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From theory of change to systems change: insights from working with our measurement partner

25 August 2020

This post was originally posted on The Incubation Network’s blog. It is reposted here with their permission.

Photo via The Incubation Network

Waste management is a universal issue that not only affects the environment but also human health and livelihoods. It also disproportionately affects the world’s poor. Informal waste workers form the backbone of waste management and recycling systems in low-income countries worldwide, where over 90% of the world’s waste is dumped or burned (World Bank). Despite the essential role they play in powering waste management and recycling systems, these workers often do not have access to any personal protective equipment, sanitation facilities, or even basic healthcare to protect them from the serious risks of working in waste dumps, day in and day out.1

Stemming the flow of plastic waste into the environment is an urgent problem that requires systems change — fixing the systems behind waste management and recycling, and building more circular economies. Doing so will not only improve the health of the oceans, but will also make people healthier, create better working conditions, and reduce greenhouse gas and toxic emissions.

Over the last few months, The Incubation Network has been growing its strategy for building improved and inclusive2 waste management and recycling systems across South and Southeast Asia. TIN aims to build a network and support partnerships between civil society and private sector actors across the region to build solutions to tackle plastic waste and support the informal waste sector. This will involve continually assessing needs in local waste management and innovation ecosystems and facilitating support for the most promising solutions.

A key tool that enabled TIN to map out its approach for systems change in recent months was a Theory of Change. This post details the process that TIN undertook to develop an overarching Theory of Change model for its programs, and shares some key insights from using this tool for mapping systems change. These insights echo some of the “rules of thumb” developed in NPC’s Guide on How to Use Theory of Change for Systems Change.

Often used by organizations to build a strong foundation for impact measurement, a Theory of Change is a critical tool for designing approaches to systems change for two key reasons:

  1. A Theory of Change shows the logical connections between what your business or organization does and your intended impact. It is a systematic visual model and narrative about how, why, and under what conditions a business or program’s activities are expected to bring about intended changes in outcomes.
  2. A Theory of Change model allows you to map out the various actors and interrelationships within a given system, akin to a systems map. In fact, the Theory of Change approach was originally developed to model and evaluate complex change initiatives, particularly related to systems change work (NPC).

A Theory of Change can be used by any organization, business or initiative. It can be valuable for a range of design and measurement needs — from mapping out small-scale service delivery models to designing an overall approach to systems change as described in this post.

TIN developed its Theory of Change in collaboration with IDinsight, a global advisory, data analytics, and research organization that helps development leaders maximize their social impact. Over the last few months, IDinsight worked with the TIN team and its core partners to map out TIN’s vision for change. This process had three key steps:

Step 1

IDinsight first hosted a series of workshops with the TIN team intended to get a high-level understanding of TIN’s vision across its programs, as well as to better grasp specific programs. During these sessions, TIN and IDinsight discussed program goals and pathways toward achieving these — such as increasing informal waste workers’ access to dignified work and the role of waste management facilities in creating conditions for dignified work. Increasing access to dignified work would mean that workers would be able to access protective equipment, basic health care facilities, forms of social protection, and a decent wage.

Step 2

TIN and IDinsight then systematically identified the key assumptions underlying TIN’s Theory of Change. Assumptions refer to the beliefs (validated or otherwise) one has about the conditions within a system that may affect the achievement of outcomes. In the context of the Theory of Change, assumptions are the conditions that need to hold in order for program activities to actually lead to the desired change. For example, in order for waste management ventures to create dignified jobs for informal waste workers, particularly for women, these businesses need to receive adequate mentorship and support services that help them achieve this objective.

Step 3

Using insights from this process, TIN and IDinsight produced a detailed visual model of TIN’s Theory of Change which maps out TIN’s approach to building improved waste management systems. The Theory of Change model visualizes how TIN will continually assess gaps within waste management and innovation ecosystems, identify which actors and projects to support, and facilitate effective support to them. For example, TIN recently launched its Build Back Better program sponsored by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in partnership with Spring &, in order to help Entrepreneur Support Organisations (ESOs) such as accelerators and incubators adapt to challenges in the current context through virtual and resilience programming.

TIN and IDinsight gleaned two key insights from the process of using Theory of Change as a tool for mapping systems change:

1. Systems thinking was critical to formulating TIN’s Theory of Change. In this context, ‘systems thinking’ refers to how a given idea fits into the system it’s trying to change, and how it influences and is influenced by parts of that system. In particular, TIN had to consider the complexities within the largely informal waste management and recycling systems in South and Southeast Asia, and the ways in which TIN is best-positioned to exert influence. Rather than showing how siloed programs will tackle various components of waste management and recycling systems, TIN’s Theory of Change categorizes TIN’s activities into five functions (see diagram below) which work collaboratively, and which share learnings in order to:

  1. Identify relevant ESOs, such as incubators and accelerators, and other ventures to join The Incubation Network (Network Membership),
  2. Identify the most promising projects and actors to support (Project Sourcing and Design),
  3. Build relationships with mentors, experts, and capital providers (Support Facility),
  4. Ensure that needs are identified, and effective and relevant support services are provided (Project Facility), and
  5. Share relevant learnings, tools and best practices across the TIN Network, and use these to inform the selection of projects and actors to support (Knowledge Management).

2. Shifting needs within systems meant that adaptive learning would play a key role in TIN’s Theory of Change. To support this, TIN’s Knowledge Management function (see diagram above) will regularly collate insights from various sources, including TIN-supported projects and actors, to inform programmatic strategy over time. For example, to support the creation of dignified jobs for informal waste workers, the Knowledge Management function will work with research partners in target sites to generate insights into how waste management facilities can better support the needs of informal waste workers.

While developing a Theory of Change allowed TIN to map out how it will aim to improve waste management and recycling systems, many learnings are still down the road. TIN’s Theory of Change model will, therefore, be updated regularly to reflect future program lessons and continually inform TIN’s approach to systems change.

To learn more about using a Theory of Change for mapping out your business model, initiatives, and programs, particularly for measurement and evaluation, visit To read more on how you can get involved, be a part of The Incubation Network, and support TIN’s programs, visit

  1. 1. Eric Binion & Jutta Gutberlet (2012), “The effects of handling solid waste on the wellbeing of informal and organized recyclers: a review of the literature”, International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, 18:1, 43–52.
  2. 2. An inclusive system is one where women and marginalized groups are represented and empowered, and where informal waste workers are actively engaged as systems formalize.