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Systems of Provision

The Systems of Provision (SoP) approach, devised by Ben Fine in the 1990s, is a way of understanding the drivers of consumption. This does not just refer to household spending or shopping habits, but includes consumption of goods and services with a social element such as housing, education and healthcare. The approach also covers those excluded from such consumption, such as the homeless. 

The SoP approach is based on the premise that consumption is linked to production in a vertically integrated process, rather than the result of the expression of individual preferences (as mainstream economics might suggest). The drivers of consumption are also considered to be highly case- and context-specific, and will depend on what is being consumed, where and when. For example, what drives consumption of peanut butter will be different from education, and different across locations, and different today compared with 100 years ago.  

The approach has evolved over the past 30 years into five core elements which overlap and intersect in shaping consumption outcomes: 

Agents – The SoP is determined by the participants in the provisioning system. Agents will include consumers and producers (and sub-groups within these), and others such as the state or civil society organisations.  

Structures – The SoP itself will have its own vertical structure. This may be formal or informal, but it will: be specific to the SoP; evolve over time; and intersect with social structures. 

Processes – The SoP will be shaped by the organisational process of the SoP itself (how things are done in producing and consuming) as well as deeper systemic processes such as privatisation or commodification.  

Relations – Between agents in the SoP, relations are likely to be contested, and unpicking the underlying power dynamics is important for understanding outcomes. The SoP also exists within wider relations (such as class, gender and race) and structures. 

Material cultures – Goods and services are imbued (often subtly or unnoticed) with cultural significance. The same item will have different associations depending on the context. Each of the agents in the SoP will have their own cultures associated with their engagement in the system, and these may be in conflict. The SoP approach seeks not just to identify these meanings but also to consider their origins because those that shape cultures wield considerable power. 

The SoP approach has been applied across a number of sectors and locations, from the provision of water in the UK to the provision of electricity in Zambia. The approach draws attention to the extensive and complex channels which underpin specific social, environmental and economic outcomes. It shines a light on the largely unacknowledged configurations of economic, political and cultural powers that underpin social outcomes, and the ways these are normalised. As a result, the approach can be helpful in identifying ‘leverage points’ for interventions and pressure for change.