By Joanne Lee on October 21, 2015
The term “systems change” can raise impersonal and institutional connotations, particularly when used within the context of models and theories. Through Active Living By Design (ALBD)’s work and experience in supporting healthy community change over the years, we know that people and relationships are at the heart of impactful change and provide necessary translation and integration that personalizes or effectively tailors models and theories.
Stakeholders in the field are increasingly interested in applying systems change models to develop and sustain healthy communities. These models have also appealed to funders who seek to target investments in more efficient and effective ways than simply funding a specific project, program or service to address complex issues. While each of those elements contribute important strategies, programs and promotions are most effective when aligned to support longer term policy and environmental change efforts. And even then, tackling healthy community change by program, campaign, policy or environmental element alone can be resource-intensive and is often difficult to scale for broader impact. This approach may also lead to unintended consequences, because interrelationships between components within systems are not considered.
While we continue to learn more about systems change and effective pathways to achieve a culture of health, our efforts in the field should employ systems thinking. One method of approaching systems thinking is “To improve the performance of the whole, improve the relationships among the parts. Identify a few key interdependencies and shift them in a sustained, coordinated way over time.” 
Operating with a systems-thinking lens reinforces the fact that the sole provision of financial resources to communities is often insufficient to achieve meaningful and sustainable change and health improvements. Furthermore, systems thinking is not limited by one model or a template, and presents opportunities to invest in, support, partner and learn with communities as they navigate influences and impacts of the relationships and interdependencies. Systems thinking acknowledges that models and theories alone are insufficient, and people and partnerships provide the necessary tailoring and integration across elements to affect healthy community change.
At ALBD, we’ve had the privilege of collaborating with local partners, supporting their efforts to apply systems thinking in their efforts and figuring out ways to bolster capacity through ongoing and timely coaching, technical assistance and learning network opportunities. In a recent survey of former Active Living by Design, Healthy Eating by Design and Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities project directors and coordinators, our “alumni” cited partnership capacity as one of the top two types of capacity built as a result of the initiatives and the most vital to the sustainability of local efforts.
The emphasis on “the whole,” “relationships” and “interdependencies” in systems thinking resonates with me as I have continued to witness how people in local communities are leading impactful change. They are what makes our collective efforts more personal and relatable. This way of thinking considers the other critical elements of a system: local champions, formal and informal relationships, power dynamics and community culture and values.