21 System Entrepreneurs For The 21st Century Supported By UCT GSB

The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a specialised unit at the UCT Graduate School of Business, in partnership with three leading global social innovation institutions: the University of Waterloo; the Stockholm Resilience Center; and the University of Victoria, hosted 21 social innovators from around the world in Cape Town this week as part of the Rockefeller Foundation Global Fellowship Program on Social Innovation.

The fellows were in Cape Town for the second of four intensive learning modules that make up the year-long programme. According to Dr Francois Bonnici, Director of the Bertha Centre, which is leading the collaboration, the programme is designed to strengthen the capacity of leaders who have a passion for change, a strong desire for action, and an interest in identifying targeted, innovative ways of tackling complex social and environmental problems at their roots.

“What makes the programme unique is its focus on social innovation as system entrepreneurship. System entrepreneurs are social innovators who go beyond developing specific solutions to immediate social and environmental problems or needs. They also work to transform the conditions – ie the breadth and ‘width’ of systems – that created those problems in the first place,” said Bonnici. “Resilient social change is dependent on a systems approach. Twenty-first century problems cannot be resolved in isolation and need a more integrated, systemic response.”

Bonnici explained that system entrepreneurship is a discipline that is still in its infancy, and the programme will allow for more conversation and study around this, which will have broad application.

The 21 global fellows taking part in the programme are people who have already demonstrated a commitment to developing transformative solutions to issues like livelihood diversity, social finance, alternative forms of governance, energy, health systems, disaster/climate shock resilience, and social technology.

“The fellows are already familiar with the complexity of the challenges they face in their area of speciality,” said Bonnici. “They typically work or could work across multiple levels of stakeholders at the same time, linking grassroots projects to regional networks, to national and international governance bodies. While system entrepreneurs may focus on specific issues like climate change, economic justice or health care, they see these issues not in isolation but as pathways for developing the overall resilience of their communities.”


Understanding complexity

The programme’s teachers and mentors are international experts in social innovation, complexity and resilience as well as local experts confronting entrenched and complex challenges on a daily basis. Each of the partners will contribute to the on-going development and delivery of the programme.

The academic lead at UCT GSB who is working with the fellows is Dr Warren Nilsson who holds a Ph.D. in organisation studies from McGill University and is a senior lecturer at the GSB in social innovation. Nilsson’s research focuses primarily on the organisational dimensions of social change and institutional transformation.

“The hallmark of system entrepreneurship is gaining insight into the broader set of factors affecting a problem,” said Nilsson. “We know that change is likeliest when there is alignment across different elements and different scales within a system. We spend a lot of time working with fellows to analyse complex system dynamics in such a way that current opportunities and leverage points for change become apparent.

“We also look at the system from inside the organisation. In essence, this means understanding that the bigger issues going on outside, also exist in an immediate way right here – inside this room and inside us. So, for instance, if our organisation wants to begin to change gender dynamics, we can begin by looking at our own assumptions – what are we thinking at this moment, what are we saying, how are we behaving? We are then better equipped to understand the kinds of rules, values, and beliefs that are holding the larger system of gender relationships in place. This is not just systems-thinking, but systems-experiencing. In this way systems become their own living lab.”

The complexity of system transformation, and the pressure fellows will face is likely at times to be overwhelming which can lead to burn-out, Nilsson says. For this reason, a large part of the programme is around building resilience in the fellows.

“Fellows will explore how to think systematically so they can manage the psychological and physical implications of feeling swamped by the complexity of problems. This includes learning to recognise and name their struggles, self-management and coping with the reality of trying to change a system or right a problem that could take hundreds of years to be fully realised.”


About the partners

The Stockholm Resilience Centre is an ecological thought and practice leader, working to help the world understand that there are no social systems or environmental systems – there are only social-environmental systems. Any social change initiative must consider ecological relationships and planetary boundaries in developing its approach. This is obviously true of international climate change work. But it is just as true of local healthcare or educational projects.


The Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience has been a pioneer in a number of ways. They have helped bring a complexity lens to social innovation work that is all too often approached from a linear, mechanical mindset. Resilient systems are good at challenging their own assumptions, consistently disrupting and reorganizing themselves. The deepest social innovations go beyond “problem-solving;” they change a system’s underlying structures. For example, the organization mothers2mothers has developed a model that can lower infant HIV transmission rates from 40% to 2% by training and empowering mothers to work as peer mentors within health care systems. Their model addresses a specific healthcare problem, but it also challenges institutionalized beliefs that only people with a certain kind of education are competent to deliver health care. This challenge has profound and empowering ramifications, and it can be extended into other contexts.

The Water, Innovation, and Global Governance Lab at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies roots its work in the kind of interdisciplinary community engagement that is critical to developing social innovation networks. Because social-ecological systems are complex, social innovation relies less on individual heroes than on flexible collaboratives. System entrepreneurship is not so much about cleverly selling solutions as it is about convening dialogue, experimentation, and co-creation. Part of the centre’s research, then, involves exploring how system entrepreneurs can develop networks strategically to work across scales and domains.

University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship brings both a grounded understanding of how social innovation plays out in the emerging economies of the Global South and expertise around the organisational dimensions of such innovation. The Centre has worked to understand how the quality of an organisation’s internal relationships affects its overall capacity for sustained social innovation, whether that organisation is a small grassroots non-profit, an expanding social enterprise, or a large international development agency.