Over time systems have been built delivering structure that enables and supports people to live, work and play. Our systems provide order, created between people through rules and social norms. As individuals, we may not always stop to think about how the institutions and structures surrounding us have come to be. My work in social marketing demands that I think about systems to find solutions that people will support to deliver the changes that funders seek. Hearing people’s stories, seeing how people, live, work and play and importantly learning about the people and the places I am working in are all things I do to understand what may be possible.

Humour me for just a brief moment as I share just a little of my story.

During summer 2020/2021 I enjoyed a staycation. In just over a month of time away from work, I enjoyed an occasional Netflix binge, spent time with my family and friends, continued to nurture the garden I first established 5 years ago, and we fostered a cat family. One Netflix series that I watched in just over 24 hours was called the English Game. This series tells the story of the invention of football, a game loved by my brother and one of the oldest games played today. The series gave me insights into how football rose to become so popular. The first ever FA Cup was played in 1871, and the first decade of the sport only involved players from the social elite.  The payment of players allowed football to cross class divides. The English Story tells the story of the first working class team to win the FA Cup in the 1880s. Payment of players was not in accordance with rules that were initially set for the FA Cup and this rule took a further 2 years to be formally encoded. The initial rules were set by people who did not need money to take time out to train, play and travel to be in a position to compete at an elite level.

I grew up in the country in Southern Australia and my parents moved me around a lot. At one stage early in life, I had lived in more houses, towns and places than my years. This is not an experience that all people have. Some children are born into one house only leaving that house to move out to study or marry to start their own family. Others don’t have the opportunity to live in a house at all and yet others are moved by their parents overseas to study and learn another language. Our lived experiences shape and define us. As Nicholas Sparks[1] writes “a life, after all, is simply a series of little lives, each of them lived one day at a time, and every single one of those days has choices and consequences. Piece by piece, those decisions help to form the people we become.” In design thinking, the notion of empathy is widely discussed.

It is incumbent on all of us to see the world through each other’s eyes.

When I spoke at Change 2018 I could see our democratic world was crumbling. The institutions and structures that were created ahead of our times were showing deep cracks. The extent of our collective failing has been illuminated in so many different ways since then. Perhaps the most notable wake-up call comes from the US where frustrated residents rallied together to break into Washington’s Capitol Building in an attempt to disrupt a democratic process. This shows rejection of an institution or structure by a group of people, but to single out this one event would not be fair. Other equally important expressions can be observed with global protests reminding us that Black Lives Matter not to mention Climate Change. While we inherit systems, institutions and structures these can and should be changed. Truly democratic approaches would seek fair and even representation and performance mindsets would focus our energy and attention on attaining outcomes. Our structures need to ensure that perspectives others than those that are incumbent are sought to drive the change that is needed, and all efforts would feature transparent tracking and reporting.

If we could mobilise so rapidly to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, why can’t we move faster to redress the system that perpetuates our social divides? Our capacity to unite against an unseen enemy, a virus posing an immediate threat, serves as an important reminder that where there is a will there is a way. Why then do we not act faster when the numbers are greater, and the threats equally known? Read this blog to consider the case of tobacco. There are so many more actions and measures we could take to improve people’s health and wellbeing if we were prepared to challenge our very structures. More can and should be done to quickly to deliver the structures people need in the 2020s and beyond.

Recent events are a reminder that we need to act now. Playing by the rules and continuing to do what we have always done simply maintains the status quo, supporting the very institutions and structures that were created by our predecessors in different times. As my long summer break comes to an end, I once again embark on 2021 with hope and optimism. There are tools and approaches we can use to ensure that every child and person has an equal chance. For example, we can renovate our own systems and structures to deliver a level playing field for all, just as the FA Cup opened its doors to the UK working class in the 1880s. Systems methods such as Creating Collective Solutions seek to ensure diverse viewpoints are actively sought. Bringing people from a wide range of different backgrounds together in one process can uncover blockages that are preventing health, social or environmental outcomes from being achieved or it can help to set priorities to break the structures encoded into our systems. The key to success in these processes is transparency, ensuring that everyone is encouraged to participate and that all responses are publicly available.

Moving forward we cannot shout down a voice. Each and every individual has a story. If you have time watch Natasha Akib’s Change 2018 keynote to learn more about how storytelling is used to build empathy. I have been heartened to see an increase in popularity of human centred design techniques such as design thinking and co-design. To realise the strength of these methodologies application of these techniques cannot be tokenistic. Design thinking and co-design methods draw on people’s lived experiences, acknowledging they are the experts of their own worlds. It is only when we walk in another person’s shoes that we can truly know what they need. Our research, strategy and programs must centre on people ensuring their stories are told and their needs and wants are being met. Evaluative approaches need to extend to 360 measurement ensuring the actions of all people involved are monitored and measured. By critically assessing the efforts of all people, including those with funding and power, true transparency can emerge, and real change can happen.

Decisions should never be made for people, they should be made with them.

I continue to celebrate work led by Asthma Australia who has shifted their own decision making structures. If you are interested, watch CEO Michele Goldmans and Consumer Advisory Council member and asthma sufferer Julia Ovens Change 2019 talk. My marketing training taught me it is rare to satisfy all. However, with good structure and systems we can and should be able to easily satisfy the clear majority (e.g. 80-90%). Asking more of ourselves and challenging our own practices and efforts is the natural starting point. Watch Professor Maria Raciti’s provocation asking us to do exactly that here at the 30 minute and 22 second mark. The establishment of structures that permit people to give feedback must always be embraced. When we keep our fingers on the pulse, we are best able to adapt and respond ensuring precious resources are being directed where they have the strongest effect. Committee memberships that fail to include diverse perspectives need to be removed and rotating approaches that ensure no one person, group or institution can become incumbent offer the clearest path forward. If we act fast enough, we can avoid a revolution.

Author: Sharyn Rundle-Thiele, January 2021

[1] Sparks, N. (2018) Every Breath. Grand Central Publishing