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  • 25th Sep 2023

System 2: A human-centred and data-driven approach to tackling disadvantage

Australia is sometimes referred to as the ‘lucky country’, but this masks the deep and persistent disadvantage faced by many families and communities across the country. More than 1.1 million young Australians are living in poverty. This number is increasing as the cost of living crisis bites even harder, and the impacts of COVID-19 on young people’s learning, mental health and employment are still emerging.    

Despite significant investments across a range of domains and support services, most attempts to disrupt cycles of disadvantage have fallen flat. However, there are reasons to be hopeful. We now better understand what drives disadvantage and have access to richer data than ever before. As a result, we’re more able to identify bright spots and spread what works. There is also growing momentum behind major policy reforms in early childhood intervention, mental health and wellbeing, place-based initiative, education and employment.

We’re excited to have set up a new applied research Not for Profit, System 2, with a launch mission focused on helping young Australians in disadvantage to thrive. System 2’s aim is to design, test and scale solutions to society’s biggest challenges, by drawing on behavioural science, co-design, data and experimentation. 

This vision and toolkit is aligned with our sister organisations – The Behavioural Insights Team and Nesta. This connection enables System 2 to access a deep pool of international expertise and the latest evidence on what does and does not work (for example, through Nesta’s A Fairer Start mission and BIT’s work in education and skills, employment, justice, health and wellbeing). System 2 will combine this global reach and track record, with a strong focus on local partnerships and elevating the voices of young people and families. In terms of mindsets and methods, System 2 will think like a system, act like an entrepreneur, and combine deep listening with robust testing.   

The name pays homage to the seminal work of Nobel Prize Winner Prof Daniel Kahneman. His book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ popularised the idea of ‘System 2’ as the deliberate, reflective part of the brain. System 2 will focus on tackling complex social problems through deep, reflective work that seeks to change behaviours at an individual, environmental and systemic level. 

Our launch team: John, Prathesa and Robyn

We are delighted to introduce our brilliant founding team, who together provide an exciting combination of skills and expertise, international and local experience:

  • John Craven, Executive Officer: Before joining System 2, John was Director of the Social Mobility Commission, an independent statutory body sponsored by the U.K. Cabinet Office, where he led a team that carried out research that tracked and promoted social mobility. From 2016-2022, John was CEO of upReach, a social mobility charity that supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds to secure professional jobs. During that time, the charity grew tenfold, winning the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for Promoting Opportunity in 2022 and two national Charity of the Year awards in 2019 and 2022. Previously, John worked in investment banking for 11 years before retraining as a teacher.


  • Prathesa Selvaraj, Program Officer: Prathesa has experience of driving and measuring impact in the youth sector in Australia.  Until recently, she worked as the Digital Insights and Monitoring and Evaluation Lead at Blacktown Youth Services in Western Sydney, which supports young people with complex needs. Prathesa has a Masters in Public Health, and her passion lies in advocacy, social justice and powerful storytelling. In particular, she is focused on helping us to elevate the voice of young people and families in service design and delivery.


  • Robyn Mildon, Research Committee Chair : Robyn is a world-leading ‘pracademic’ in the field of implementation science, evidence synthesis and knowledge translation, with a particular focus on human services, education and health systems. She is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Evidence and Implementation, an Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University, a Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore, and a Board Member of the Benevolent Society. Robyn will Chair an Advisory Committee of researchers from across Australia to ensure that System 2 is drawing on the latest evidence and methods, whilst sharing our work and findings as we go.  


Reimagining the employment system

System 2’s inaugural program of work is focused on reimagining the employment system for young people who are not in education, employment and training, and families where no-one in the household has a job. Funded by the Paul Ramsay Foundation, it seeks to generate both bold new ideas and pragmatic, evidence-based solutions to support young people and families, in order to create a more equitable employment services system. We know that the current system is failing those with more complex needs, and the Paul Ramsay Foundation is funding System 2 alongside a wider portfolio of investments to help create a system where everyone is given the opportunity and support that they need to access secure and meaningful employment.

We have been fortunate to be partnering with YLab to elevate the voice of people with lived experience throughout the process. For example, we have worked closely with three brilliant young people, who have direct experience of the unemployment system, and who have provided invaluable input on everything from interview questions to co-producing user journey maps.

To map the system, we conducted a rapid evidence review, followed by fieldwork at employment services, social enterprises and training organisations in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. We interviewed policy, service delivery and academic experts, as well as young people and parents with lived experience to understand the range of perspectives of those involved in the system. 

We’re now in the exciting (and messy) stage of co-designing solutions with stakeholders and people with lived experience. Last month, we ran a series of workshops with young people and parents, service providers, community organisations, social enterprises, employers and advocacy groups to identify potential solutions, which we are now refining and iterating with partners. 

We’re looking forward to publishing the outcomes of this work early in the new year, and in the meantime, we are feeding into the thinking and reform processes that are currently in train (such as the Employment White Paper and Select Committee on Workforce Australia Employment Services). We’re encouraged by the direction of this work, which suggests a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take a more relational, evidence and place-based approach to employment services.  

The System 2 website will be launched in December 2023, which will set out more information on our strategy and approach. If you would like to find out more about System 2 in the meantime, please reach out to John via: