5 Types of Systems Change Causes with the Potential for Exceptionally High Impact (post 3/3)

Here are five classes of systems change causes that logically have the potential for very high impact.

Each class includes numerous cause areas that are worthy of further investigation to evaluate their potential impact. The examples used are neither exhaustive nor intended as recommended causes (although some may become recommended causes in the light of future research).


  1. Causes that make systems change more tractable

Systems change is typically very intractable; it can take a lot of time and resources to build public support for change and to drive through important policy changes.


E.g. Political/democratic system

If we were to change the political/democratic system itself, so that it becomes substantially easier to change policies for the common good, this would make changing other systems far more tractable.


  1. Systems that affect our lives to a very large degree

Some systems seem to have a particularly pervasive impact on our lives. Changing these systems for the better would likely have a very large positive impact.


E.g. Economic system (including finance and banking system)

In theory, in a capitalist economy wealth trickles down from the rich to the poor by way of the ‘invisible hand’. However, the structure of our current global economic, financial, corporate taxation and banking systems results in increasing financial inequality. The world’s eight richest people have the same wealth as the poorest 50%. Structural systemic changes could reliably distribute global wealth in a far more equitable way.


For profit corporations are legally responsible to their shareholders, and thus put profits first. Businesses are not legally designed to operate in the best interests of the world at large, and are free to exploit labour, and pollute and plunder the natural world. Businesses’ negative externalities could be internalised through regulation and taxation, building the social and environmental costs into the price of their goods and services.


E.g. Education/social systems

We are moulded by the systems that we grow up in; they shape our values, our habits, our sense of self and place in the world, and our beliefs about what’s possible. Our social systems including our systems of healthcare, welfare, criminal justice and especially education, have the potential to give the population of Earth, en masse, the necessary tools, motivation and support to thrive and live deeply fulfilling, positively impactful lives.


  1. Changing our system of technological innovation

Technological progress is exponential, and shows no signs of slowing down. As a result, there is exponential opportunity for new technology to have positive impact. Emerging and future technologies also pose an increasing risk to the human civilization thriving long into the future. From unstoppable pandemics to runaway artificial intelligence, our technology may realistically become our undoing as a species.


Technological innovation is driven, in no small part, by economic forces: many research and development funding choices are based on the potential financial returns, which in turn are  based on what humans with money are willing to buy, and we don’t always buy what’s best for us. Just because we can build it, and we can sell it, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.


Should we work to identify research that has an unacceptably high chance of causing harm, and prevent such research from happening? Do we need to put the brakes on our technological progress as a whole?


Changing our system of technological innovation may well be harder than making our civilization environmentally sustainable; it may require a major reorientation of our global economic system. Given the scale of what’s at stake, it may also be the most important cause there is.


  1. Technological innovations that change systems

Most system changes are driven primarily by one of three things: political action (e.g. setting up the UN), grassroots action (e.g. the abolition of slavery), or technological innovation (e.g. the electric light bulb, ushering in leisure time after dark). Given the exponential trend of technological innovation, this may now be the primary driver of systems change.


  1. Technological innovations for whole systems change

Breakthrough technologies often don’t fit neatly into one system, but instead have wide-ranging impact across society and culture. Some new technologies lay the foundations for countless other innovations, and thus repattern the way we live our lives. Such ‘foundational’ technologies include:


E.g. The internet, which has given unprecedented open access to knowledge and information, and normalized peer-to-peer production and consumption of news via social media.


E.g. Blockchain, the technology that Bitcoin is built on. Still in its infancy, blockchain technology provides a tamper-proof, distributed public record, without the need for centralized management or administration. The potential applications are vast. Services built on blockchains could ultimately replace our centralized banking and political governance systems with transparent, distributed alternatives.


  1. Technological innovations for specific system change

With a good understanding of a specific system, its failings, and a sense of what it could become, timely strategic technological innovations can play a vital role in bringing about systems change.


E.g. Online public consultation tools

There have been many experiments with digital democracy, and some particularly promising examples that pave the way for more inclusive democratic decision making.


E.g. Time banks

Time banks are popping up around the world, and provide a refreshing means of value exchange. Time bankers can offer their time (perhaps doing something they love but wouldn’t typically get paid for, for example, portrait painting), and can request help with specific tasks. This brings to life a gift economy, where individuals help each other out willingly without expecting financial recompense. Participating in a time bank can shift one’s perception of economic value in a profound way, from being something scarce and transactional to something personal and abundant.


  1. Changing systems that directly relate to the top EA cause areas already identified

Within the EA community, causes have been prioritized relating to the welfare of extremely poor people, and to the welfare of animals under human control. A systems change approach may offer highly effective ways to help these beneficiaries. In fact, I think that the current EA approach in both areas is somewhat systemic in nature.


E.g. International development system

The impact of unconditional direct cash transfers to the world’s poorest people has been researched extensively by GiveDirectly, and seems to be a highly effective intervention. The cash is generally spent on the things that will have the biggest positive impact on the quality of life of the recipients.


This research, backed up with extensive pilot programmes, makes a good case for scaling up this intervention strategy. There is growing support behind a universal basic income policy in both developed and developing nations. This policy could soon become a cornerstone of how international aid is done, getting basic resources to the people who need them most.


E.g. Animal industrial systems

The meat and dairy industries, leather production, and animal testing in cosmetics and medicine involve extreme suffering of billions of animals. Animal Charity Evaluators recommends a diversity of ‘top’ and ‘standout’ charities that work effectively on different parts of changing the system of animal agriculture and exploitation by humans.


This is post 3 of 3:
Post 1: "Why to Optimize Earth"
Post 2: " Effective Altruism Paradigm vs Systems Change Paradigm"



Thanks for valuable suggestions & feedback from: Ray Taylor, Ulrik Horn, Kyle Bogosian, Samuel Hilton, Dony Christie & Alex Dickinson.

Comments (14)

Comment author: MichaelPlant 23 October 2017 03:53:09PM 5 points [-]

Hello. I'll reply here even though my comment covers all three posts. My general worry is that I think you've drawn a distinction without a difference. I can see that 'optimise Earth' and 'do the most good' are different sentences, but I'm still not really sure what the practical differences are supposed to be between them. As a test: what would a 'do the most good-er' and an 'Earth optimiser' disagree about?

On your EA paradigm vs systems changes paradigm, I fear you've specifed EA into a particular, not very generous, way just to make your point. For instance, why can't an EA say "we should maximise our collective impact"? I agree that EAs should be thinking about co-operation and the full impact of their actions but EAs tend to be aware of this already. I don't think I know anyone who really wants to maximise their personal impact at the expense of total impact (whatever exactly this means).

Then on this post, you seem to be presenting this as if no EA has ever thought about systemic changes. But that's not true. EAs have often thought about systemic changes, they just haven't been (that) convinced by then. If you want to change people's minds on this issues, I would strongly encourage you to write up one of these areas as a cause profile and compare it to existing ones, e.g. how does it score on scale, tractability and neglectedness? I generally much prefer it if people give (at least somewhat) worked out arguments for why New Cause X is better than Old Cause Y, rather than saying only "ah, but what about New Cause X? Have you considered that?" Advocates of New Cause X tend to be able to do the best job of making the case for that cause anyway, so it makes sense for them to try to do it anyway.

Comment author: Michael_Wiebe 23 October 2017 04:07:37PM 2 points [-]

And if your disagreement is with the scale/tractability/neglectedness framework, then argue against that directly.

Comment author: MichaelPlant 23 October 2017 08:46:57PM 0 points [-]

Not disagreeing with Michael_Wiebe, but just thought I'd add this: the SNT framework is just a few rules of thumb anyway. Where people can produce expected value calculations of the intervention in question (e.g. good done/pound), they should just do that. But SNT is a good place to start.

Comment author: oliverbramford 25 October 2017 02:49:55PM 0 points [-]

what would a 'do the most good-er' and an 'Earth optimiser' disagree about?

Great question!

I'm not sure if there is any direct logical incompatibility between a 'do the most good-er' and an 'Earth optimiser'. Rather, I think the Earth optimiser frames the challenge of doing the most good in a particular way that tends to give greater consideration to collective impact and long run indirect effects than is typical in the EA community.

As an Earth optimiser, I am confident that we can substantially improve on our current cause prioritisation methodology, to better account for long run indirect effects and better maximise collective impact. By modelling the Earth as a complex system, defining top-level systemic goals/preferred outcomes, and working backwards to identify the critical next steps to get there, I expect would lead many of us to revise what we currently consider to be top priority causes.

I would strongly encourage you to write up one of these areas as a cause profile and compare it to existing ones

When it comes to complex systems change causes, I think a substantial amount of up front research is typically required to write up a remotely accurate cause profile, that can be compared meaningfully with direct-impact causes. Complex systems typically seem highly intractable at first glance, but a systems analysis may highlight a set of neglected interventions, which when pursued together, make systems change fairly tractable.

As a good example, I am currently part of the leadership team working on a political systems change research project (set up under EA Geneva). This is a year-long project with a team of (part-time volunteer) researchers. We will do a detailed literary review, a series of events with policy makers, and a series of expert interviews. We hope that this will be enough to evaluate the tractability of this as a cause area, and locate it's priority in relation to other cause areas.

Comment author: MichaelPlant 25 October 2017 07:55:07PM 0 points [-]

I'm not sure if there is any direct logical incompatibility between a 'do the most good-er' and an 'Earth optimiser

Well, in this case, I'm now struggling to see why it's worth making a fuss about the terminology if it's just a framing thing. I'm generally against people introducing new terminology just for the sake of it because it confuses people. It seems like you're reinventing the wheel and claiming you've done something more impressive.

I expect would lead many of us to revise what we currently consider to be top priority causes.

This could be true, and I look forward to seeing the arguments. In a similar vein, I'm more in favour of people arriving with new findings they can argue for, rather than just saying "look, this could be so high impact!" because that applies to loads of things.

Comment author: Michael_Wiebe 22 October 2017 06:20:47PM 2 points [-]

In general, a cause needs to score high on each of impact, tractability, and neglectedness to be worthwhile. Getting two out of three is no better than zero out of three. You've listed causes with high impact, but they're generally not tractable. For example, changing the political system is highly intractable.

Overall, I think that EA has already incorporated the key insights from systems change, and there's no need to distinguish it as being separate from EA.

Comment author: e19brendan 23 October 2017 04:44:25PM 5 points [-]

This is an interesting point, though I wonder whether EAs have the right attitude about tractability. Tractability and neglectedness tend to be inversely related, and the relationship is imperfect - I think EAs can make reasonable bets about when society as a whole overly neglects low-tractability problems, making it worthwhile to disrupt complacency. Sea-changes are apparent even in recent history, say in treating HIV in sub-saharan Africa - something that many argued was impossible, unfeasible, and too costly. A similar transformation is apparent in TB care, especially in the treatment of drug resistant tuberculosis. Although these may not be priority areas for EAs, the global health community has majorly updated over the last 20 years about how tractable they are and at what cost these interventions could effectively improve people's lives. I think it's worth learning from these lessons.

Comment author: oliverbramford 23 October 2017 03:54:28PM *  0 points [-]

System change causes are inherently complex and thus often appear highly intractable initially. However, with detailed systems analysis a set of viable (and perhaps novel) approaches may (sometimes) be identified, which are much more tractable than expected.

For example, the system of animal agriculture and animal product consumption is pretty complex, but ACE have done a great job to identify charities that are working very effectively on different aspects of that system (cultured meat, advocacy to corporates, promoting veganism, etc.).

Analysing a complex system in detail sheds new light on what's broken and why, and can highlight novel and neglected solutions (e.g. cultured meat) that make changing the system far more tractable.

changing the political system is highly intractable

The political systems is very complex, but we don't yet know how tractable it is. We are currently researching this at EA Geneva/Geneva Macro Labs. If we find a political systems change strategy that is even moderately tractable, I suspect it would be worth pursuing due to the magnitude of the likely flow through effects. If we change the political system to better prioritise policies, this would make changing many other important systems (economic, defence, education, etc.) way more tractable.

Comment author: Michael_Wiebe 23 October 2017 04:37:06PM 0 points [-]

For example, the system of animal agriculture and animal product consumption is pretty complex, but ACE have done a great job

But they didn't use complex systems theory, did they? They just used the regular EA framework of impact/tractability/neglectedness.

Comment author: WillPearson 23 October 2017 09:02:34PM 0 points [-]

As a data point for how useful ITN is for trying to think about system change I shall talk about my attempt.

My attempt is here.

So the intervention was to try and start a movement of people who shared technological development with each other to help them live (so food/construction/computing), with the goal of creating autonomous communities (capable of space faring or living on other planets would be great, but is not the focus). The main difference between it and the normal open source movement is that it would focus on intelligence augmentation to start with for economic reasons.

The main problems I came across were arguing it would have positive long term impact due to existential risk and war risks compared to singletons (I think it would, because I am skeptical of the stability of singletons).

It will take a long time to form a convincing argument about this one way or another, and probably a significant amount of more expertise in economics, sociology and game theory as well.

If a fully justified ITN report is needed before EAs start to be interested in it, then it is likely that it and other ideas like it will be neglected. Some ideas will need significant resources put into determining their tractability and also the sign of their impact.

Comment author: joshjacobson  (EA Profile) 23 October 2017 02:00:23PM 0 points [-]

I don't think there was any reason for this to be split into 3 posts? It'd be better to condense it into one.

Comment author: oliverbramford 23 October 2017 03:20:36PM 0 points [-]

I had written a much longer piece, and had feedback from a number of people that it would be best to split it up.

Comment author: joshjacobson  (EA Profile) 23 October 2017 04:43:00PM 0 points [-]

I can't imagine why. Even all 3 together are shorter than many posts on here. And they really don't have much standalone value IMHO (i.e. the first).

Comment author: MichaelPlant 23 October 2017 08:51:55PM 0 points [-]

I downvoted this for unfriendliness