, that can result in lasting societal change to create a world that works for everyone, now and in the future, for human and non-human alike.

This then requires us, in all that we do, to explore the root causes of inequality and ensure that discussions of the conditions needed for lasting social change, at the household, community and institutional levels, are grounded in participant perspectives. This, in turn, requires practices grounded in Inclusive Systemic Thinking.

Diversity here is key: diversity of participants and priorities, diverse settings and contexts, and multiple tools and methods. Research processes must unpack intersecting inequalities, discriminations and vulnerabilities that push some further to the margins than others. This is where the GEMs Framework comes into effect because it does not predetermine what these intersecting factors will be but gives space for them to emerge and arise from dialogue, story- and truth- telling with the people living with the experience.

Genuine decolonising practice

The most prevailing driver of our work is the acknowledgement that the work we do, using Inclusive Systemic Thinking, is an urgent, yet daunting reality, responding to the global polycrises. Polycrises occur when “multiple global systems become entangled in a way that significantly degrades humanity’s prospects” (Lawrence et al., 2022). Put simply, we are motivated to respond to global injustice and wish to do this without reinforcing or creating more of it. As well as prioritising engagement with stakeholders in a way that does not reinforce or risk further discrimination, we reflect and ask whether our work contributes to a desirable, transformational change.

Decolonizing practice is an attempt to challenge Eurocentric practices by prioritising local knowledge and experiences of marginalised population groups.

Inclusive Systemic Thinking provides the mindset needed for a decolonising practice and using the GEMs framework can enable practitioners to seek out and drive transformational change and contribute to an intersectional analysis that is determined by the people and environmental systems, central to the setting in focus.

Mutual capacity development

A key value inherent in Inclusive Systemic Thinking is mutual learning, also known as two-way learning. This is about balancing the power and processes in our relationships. Capacity is not developed by one party or given by another. It is recognition of the systemic nature of learning, of reciprocity, feedback, curiosity, transparency, and enquiry. It is the commitment to reflective behaviour that looks to understand one’s true impact. At the end of the process, it is finding ways to exit that don’t leave others with a bigger mess to clean up than when you entered the scene, or with a financial, strategic, and logistical burden. It is also about a mutual transfer of knowledge.

An emerging practice in our work in Colombia, East Timor and Kenya is to collaboratively develop consulting contracts with local teams which we deliver together. This includes writing in our own redundancy within ten years giving local teams full ownership to lead change in their own country and regions. Simultaneously, those local teams are building country teams that they can mentor and support.


Addressing the polycrises starts by being present, supporting others to participate meaningfully and equitably to bring about the transformative change they wish to see happen, while supporting learning so that our own place in the process is temporary.

Are there ways that Inclusive Systemic Thinking might be used in your work or life? What are the key lessons you take from our example? Do you have lessons to share that could improve our practice?


Lawrence, M., Janzwood, S. and Homer-Dixon, T. (2022). What Is a Global Polycrisis? And how is it different from a systemic risk? Version 2.0, Discussion Paper 2022-4, Cascade Institute: Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. (Online – open access).

Biography: Ellen Lewis PhD is an organization development consultant and systems thinker, as well as co-founder and co-director of Ethos of Engagement Consulting (EoE). She is based in Portugal. She advises and designs with systems thinking for organisational change, leads EoE’s training and professional development as well as teaching, and conducting research and evaluation projects.

Biography: Anne Stephens PhD is a sociologist, as well as co-founder and co-director of Ethos of Engagement Consulting (EoE). She is based in Australia. She is the Vice President of the Australian Evaluation Society and leads human-rights and gender responsive evaluations, as well as supporting in-country teams. She is a lecturer, writer and researcher and Adjunct of the Cairns Institute at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia.

26 thoughts on “Inclusive Systemic Thinking for transformative change”

  1. Hi Katie. I just love this line of thought. I teamed up with Monica Gagliano to find a ‘reputable’, ‘acceptible’ scientific approach to communication with plants. Animals is not yet done, but then anyone who has a relationship with a mammal knows that they share empathy, emotion and communicate with us in a myriad of ways. I’ve not yet fully explored this in our contract work – but we do also work with conservationists in some of the US’s most important zoos and hope to find opportunities to partner on projects where we can explore more explicitly active communication with non-human voices in the inquiry itself. Thank you. Isn’t it just the most interesting space to think about. Cheers

    • So good to see. I think NRM (natural resource management) have been pretty good at thinking systemically but perhaps the bodies that fund and review the scientific approaches have been slower to catch on. Thanks for drawing this to our attention.

  2. Great post. I wonder how to set up learning units in the contexts of policrises. Do you specify role, processes and concrete deliveries (i.e., management artifacts)?

    • I’d be interested in what you mean by learning units. Our model of consultancy work involves establishing teams of consultants and project managers who share a learning journey for the duration of the project. Various protocols and practices for two-way learning are practiced during this time. Most of our work responds to very complex and messy problems so may or may not fit your definition of policrisis but learning is core to all phases of the work.

      • There are some recent conceptualizations of learning units in the modern safety science and public management literatures, but I think we are on the same page here. As someone involved in innovation projects, I am always curious about the specifics of concrete projects: roles, processes and the like. For instance, I like to conduct pre-mortems and post-mortems and we have been adopting agile methodologies to move things along. Thanks for your reply.

  3. Hi Mariana. This fascinates me too. How can we really do this? I mentioned a paper I authored with Ann Taket in a comment to Maya above. This really delves into the ‘how’ do we do this aspect of your question along with the ‘we must’ justification based on work from Monica on plant thinking and awareness. As Ellen said we really have to draw from localised understandings of the environmental features, contexts and stakeholders and be guided by local knowledge. It is they who need to tell us who and what is important to include when it comes to the environmental intersection, but what we try to do is avoid an interpretation that the environment is only important insofar as it matters to human life. This is a really challenging set of questions and conversations to have with people for a whole host of reasons. But if we can get there, then we look for witnesses to represent that environmental piece and do it justice.

  4. Hi Ellen, As an average lay person, reading your explanation of what you are trying to do lost me. I think examples of real work senerios that were presented, how you tackled it using your process and overall outcomes, will help people better understand your mission and goals for helping businesses, governments or communities and how you will help them bring positive change to a situation.
    Richard Thurlow

    • Hi Richard. Thank you for your comment. Our original submissions were much longer and did include case study material. With the help of the i2insights editor, we managed to get two blogs and the bare essentials of the key themes. More would be lengthy and convoluting. Believe us, we did try! We would love to write more and provide practice-oriented stories from here. Perhaps have a look at our website as this is where we do show samples of our work with clients.

  5. I support the idea of shifting to the phrase ‘systemic thinking’. I often distinguish between ‘thinking about systems’ and systemic thinking. The first phrase implies thinking about a particular object called a system. But you can look at that object in ways that don’t challenge or even expose your world views, deep assumptions, mental models and unconscious biases. In grammatical terms the concept of ‘system’ is a noun; a thing. In contrast, in systemic thinking, the systems idea is playing the part of an adverb. It is describing a kind of thinking not a kind of object. And Anne and Ellen are describing what they see as the core components of that adverb; and those components will always imply a challenge to world views, deep assumptions, mental models and unconscious biases.

    • Thank you. This is an excellent comment. In CST we distinguish between making first and second order boundary judgements. The first order is, as you say, the reflection on the system. You don’t have to do too much. But a second order boundary demands greater insight into the thought processes behind decisions and is a systemic activity. So, what we try to do with our tools is bring practitioners into the second-order boundary analysis at multiple points along the life of an intervention or evaluation. Beyond what might be conventionally expected.

  6. This is a much needed articulation for the need of inclusivity in systems thinking! I was not convinced that critical systems thinking did hold up to its claim of emancipation. Inclusive systemic thinking, on the other hand opens up a realm of possible practices that may indeed facilitate emancipation!

    • Thank you, Maya, for your thoughtful comment. With IST we hope to have a contextual and localized understanding and prioritisation of what is inclusion and who or what ideas, languages, etc. have been historically or currently marginalized by a society. The task I feel is how to create equity in the power dynamics that determine the identification of marginalization and inclusion.

    • Thanks Maya. A friend and systems thinking theorist Prof Ann Taket and I did some work looking at how the GEMs of our Inclusive Systemic Thinking approach could influence or nudge CST and its commitments along a bit. We suggest retitling the commitments to ‘socioecological awareness’ and ’emancipation’ rather than ‘human emancipation’. The title of the paper is ‘Ecological Justice for Nature in Critical Systems Thinking’ (SRBS: 36, 3-19 (2019) DOI: 10.1002/sres.2532). It might be relevant to have a peruse of that given this conversation. We cite some fascinating work into plant consciousness and communications that Monica Gagliano did a few years ago.

    • Hi Gemma. Thank you for your comment and for the link to your blog. I had missed the blog originally, so I am grateful because it is so relevant to our work. I would say that we lean on participatory action research and learning as an overarching value. We work together with our teams, partners and whenever safely possible, participants, to understand a problematic situation and identify potential opportunities for social change and learning. We focus on social change (and would like to work more on policy change) that promotes democracy and challenges inequality; is context-specific, and iterative. We use the GEMs to help us discuss how power shapes gender relations within and across racial, class, and sexual diversities. Like Paulo Freire we believe that knowledge, culture, world views and intersectional identification are always changing and seek to examine power structures and patterns of inequality within the status quo. We were inspired by a Danny Burns article, Deepening and scaling participatory research with the poorest and most marginalised. European Journal of Operational Research, (2018). We also are learning more about how to decolonize our work and look to learn from other ways of knowing based on local contexts. A book I am currently reading is the latest edition of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s book on decolonizing methodologies. Any recommendations from you or others are so very welcome!

    • Hi Gemma. In educational literature you’ll find various references to the idea of mutual learning through various constructivist pedagogical approaches. But to be completely honest with you, the mutual, two-way learning was taught to me when working with Australian First Nations People on Cape York in Queensland Australia. The ‘yarning’ approach and the idea that conversation does not have a start or end, but is an ongoing weaved and lived experience (a bit like a radio being on always in the background that you can tune in and out of). That learning is a shared experience and not transmitted from one to another.

      A paper I co-authored with a First Nations woman Davena Monro looks at why a particular training college is so successful. The two-way learning approach is part of that. We theorised that students experience more than training but are part of a process of systemic empowerment through the approach the College has very explicitly and deliberately taken.

      The title is: ‘Training for Life and Healing: The Systemic Empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Men and Women Through Vocational Education and Training’. Published in the Australian Journal of Indigenous Education: Vol 48, 2. pp 179-192 (2018) doi 10.1017/jie.2018.5

      Let me know if this is helpful to you.

      Cheers, Anne

      • Thank you for your answers, Ellen and Anne. Your references and experience greatly expanded my understanding of mutual learning. Thank you so much. I was introduced to the mutual learning framework through a leadership and team science perspective. This is the book if you would like to learn more: Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams by Roger Schwarz.

        I am completely on board with the mutual learning concept. I tend to think that everyone learns from the social field, and everyone forms the social field.

  7. Thanks for this great post! Can you share some more about some of the ways you go about including non-human voices? I’d love to learn more!

    • Hi Mariana, depending on the project and context we ask stakeholders to consider what non-human voices should/could be recognized. In Guatemala, for example, we were working with Indigenous back-strap weaver artisans, and they felt their culture and language were becoming more marginalized as their own children completed high school and went on to higher education. This integration into the formal educational systems often made it so the youth did not feel comfortable with some of their own culture’s norms and languages. Another example from Nicaragua, was a fish monger who used the GEMs to analyze his work, realized that part of his sanitation practices on cleaning his tools and ice chests was actually detrimental to the lake from where he captured the fish.

      • Great question Mariana, and fascinating and fantastic work Ellen and Anne! Thank you so much for sharing. It is challenging and necessary work to keep rooting out the deep beliefs of the dominant paradigm in an attempt to make inclusive space for all ways of being and knowing. Another eurocentric idea is that nature cannot speak. In the decolonisation of process of Inclusive Systemic Design are the more-than-human voices allowed space to actively communicate into the inquiry, or is the human mainly considering on behalf of the non-human voices?

        • Hi Katie, thanks for your post. We rely on local knowledge and wisdom to help facilitate the non human voices. This could be a village elder representing their culture or language that are marginalized or it could be a biologist representing environmental concerns. Have you seen it done other ways? We’d love to learn from you!


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