Shifting Mindsets to Shift Development Systems (part 1)

Why we need to move inward so that we can move forward on the 2030 Agenda

By Laurel Patterson, Head, SDG Integration

The UN Secretary-General calls this moment a “wake up call” for multilateralism and humanity at large, articulating the choice between continuing ’business and usual’ and facing perpetual crises, or embracing global solidarity, renewing social contracts and reinventing our measures for economic prosperity and progress to achieve the 2030 Agenda.

COVID-19 has made the consequences of “sleeping through the alarm” all the more evident, laying bare the ways that social divisions, short-termism, and siloed ways of responding to interconnected issues surface as compounding humanitarian, human development, and ecological crises.

It was in the midst of the disruption of COVID-19 that we began an exploration of systems approaches with a very different starting point: ourselves. The inescapable truth was that our ways of working weren’t working and, at the same time, that the status quo wasn’t fixed either. Where we saw systems shift, we saw collective action driven by shared awareness and recognized that inner transformation is a fundamental driver of systems transformation.

This led us away from the “what” of development, to more seriously consider the underpinnings and assumptions that drive our “how.”  It sparked new questions which we have explored over the past two years. How do we move beyond responding to crises, to sensing and actualizing the just and equitable futures we’ve articulated in development plans? How do we go deeper than a commitment to leave no one behind to confront our own blind spots and understand the systems we are part of, including those designed to leave people behind?

 We’re not alone in exploring these questions. From emergent movements like the Inner Development Goals to more governments attempting to redefine the purpose of economic systems and metrics of progress based on collective wellbeing, to growing discourse recognizing deficits in social imagination as a crisis in itself, and the proliferation of systems transformation frameworks and methods – development actors’ attention is increasingly directed to the space of inner and relational dimensions of systems transformation.  

This growing shift is also resonant in the ambition of our new Strategic Plan (2022-2025), where we recognize that our ability to serve as an effective partner for change is not simply a matter of building new skills, but about building a new culture. Our exploration of the inner work of systems change forms part of a broader landscape of culture-building and business model innovation across UNDP: from the Strategic Innovation Unit’s work on portfolio approaches, to the Conscious Food Systems Alliance’s efforts to deepen sustainability through consciousness-driven collaboration, the Accelerator Labs’ experimentation with new forms of collective intelligence and learning networks, to work our Asia and the Pacific region to embed foresight and futures thinking into decision-making.

Harnessing opportunities borne from disruption  

Against this backdrop of disruption and possibility, UNDP opened new spaces to connect as a community and make sense of what we were seeing and experiencing. In the summer of 2020, we partnered with the Presencing Institute to launch a series of global dialogues on awareness-based collective action.”

More than a space of conversation, the dialogues invited forms of reflection and interaction that were radically different from how we normally work at the UN. This was about deep listening, mindfulness and focusing on the interpersonal and relational dimensions of systems transformation, alongside the tactical and structural components.  

 From this initial experiment in being together in new ways, we found an entry into deeper ways of seeing and responding to systemic challenges together. There was widespread interest and openness among UN practitioners to engage in spaces that brought the matter of inner transformation to the fore. Over the course of four dialogues, more than 1,000 people participated from every region of the world, representing different job profiles and perspectives across the UN family.  

Systems are relational processes, and the power that is held is shaped and shifted through those connections. Photo: UNDP Tajikistan/Beyond Borders Media

Creating new infrastructures to reimagine  

What had arisen as an experimental response to an immediate need revealed a much larger opportunity and challenge: How do we expand transformation literacy as an organization and embed “awareness-based” modes of collective action into our core work?  

The most significant learning has been the power of the collective spaces that build reconnection, relationship, and agency from which a deeper awareness of the drivers of social issues and confidence to act can emerge. Our starting point was that, if we could hold spaces that allow practitioners to observe themselves and their relationships to the ecosystems they work within, we could nurture forms of collective awareness that reorient how we address development challenges, from poverty and inequality to climate change and biodiversity loss. 

This became our exploration in designing spaces for a very different form of systems leadership and collective action. From this recognition, in 2021 we co-designed an Action Learning lab for Systems Transformation with seven UN entities.  Over 400 practitioners across the globe participated in this four-month applied learning journey, involving a mix of guided, self-directed, and peer-led learning, action, and reflection. 

 Three points of reflection on our experience to date: 

  • The significance of creating conditions: The work of developing inner capabilities, space for reflection and relationships out of which collective intelligence can be harnessed is key to realizing the 2030 Agenda.  
  • The power of holding space for relationships and experimentation: Innovation, especially within complex systems and uncertainty, doesn’t come simply from more tools, frameworks, and knowledge. It is often in spaces where change agents can ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ that they discover the sense of safety and belonging that fuels new opportunities and confidence for collective action. 
  • The need to look for ingredients of awareness-based systems transformation holistically: There is no single theory or best practice when it comes to shaping the supportive conditions and ecosystems for transformation. Part of the work is learning how to better recognize possibilities and identify ingredients for systems work across diverse contexts: ensuring that tools and frameworks aimed at structural or institutional change, such as those advanced by UNDP’s Strategic Innovation Unit to embrace complexity and embed adaptation into the ways we manage programmes, are integrated with initiatives that target the inner and relational drivers of change.  


The global dialogues and Action Learning Lab provided ways to collectively see challenges and the space needed for practitioners to translate ideas into practice. While the practitioners already held the seeds of change, the collective practice space helped them better connect to the inner and outer resources needed for their seeds to bear fruit. This included cultivating grounded courage to act amidst uncertainty and drawing on intuition and the capacity to listen and learn from many parts of a system as guides for action. From this, they developed initial ideas for prototypes informed by awareness-based practices to advance progress on the 2030 Agenda.

Some of the challenge areas practitioners explored:

  • reimagining institutional approaches to building teams and advancing culture.
  • infusing greater mindfulness and integrated knowledge practices into strategic planning.
  • strengthening the efficacy of co-creation approaches within projects addressing climate, biodiversity, and food systems.
  • embedding more adaptive, pluralistic, and power-aware approaches into governance programming and capacity development support to national institutions.

Our actions are a function of our interior condition, reflected in the insight that ‘we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. Photo: UNDP Mongolia/Nicolas Petit

Some initial outcomes included reinvigorated stakeholder relationships, expanded reach of voices and perspectives brought into projects, reframed understandings of systems dynamics and levers for change on issues, and greater application of deep listening and introspection techniques within collective decision-making processes. 

More than the immediate outcomes, however, the Lab also helped to create conditions for collective ways of seeing and understanding complex challenges, as the foundation for meaningful action. It also revealed pathways for further learning and experimentation by surfacing tension points in efforts to integrate awareness-based development approaches into current structures and systems. Parts 2 and 3 of this series share lessons learned on these fronts.   

 We can only imagine and co-create new development futures if we are willing to look at the social systems, ways of seeing, and ways of relating with one another that led to the destruction we see in our present.  We have long treated this inner work as belonging to the individual, yet, as the blind spots in our development efforts attest, there is an important role for us as development actors and institutions to create the infrastructure by which inner transformation might be channeled into societal transformation.  Our greatest resource for change is our relationships: to ourselves, to each other, and to the planet.


With appreciation to UN colleagues for their inspiration and support in this process: Sophia Robele, Giulio Quaggiotto, Aarathi Krishnan, Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, Laurie Newell; and to our partners at Presencing Institute: Otto Scharmer, Antoinette Klatzky, Dorian Baroni, and Kelvy Bird, among many other collaborators.   

I would also like to acknowledge the invaluable collaboration of our UN partners in the Action Learning Lab for Systems Transformation – UN Women, UNHCR, FAO, UNCDF, UNV, UNEP, and UN DPPA-DPO – with whom we look forward to continuing this learning journey.