There are two ways to achieve systemic change; top-down or bottom-up. Both methods have their pros and cons, meeting their goals through different means. In this article, we’ll dive into the differences between the two and look at how they can be combined. 

Changing Systems 

Over time, societal systems change in response to shifting attitudes, developing technologies,  and new environments. If we don’t adapt to those changes, our lives will undoubtedly become difficult. But while it’s important to adapt to a changing world, how we adapt is just as important. Systemic change driven by people in leadership positions is called top-down change, while bottom-up change is driven by the masses and popular demand

Top-Down 

Top-down change is when new systems are created by primary policymakers. The decisions are usually made by the executive class of the organizations in question. They result in fast and immediate changes but can fail if the effects on those at the bottom aren’t taken into account. Top-down methods also necessitate a strong line of communication through all levels of the organization and a solid plan for achieving their goals. 

A good example of top-down change is when countries and corporations take measures to reduce their environmental impact. They may cap emissions at certain levels, implement taxes on carbon-heavy industries, or outright ban harmful products.  A few examples are the bans on plastic bags in places like Seattle and San Francisco, or the strict vehicle emission standards in California. These regulations affect the daily lives of people like you and me, even though they were imposed on us by large institutions.

Pros 

  • Quick, almost immediate policy changes 
  • Great for crisis situations where fast action is necessary
  • Industry and government leaders often have a full view of the situation

Cons

  • Can fail without adequate communication
  • Specific needs and opinions of those most affected aren’t addressed
  • Can be short-lived if policies aren’t followed through with participation from the bottom

Bottom-Up

Bottom-up change is decided by the actions of everyday people who make up the smallest parts of the system. Everyone who is directly affected by the changes will have input as long as they’re willing actors. In this sense, bottom-up change is more democratic. The process results in an organic, lasting cultural impact which creates fundamental lifestyle changes that affect the system. With that said, bottom-up methods take a long time to cultivate, and a lack of momentum can kill a movement before it gets off the ground.

Good examples of bottom-up change are citizen-led initiatives to combat climate change. Urban gardening, ethical consumption, and protests are common methods used by environmentalists to effect change from the bottom. A great example is the urban farming movement in Havana, Cuba. The combination of the Soviet collapse, a totalitarian government, and the embargo caused a food shortage in the city. Locals responded by creating a network of urban farms that now supply a majority of the city’s supply of fresh produce. Other cities have similar urban farming movements, including Paris, Seattle, and New York City. 

Pros

  • More democratic process
  • Results in organic, long-lasting change
  • Changes the way large institutions operate

Cons

  • Can fail with lack of direction
  • Requires constant momentum
  • Takes a long time to see results

Incorporating Both Methods

Top-down and bottom-up methodologies can be used in tandem. A working coalition of policymakers, organizations, and average citizens is essential to creating real, long-lasting change. Seeing top-down bottom-up change in action would consist of a bottom that acts towards a goal, with a top that develops policies to incentivize that goal. The actions of the bottom would affect the decisions of the top, and vice versa. This helps bring out the strengths of both methods.

A great example of the two methods working together perfectly can be seen at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has made strides in sustainability over the past few years. The university has a student body well-versed in sustainable practices, with an administration that wishes to make the campus a greener place. This has led to several policies and programs that have made UW Madison more sustainable. Many of these programs are student-led and supported by the administration. 

The best example of this is the university’s compost program. The UW Madison Office of Sustainability funds student-led projects that aim to lower the school’s carbon footprint, called the Green Fund Program. At one Green Fund meeting, several students expressed interest in the idea of a school-wide composting program. The project started out with just 30 compost bins placed around campus, managed by a small team of “Compost Stewards.” The project grew, and the school struck a deal with a local biogas digester plant, which extracts biogas from the compost for electricity. To combat contamination of the waste stream, the Office of Sustainability also hosts information sessions in cafeterias so students know what items can and can’t be composted. 

The UW Madison compost program is an excellent case of top-down bottom-up change. The top, or the Office of Sustainability, provided funding for a student-led initiative. The bottom, or the students, responded by implementing a campus compost program. The top again responded by striking a deal with a local waste plant and offering educational services to students and faculty. This resulted in a positive feedback loop which drastically changed the waste management system on campus.

Key Takeaways

Both top-down and bottom-up change can both create lasting change in societal systems. While they both have their strengths and weaknesses, the best results are achieved when they are implemented together

  • Top-down change is policy-driven. It excels in making fast, sweeping changes, but fails without adequate participation from the bottom.
  • Bottom-up change comes from the actions of the people. It fosters long-lasting, organic movements, but fails if there isn’t a clear direction or strong momentum.
  • A strong and responsive leadership that supports a goal-oriented and active movement is the best way to combine top-down and bottom-up methods. 
  • The goal is a positive feedback loop where the top and bottom work in tandem to create tangible policies and stimulate popular actions. 

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