Guest Articles

June 9

Lennart Woltering / María Boa-Alvarado / Marcos Sanjuán

Below the Tip of the Iceberg: Why Systems Change is the Key to Scaling Innovations and Solving Development Challenges

Two years ago, we wrote a NextBillion article on why so many promising innovations are so hard to scale to a level where they have a significant impact on the Sustainable Development Goals. We called for a massive break with the linear and technology-driven way of providing solutions for global problems. We proposed some strategies to develop a more systemic and problem-driven approach to scaling successful initiatives, but we also recognized that the widespread application of such approaches was an exception rather than a rule.

Since then, we have observed a surge in the use of words like “systems thinking” and “transformation” in the development sector. For example, in our line of work at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), we speak less of “agriculture” and more of “agri-food systems,” in which production and consumption are connected and limited to our planetary boundaries. In exploring the implications of this new way of thinking, we’ve asked ourselves what “agri-food system change” really involves, and what that means for scaling innovations in a systems context.

To help guide this work, we applied an emblematic system thinking tool, the iceberg model, to the case of scaling land restoration practices in Central America. These are practices that curb erosion and improve soil structure and fertility to allow increased farm productivity and improve water and food security. The iceberg model helped us to recognize the systemic root causes of land degradation, and to identify what it takes to restore lands at a large scale. Below, we’ll explore this model and discuss how it has impacted our efforts to support land restoration and improve agri-food systems.


Looking Below the Tip of the Iceberg

A key principle in systems thinking, as applied to the development sector, is that the “events” that we perceive as development challenges are actually the result of underlying systemic causes. Following the iceberg model’s analogy, these events are the tip of an iceberg: If we cut it off by addressing only those issues, the iceberg’s buoyancy will take over and a “tip” emerges again, as the same problem reappears. Just as the 90% of an iceberg that remains submerged is responsible for the 10% we see above water, there are deeper systems-level issues that form the root causes behind the most persistent development challenges.


Image courtesy of CIMMYT.


The systems thinking “iceberg” has four layers:

  • The visible part sticking out of the water represents the events we see happening, which may be positive or negative.
  • Below that are the patterns of events happening over time.
  • Below that are the systemic structures, such as rules, institutions and practices, that influence the patterns of events.
  • And finally, the lowest layer consists of the mental models, including mindsets, values and assumptions, that shape the system and keep its structures in place.

How does this model help us understand the root causes of the problems we see around us?


The Land Degradation “Iceberg” in Central America

For example, if we traveled to a random location in rural Central America, we would likely end up on degraded farmland, where we would see farmers struggling to make ends meet. Land degradation is considered an event in this first layer, the tip of the iceberg.

But this is not happening just on one farm: Many farms in the region have been suffering from land degradation for a long time, and the global trend is actually rising. We are now in the second layer of the iceberg, as we recognize that the degradation we found is happening on many farms and has been going on over time: It is a pattern.

The third layer of the iceberg contains the structures that hold these patterns in place. The patterns of land degradation are influenced by insecure land tenure (as farmers without secure legal rights to land are less likely to make long-term investments in preserving it), along with the widespread use of inappropriate farming practices, such as the burning and deforestation of hillsides to clear land for agriculture. Consistent underinvestment in agricultural research, education and extension services hampers the flow of knowledge and the spread of better land-use practices. Furthermore, national policies are designed to attract local and foreign investment by handing over control over natural resources (like soil, water, biodiversity, forests, etc.) without any conditions on their sustainable use and management.

If we go to the deepest, fourth layer, we’ll find the mental models which make those structural issues seem normal. In Central America in general, for example, we often find a deep social, economic and political paradigm of exploitation — a strong culture of consumption and economic inequality based on exploiting natural resources and people to accumulate wealth and power.

When we look at land degradation at all these levels, it starts to make sense that it’s so widespread throughout the region. It is a system that holds itself in place — a problem that keeps perpetuating itself.


Changing Mindsets to Optimize Agri-Food Systems

So, what does this model have to do with scaling innovations in agri-food systems? First, it clarifies why innovations that help farmers restore their lands without addressing the deeper causes of degradation are struggling to have a scalable and sustainable impact, beyond the geographic and time boundaries of specific projects. Second, according to the iceberg model, the deeper you go, the more transformational change is possible, in which we go from a system that perpetuates a problem (land degradation) to one that perpetuates a solution (land restoration). It’s important to analyze the current system from the top down, to identify possible new mental models, structures, patterns and events that could be consolidated into a future, healthier system.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS), one of the biggest non-governmental organizations in the world, is pursuing such an emerging system for land restoration. Its long-term projects with staff based in rural areas have given it a deep understanding of the events, patterns, structures and mental models that make land degradation the norm in many regions. And the words of the Pope have helped to shift the paradigms of farmers and other stakeholders around the importance of combating both environmental degradation and its root causes “related to human and social degradation.” By linking the deterioration of the natural environment to that of human society, the Pope’s words directly addressed the paradigm of exploitation, helping inspire farmers and others to take better care of our planet and societies.

To advance this systems-change approach in Central America, CRS has conducted capacity-building and communication campaigns about the relationship between land, water and food, raising awareness and a desire for change among policymakers and the general public. Within this new context, CRS has taken the opportunity to promote land preservation instruments such as municipal plans for restorative agriculture. It has also created new options for governance and collaboration, like the Water and Agriculture Funds — a local stakeholder platform model that brings together municipalities, water operators, farmers, civil society organizations and others around a long-term vision to improve water and food security for all. A number of similar funds have also gotten traction in El Salvador, mainly focused on the promotion of land restoration practices. These funds have become a vehicle to leverage both local and external financial resources.

As a result, some municipalities are investing for the first time in training farmers, creating technical agriculture units or distributing fertilizers according to soil requirements. Land restoration practices are gradually turning into a pattern. At the tip of this more positive iceberg, new events are emerging in the form of better crop yields, water security, and more healthy and sustainable rural landscapes for farmers and their communities, where local opportunities may keep young people from migrating.


The Titanic Impact of Sustainable Systems

If we aim for sustainable systems, we must embrace complexity — not ignore it. If we analyze the root causes of problematic events we observe, we can understand what it takes for a better system to emerge. The example from Central America shows that transformational systems change is possible if the deepest levels of persistent development challenges are addressed. However, this requires deep local understanding, commitment and trust, which is very hard to replicate and scale to other areas.

Systems change is not a linear process — it requires simultaneous action at all levels to create interactions between the different layers of a problem or a solution. For instance, examples of land restoration impacting farming families positively will influence people’s mental models about land restoration, boosting local demand for restoration initiatives. Meanwhile, the right policies and incentive structures will enable farmers and their communities to make the transition to sustainable farming and land restoration practices.

It is time to take these mental models and structural changes seriously. We must develop capacities for collaborating on, financing and learning about systems change — and connect the networks that can trigger it responsibly, rather than simply scaling individual technologies or practices. It is time to dare to dive below the tip of the iceberg.


Editor’s Note: This article was voted by readers as one of NextBillion’s Most Influential Articles of 2021.


María Boa-Alvarado is the scaling coordinator for CIMMYT’s sustainable intensification program, Lennart Woltering is an expert in scaling innovations at One CGIAR, and Marcos Sanjuán is the coordinator of Restorative Agriculture in Critical Ecosystems (RAICES) in the Eastern part of El Salvador.


Photo courtesy of Annie Spratt.




Agriculture, Environment, Technology
innovation, scale, systems change