Guest Blog by Barry Carney: MSc (Centre for Alternative Technology, UK); Change Agents UK research associate.
In the age of the Anthropocene, we urgently need new ways of thinking and acting. Economists are predicting that biophysical limits will determine the post-growth world and, as things stand, this will be characterised by mass migration, profound natural hazards, and huge discontinuities for human and natural systems (Crownshaw et al., 2018). Epidemiologists warn how climate change will create a world of unprecedented new diseases.
The current pandemic is sending disruptive shockwaves through all our interconnected global, environmental, socio-economic, and human systems. With this, we have opportunities to alter current systems at the deepest of levels.
The SDG Transformations Forum (TF), established in 2017, is a growing global community of enablers and transformations initiatives. The forum recognises where large-scale challenges – reflected in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – call for urgent interventions. By providing and making widely available the necessary resources, practical knowledge and organisational infrastructure for positive transformations, TF aim to support and amplify the efforts of the world’s change agents on their journeys towards a flourishing future.
Wherever harmful and disruptive events destabilise the status quo, they can prompt the critical reflections which lead to new thinking. TF recognises the importance of these discontinuities for triggering systemic change. In a recent newsletter, TF featured two of their current programmes for encouraging transformational responses to such events. One is the “Global Assessment for the New Economy” (GANE) – lead by Jasper Kenter of York University – which will gather insights on and from economic transformations, synthesise the findings and distribute practical knowledge across an emerging new network. GANE will work alongside a second initiative, “Bounce Beyond,” which provides the necessary infrastructure to mobilise and enable actions (for GANE and other transformations initiatives alike). To do this, TF will apply a growing body of knowledge and action research regarding transformations. The shock of Covid-19 could provide the springboard to ‘bounce beyond’ a mere return to the pre-pandemic business-as-usual.
Too often, theory and practice are deemed to be separate pursuits – perhaps best exemplified by academia’s disciplinary approaches. By using approaches based upon a knowledge of systems thinking and practice, in contrast to conventional methods situated within systems, there are better opportunities to explore and resolve wicked, intractable problems, in a more integrated and emergent way (Scoones et al., 2020). The SDG Transformations Forum adopts a three-step approach of seeing ● connecting ● acting: whereby complex situations are better understood ● valuable actors and interventions are identified and brought together ● so that appropriate, context specific actions can occur.
In this way, they can enable change by i) identifying ineffective mechanisms and behaviours; ii) generating new ways of working; and iii) implementing enabling structures. These can be achieved simultaneously: actions from one serving as enablers and agency for all.
Beyond being a network hub, TF works to engage the transformations community in ‘deliberation–action processes.’ This community intrinsically includes citizens as well as the change-makers informing, devising, and driving the initiatives. The plan is to generate local actions whilst holding global scale challenges in sharp focus. Establishing, maintaining and strengthening multi-directional links will be vital – e.g. between TF as a central hub and resource, the TF community as key communication and agency tributaries, and the various localities and citizenry completing the cycle and providing a collective groundswell of actors.
Transformations “require deep innovation in the ways we organize”. The need for unifying diverse approaches raises difficult questions about the transformational learning spaces for co-creation via participatory methods. Effective governance, facilitation, guidance and education (capacity-building) will be needed to yield appropriate value from such inclusive processes. These factors are elucidated by recent experiments in deliberative democracy in the UK via Citizens Assemblies, established to tackle Climate Emergencies (see e.g. Citizens UK, 2020). Further, there is a need to address the acquisition of key sustainability competencies, which underpin social learning processes, and link knowledge and action. These should include, inter alia:
- Systems thinking competence
- Futures thinking or anticipatory competence
- Values thinking or normative competence
- Strategic thinking or action-orientated competence
- Collaborative or interpersonal competence
Digital competencies are being fast-tracked under the Covid-19 conditions and TF are embracing the complementary power of technology (e.g. developing a Multi-Sided [transformations] Platform). Bounce Beyond will be making use of virtual learning and multilocal collaboration to rapidly up-scale actions.
A primary focus within the TF initiatives is the transformation of mainstream economics. Many alternative, often radical conceptual reworkings of the economy have been emerging in recent decades and the pandemic has now centre-staged their importance. Transformation of current economic models can be hard for citizens to ‘buy into’, in part as understandings of the existing systems offer a fantasy of security.
Powerful narratives will be important: taking root beneath existing biases, nurturing societal understanding of what transformations can look like. It is narrative and communication (between humans and natural systems) which orient us and guide our journey. TF recognise the difficulty in working with heightened levels of complexity and so the story is best created through acting, with both pen- and script-in-hand.
We need to clear away the broken shards of failing systems and identify the best placement for precautionary crash mats. Creating new attractors within our stories can lure our behaviour towards the new, the exciting and the flourishing. In the example of the economy, uncovering its original meaning of ‘household management’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2009) creates space for innovative stories and fresh understandings of creating new and better. How do we, as humans with active influence and responsibility over systems, transform how we manage our home?
Against our best intentions, it was perhaps easier and often more attractive, pre-pandemic, to approach transformations in a genial way (ambling on rather than bouncing beyond). This approach often lacks impact. ‘Light-impact’ can be easily countered by established structures and world views and their efforts subsumed back into existing systems: e.g. the status quo is re-rebranded using greenwashed packaging.
The SDG Transformations Forum was established in response to the urgent existential needs of our time, and it is identifying the crucial pathways used or imagined by transformations experts. The Covid-19 pandemic is having a fundamentally destabilising effect, such that systems can be tipped into a new order, repurposed, or eradicated and replaced with better. ‘Bouncing beyond’ demands swift and decisive action, which will require new breakaway mechanisms and above all, wise leadership. Where will this come from? Our universities are outstanding in the acquisition of knowledge but much less effective in the acquisition of wisdom apt for fundamentally addressing wicked challenges (Tassone et al., 2017). At present, our educational systems do little to consider the ethical and ontological challenges related to sustainability science. There is a deeply fundamental and ongoing need to understand and reconcile the relationships between the human world and the physical universe, and hence help provide critical and imaginative solutions to a growing escalation of global existential problems (Maxwell, 2020).
One of the biggest challenges will continue to be launching en courage into [and thus creating] new paradigms. This is an action call to us all – a time to ask, “who am I in the interconnected universe and which systems do I want to support?” Is it time to explore these questions through agency now? We must be prepared to recognise old systems and navigate past pitfalls along the way. To truly create a movement of movements, we need to keep living the stories of collaboration, seeing our worldview rather than seeing with it, and committing decisively to acting as one flourishing system.
- Citizens UK (2020) Local chapters > Leeds. Available at: https://www.citizensuk.org/leeds (Accessed: 26/05/20)
- Crownshaw, T., Morgan, C., Adams, A., Sers, M., dos Santos, N., Damiano, A., Gilbert,L., Haage, G., Greenford, D. (2018), ‘Over the horizon: Exploring the conditions of a post-growth world’, The Anthropocene Review, 1 –25.
- Oxford English Dictionary (2009) Concise Oxford English Dictionary: Luxury Edition. 11th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Scoones, I., Stirling, A., Abrol, D., Atela, J., Charli-Joseph, L., Eakin, H., Ely, A., Olsson, P., Pereira, L., Priya, R., van Zwanenberg, P., Yang, L. (2020) ‘Transformations to sustainability: combining structural, systemic and enabling approaches’, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 42, 65-75. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2019.12.004
- Maxwell, N (2020) Our Fundamental Problem: A Revolutionary Approach to Philosophy, McGill-Queen’s University Press. Available at: https://philpapers.org/rec/MAXOFP
- Tassone, V., O’Mahony, C., McKenna, E., Eppink, H., Wals, A. (2017) ‘(Re-)designing higher education curricula in times of systemic dysfunction: a responsible research and innovation perspective’, Higher Education, Doi: /10.1007/s10734-017-0211-4