System Change: What’s the Art of the Possible?

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Nicole McKeating-Jones
Added to All on 27 Aug 2019
“Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear.” (Rosamund Sander)

The Art of Possibility. A brilliant book that opens the mind, the heart and gives hope. I re-read it recently. Imagine if we could change our frame or point of view. New possibilities would appear and new possibilities would emerge.

How can we keep opening up and changing the conversation, to keep unlocking the potential to change the world? That’s what I’ve been pondering since my TEDx talk in Oldham a few weeks back.

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In the talk, I explained how significant change in population-wide activity levels won’t come just from individuals or groups of people changing their behaviour and lifestyles. Population-wide change requires system change which enables individual behaviour change.

“Moving has been designed out of life. It needs to be designed back in. And that will take more than a few of us changing our lifestyles and making different choices.

Imagine that together we could improve the health and happiness of a whole town.. the whole of Greater Manchester…the nation… the world!

There are thousands of influences on our daily activity levels. You’ll recognise some of them on here.

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We need to redesign places, policy, systems, practice and change culture. We need to enable moving, to get a whole population active. And I mean a whole population. Accessible and inclusive design and change for all.” (TEDx Oldham, July 2019).

But before we can change language, the public narrative, systems, rules, regulations, policies, environments and cultures, we need to open our eyes to the ways that these things currently design moving out of life. We need to change our frame and our point of view, as Rosamund explains in The Art of Possibility.

Over the years, in my work and leadership, in my own life, as a parent, I have changed my frame. I have come to realise that playing sport and doing PE isn’t enough for my children to live a healthy, active life. Going for a run every day isn’t enough for me to live a healthy life if I spend the other 23 hours a day sedentary!

Once I’d opened my eyes, all of the ways that this is happening become hard to ignore… which is why I have to be a bit careful at home, and down the pub, lest I become even more of a bore than I already am perceived to be. However, given that people can choose to read or ignore my blogs, I’m hoping it’s safe to give free rein to my wonderings on here. I also want to create a safe space for others to do the same without fear of ridicule for ideas which are perceived to be (currently) beyond our control.

I would like to crowdsource a collection of ideas. What could we change to enable active lives, if everything and anything were possible? If we could remove all our assumptions about the things that are in the way.

Anything goes, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in a position to influence it (yet) or not. I’ve come up with a list of categories, and a few examples to get us started. You can add to the categories and to the ideas. There are also some ideas on our Active Hospitals and Active Practices blogs, which I won’t duplicate here.

Feel free to comment on the blog, the tweet, or DM me if you’d rather stay anonymous.

I will write them as a vision of what could be, rather than a list of things that are wrong with the status quo. The art of the possible.

It could be things you know have been done elsewhere, ideas with an evidence base and ideas which would need to be tested. Intuition is welcome, as are anecdotal examples which could have wider application are allowed.

We’ve got a session coming up with Health Innovation Manchester in a week’s time, and we are always looking to identify the system changes that will enable our GM Moving ambition.

I’ll keep adding to this blog, as the ideas come in, and throw any relevant ideas into the mix there too. Inclusion of an idea in here doesn’t mean to say that I personally agree with it, and it doesn’t mean to say that it will be possible. I’m just opening up the conversation to see where it takes us.

Have fun, and dare to dream.

International Guidance, Law and Policy

  • International measures of success driven by wellbeing and environmental outcomes aswell as economic success.

National Guidance, Law and Policy

  • An education system that values and enables wellbeing – active lives for all children.
  • England strategy to include all ages from 0 upwards
  • Right to roam for open water: rivers, lakes and reservoirs like in Scotland
  • Free public transport
  • Tax on car use/fuel
  • Dept for Work and Pensions: reward activity engagement, giving clear message that sanctions are not to be feared for steps towards an active life
  • Switch the hierarchy of HMRC tax mileage allowance to reward active travel. Include those that walk or at the very least those who use public transport into this scheme.

Measure what matters

  • National commitment to wellbeing as the measure of success
  • GM commitment to wellbeing as the measure of success
  • QOF
  • GP’s and other clinicians measured on social prescribing rates
  • Ofsted measure wellbeing- physical and mental, rather than simply attainment

GM/Local Guidance and Policy

  • Cars to be included in Clean Air Zone
  • Workplace Parking Levy in place in town and city centres
  • Traffic exclusion zones around schools – 1 mile radius
  • Free bus travel for under 30’s.
  • Planning for less car use when designing roads
  • Changing financial incentives for car use (eg tax free workplaces parking subsidy)
  • Protect our green spaces.
  • Public transport needs to be a lot cheaper and easy to access. Integrated ticketing across trains, buses and different companies.
  • Cheap/free public transport for those on low incomes.

Rules, Regulations and Codes

  • Enable activity on small green spaces in our communities
  • “Please play here” signs
  • “Ball games allowed” signs
  • “Enjoy a swim here” signs around open water
  • Make ‘Play Streets’ easy

Times and Schedules

  • Change in time- lighter evenings throughout the year.
  • Working hours and times would enable active lives (flexible)
  • Create time to be active
  • 4 day week
  • Flexible working hours
  • Different shift patterns for shift workers that enable activity every day
  • Longer school day with dedicated after school activity for all children- inclusive activity

Cultural norms

  • Driving is seen as the least desirable/aspirational transport mode
  • Address attitudes to risk- kids playing out, swimming in open water- with campaigns, messaging,
  • Change the public narrative to one where moving is normal part of daily life
  • Free, unstructured play prioritised
  • Normalise, encourage and celebrate children (and adults) playing out
  • Make the easiest, cheapest option for short journeys (1-2 miles) sustainable, and active

Dress codes

  • Active Soles and casual dress codes in all workplaces
  • Focus on the more traditional sectors, to normalise active clothing e.g. law
  • Active Soles and active school uniforms in all schools


  • Normalise activity through conversations- online and on social media aswell as in person
  • Change of language from sport, to physical activity, to moving more.. every day.
  • Articulate and share more enabling language and public narrative. Ask others to adopt it and use it.

Common Practice

  • Walking meetings, lunchtime walks in workplaces, step challenges in workplaces.

Systems, procedures and processes.

  • Conversations about activity levels built into all assessments of health and care needs so that it becomes standard.
  • Conversations, forms and procedures in all services to enable moving: care assessment, back to work support, early years assessments etc.
  • Routine procedure to have enabling conversations about moving more in clinical settings… systematised.


  • Nudges to take the stairs instead of the lift or escalator.

Physical environments

  • Pedestrians genuinely take priority on all rights of way
  • Pedestrianised areas around schools, town centres and parks
  • Public footways- clean, nice surfaces, invite you to walk, easy for pushchairs and wheelchairs.
  • Quality rights of way
  • Segregated/protected walking and cycling infrastructure in all communities (kerbed off)
  • Park and Ride/Walk/Cycle schemes in all towns – cheap parking outside, then walking routes, cycle hire, signposted routes into town/city centres
  • On street bike storage (bike hangars)
  • Protect and enhance Blue (rivers, canals, lakes etc) and green spaces and corridors in all communities
  • Remove no ball games signs and paint goal posts, cricket stumps, hop scotch etc on pavements and walls.
  • Active art/graffiti in public spaces – hopscotch, cricket wickets, tennis nets etc
  • Schools to have play equipment, outdoor play space, climbing equipment
  • Car free town centres
  • Car free neighbourhoods
  • Design places for kids to play and older adults to play too!
  • Active design in all new developments
  • 24/7 access to social activity and physical activity to socially interactive physical activity – eg Asda allow car park for taxi drivers to play cricket at night.


  • Remove organisational silos so that we are connecting up our investments into enabling ‘moving’ rather than investing in products and programmes.
  • Take a less risk averse approach to investment, less traditional.
  • Longer term investment for sustainable change, rather than short term funding.
  • Flexible approaches to community investment to suit need rather than tick boxes


Active Schools

  • Active lessons from maths to sciences. Standing desks
  • Bike, scooter, skateboard libraries
  • Schools to have holistic ‘wellbeing’ teachers to include mental wellbeing, nutrition etc. Could be extension of PE department role?
  • Could get local partnerships with clubs to offer expertise in certain sports and activities.
  • Normalise walking buses
  • Cycle training for all children
  • Reception children have constant access to outdoor playspaces for learning.
  • Children allowed to stand up to learn in the classroom/standing desks
  • Active lessons – all subjects
  • Daily Mile type activity for all children
  • Music in the playground to energise and motivate children to move and dance
  • Forest school to connect children with nature and be more active.
  • Good quality, healthy school food.
  • Lunchtime play at school long enough to eat, and be active- for staff too.
  • Measure what matters- less pressure on academic results – more holistic measures of success.
  • No need for PE kit in younger years. Some children can’t afford it, and in early years the time it takes to get changed eats into the active time.
  • Extend the school day for 30 mins for all children to have active extra curricular activity.
  • Scooter and bike parks at schools
  • Active art/graffiti in playgrounds- hopscotch, cricket wickets, tennis nets etc

System Leaders: engagement of diverse audiences in movement building

  • Systematically consider how to engage people/orgs not currently engaged in the network
  • Systematically consider how to engage people/orgs not likely to apply for investment
  • Bring a friend- invite people to bring an ‘unlikely suspect’ to engagement events/conferences etc
  • Different guest speakers – bring different perspectives

Physical activity/sport sector

  • Remember that people in communities see the world more broadly than specific sport/physical activity/club, so we develop a system that supports each other and sees all opportunities as equal. Be prepared to promote other activities if the one that the organisation specialises in doesn’t work for the person.
  • Run free/subsidised activities in communities, skill sharing on our protected green spaces

Now that we are identifying some system change possibilities. I’d also like to gather stories of how system change has already been achieved, the impact it has had, what it has taken, and what has got in the way on the journey (just to keep it real!).

Please let me know your stories of success. We’ll all have some!

If this blog is useful to you, your colleagues or other leaders, please feel free to share it, use the content of it, or get in touch if you need it in different formats eg slides, reports etc.

Thanks for your contributions.

There are more blogs on system change, movement building and associated topics here: