Some readers may already know how big a problem fishing nets pose globally – I have to admit that I had no idea. Every year, it seems, almost three quarters of a million tonnes of abandoned and lost fishing nets “pile up on beaches, create a navigational hazard for boats, or settle to the ocean floor to damage sensitive ecosystems”. The UN’s FAO estimates that up to 10% of all marine litter is made up if discarded nets. And the problem is getting worse because of the increased scale of fishing operations and the introduction of highly durable fishing gear made of long-lasting synthetic materials.

Resolving this issue is not easy: millions of families rely on fishing for their livelihoods, and there are few if any incentives for poor fishermen to collect nets from unsuccessful expeditions, or to not throw damaged nets back into the ocean. Enter an remarkable partnership between the Zoological Society of London and Interface, one of the world’s largest carpet manufacturers.

The basic idea behind their Net-Works collaboration is that most of the nylon in fishing nets can be recycled and used for yarn, which is a key material for carpets. Over the course of 2012-13, Net-Works piloted the approach with four fishing communities near Danajon Bank in the Philippines.

Fishermen in this small area would have left many thousands of miles of nets behind each year. But as mentioned in the video, this was not a “one-shot beach clean-up operation” but an attempt to create sustainable institutions that support livelihoods and preserve the environment. As a result of the Net-Works programme, fishermen now have incentives to collect the nets, which are purchased by a local Interface supplier to turn it into yarn. Payment for the nets provides income to the local fishermen and is also used to develop micro finance and village savings and loan schemes in the community. The pilots helped clean up 50-60km of beach, generated income for local villagers, and contributed to marine conservation in the region. And recycled nylon yarn from Net-Works is now being used in one of the Interface’s core carpet product lines. Based on the pilot, the effort is being expanded to 15 additional communities in the area and ultimately to other regions, potentially in India and West Africa.

This is a great development-focused example of what UK’s leading innovation think-and-do-tank, NESTA, call “systemic innovation“. These are innovations that don’t focus on specific product or a process, but instead attempt to bring about change at the level of ‘whole systems’. The basic idea is that there is an urgent need to transform whole systems of human endeavour in order to meet some of the social, economic and environmental challenges we face. This is as true in developed countries as in developing country contexts – as the Social Innovation Research blog put it last year:

…youth unemployment, poverty, addictions, crime and criminalisation, low levels of educational attainment amongst vulnerable groups and homelessness remain significant challenges for communities across [the developed world]. New challenges have also emerged: migration has put pressure on community cohesion; an ageing population is placing significant demands on already stretched health and care services, as well as public and personal budgets; new lifestyles have brought with them problems of obesity and chronic disease such as diabetes and potentially the most alarming is climate change, which is expected to have devastating effects on agricultural production, human health, food and water security and lead to more and more regular climate disasters…

Climate change in fact gives us a good illustration of what systemic innovation might look like: “innovation is needed in every part of the economy – from design and processing to distribution and consumption. We will need to cut energy use, conserve what is used through recycling and re-use and avoid production where possible rather than expanding it.” (This incidentally also gives a great description of precisely what the Net-Works collaborators have been trying to do, albeit on a smaller scale than the global economy).

Systemic innovation is far from abstract – it is often required for the full value of radical innovations to be realised: “For example, for the invention of the car to transform the nature of transport, a whole raft of complementary innovations in terms of products and services (petrol stations, driving schools, road traffic management and so on) and regulations were necessary… until these were in place, cars remained less efficient than carriages and poorly diffused.” Much the same could be said about the last 30 years of innovations in ICTs.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a better understanding of systems plays an central role in systemic innovation. A defining feature of complex systems is that changes in one part affect other parts. As the NESTA paper explains, systemic innovation borrows from this to describe a set of interconnected innovations, where each is dependent on the other, with innovations being implemented in the different parts of a given system, and in the ways that those parts interact. In line with this, systemic innovation has been defined as “innovations that require significant adjustments in other parts of the system they are embedded in”. This diagram below, for example, gives us the systems map of the supply chain for a humble cup of tea. To change something as seemingly simple as how we drink tea, we may need to innovate throughout the system.


If we think that systemic innovation is important, it then becomes vital to discuss how to bring about such changes. Many argue that a single organisation or firm cannot undertake the full range of complementary innovations needed for systemic change. The Net-Works model is again instructive: it required global private sector experience, local enterprises, communities and social enterprises, together with researchers and NGOs. Some have argued that true systemic innovation always demands such ‘open innovation’ models:

In systemic innovation processes, organisations need to coordinate as well with producers of complementary products and in many cases even with the direct competitors to ensure the viability of the innovation, rather than coordinating solely with suppliers and customers as is frequently the case in closed innovation models… there is a significant role for networks and new forms of collaboration in driving systemic change.

The NESTA work is important because it is one of the first sustained and detailed attempts to look at systemic innovation in social contexts. Social systemic innovation is arguably even harder than in business, because it requires “a complex interaction of public policy and reforms to legislation, changes to organisational cultures and practices as well as shifts in attitudes and behaviour.” As readers of this blog will be well aware, “change in complex systems is particularly hard to achieve because it requires changes in mentalities, structures and processes. Systems are also slow to shift because they tend to be optimised around their current forms and powerful interests combine with personal relationships to maintain the status quo.”

It does seem clear that if we are to tackle some of the pressing development challenges of today, we will need a broader understanding of what systemic innovation is possible, how it might be catalysed, and how it can be better orchestrated, supported and / or facilitated. Like the Net-Works example, we will need to take a cross-sectoral approach, looking at the public, private and third sectors to see how public policy, business cultures and practices, social movements and attitudes and behaviours interact and interconnect to effect systemic innovation.

Of course, as the NESTA report highlights for social problems more generally, systemic innovation in development and humanitarian contexts won’t be easy. But if we can get it right, who knows what we might land?

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. […] the response to my post earlier this week on systemic innovation, here are NESTA’s top tips to follow to be an effective systems […]

  2. […] 5) Systemic Innovation: An Important Idea For Development? “These are innovations that don’t focus on specific product or a process, but instead attempt to bring about change at the level of ‘whole systems’. The basic idea is that there is an urgent need to transform whole systems of human endeavour in order to meet some of the social, economic and environmental challenges we face.” […]

  3. Hi Ben, I don’t want to knock the Net-Works initiative, because it sounds great. But unless I am missing something it is simply another cumulative innovation that builds upon what’s already there. In what way is it different to the innovations during the late industrial revolution that found uses for waste outputs such as coal dust? Systemic innovation, in which multiple parts of a system are changed simultaneously, is clearly incredibly difficult. In contrast Net-Works just needed a few connections between different economic actors who don’t normally talk much to one another; that strikes me as complicated not complex.

  4. Systemic innovation is like geoengineering. The meaning covers so much that it loses most of its meaning. All innovation is systemic innovation because all activity influences a system somewhere. We get excited and call it systemic when it’s seems to push the boundaries of best practice – despite there generally being no actual structural change to the big system dynamics. So net-works is great but it doesn’t automatically scale up to prevent more kinds of waste in more places. It’s innovation in systems not of them.

    Innovation of systems, at global scale, is conventionally assumed to be incredibly difficult. I wonder whether that’s because we don’t actually attempt it?


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


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