By Steve Waddell
Realizing the Sustainable Development Goals presents probably the most audacious human organizing challenge ever. Their number, global scale, range of issues, timeline, and number of actors involved is surely unparalleled. They require transformational change. But what is transformational change? How does it differ from other forms of change? What’s required to achieve it?
Colleagues and I have created the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Transformations Forum to address these questions. In this blog post I first explore three types of change: incremental, reform and transformation, summarized in the figure below. I then briefly explore how they interact and their roles in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals. To tip the balance towards transformational change, I introduce the idea of social-ecological transformations systems and seven emerging guidelines for designing them.
Incremental change is sometimes referred to as working inside the box. It is doing more of the same, within the current rules. It’s what happens when a company opens another store: it’s something that’s been done many times before and there’s a well-known set of activities and steps in doing it. Efficiency is a major concern. A key activity is negotiating within a set of parameters that are quite well known. The repetitiveness produces best practices.
Reform is sometimes referred to as working outside the box. It arises from dissatisfaction with the current rules and structures for doing things, with effectiveness as a major concern. This requires policy reform or organizational restructuring, which produces new reporting mechanisms and relationships, while maintaining the same goals and objectives. A key activity is mediating and discussion to identify new rules. Because of the newness the reform produces, there are no previous comparables, so that good practice, rather than best practice, is the standard.
Transformational change is so challenging, it raises the question: ‘is it a box at all?’. This is a question about the basic ways of thinking about issues and understanding about the way things work. Transformation involves redefinition of goals (eg., from producing energy to producing sustainable energy) which arise from a new understanding about the way things work (eg., carbon emissions result in climate change) and produce fundamental change in operating logics (eg., from ‘mining’ of nature, to harmony with nature).
Transformational change is seen to be a process which changes power structures fundamentally, with new predominating institutions organized with different purposes, processes, perspectives, and performance measures; in other words, there’s a new organizing logic. This is accompanied by a similar process internal to individuals. Together they involve new technologies, cultures and memes.
In transformation, a key activity is visioning new possibilities that require radical innovation socially and often technologically, and certainly societally. The key activity is trying to do things in fundamentally new ways – experimenting. This is often at large scale, such as with reorganizing national energy programs. And it often involves rethinking traditional boundaries (such as ‘national’). Given this radical novelty, there are continuous cycles of emergent learning.
Ioan Fazey has described ten essentials for transformational change in a previous blog post based on work that colleagues and I were also involved in.
Interactions among the three types of change
These three types of change interact. Successful transformational experiments require reform to support destruction (eg., of carbon mining) as well as creation (eg., of sustainable energy producing). Reforms in turn produce new enabling environments and rules to support incremental change. The Sustainable Development Goals provide a very important shared sense of direction. Nevertheless, strategic clarity is lacking. There is little coherence in language and effort. ‘Transformation’ itself means many things to many people, so it’s very hard to work towards it. Action is almost all at the incremental and reform levels – there are many thousands of programs, projects and activities working for any one of the Sustainable Development Goals with strategies that will produce change, but not transformation.
Social-ecological transformations systems
Arising from experience with these challenges in achieving transformation, the Forum has developed the idea of social-ecological transformations systems. Just as we have food systems to produce food security and health systems in support of physical and mental well-being, we need powerful transformations systems to address the scale and complexity of action the Sustainable Development Goals require. Purposeful transformations systems are defined as:
…the ensemble of all those initiatives that are (explicitly, implicitly) aiming to radically change the status quo for a flourishing future.
How to develop powerful transformations systems is still unclear, but seven emerging design guidelines are:
- Be clear about what you mean by ‘transformation’;
- Initially focus on building the power of the ‘early adopters’ of transformation – don’t focus on the hesitant who can easily have a debilitating effect – and become an attractor that builds out from there;
- Use and further develop transformation/transitions science/knowledge about how to transform to realize the Sustainable Development Goals. This requires specific expertise, which may not be held by those whose research focuses on describing the problem;
- Create the transformations systems as early-adopter multi-stakeholder spaces to assemble the needed skills and resources;
- Attend to what is holding back transformation agents from being more successful, what we are calling the deep systems transformations challenge;
- Integrate personal (mindsets, abilities, spirit) transformation with external (institutions, cultures, technologies) transformation; and,
- Understand the work requires deep experimentation with the personal and external, and that the conventional emphasis on science as ‘objective’ actually undermines transformational ability (although conventional science and objectivity are valuable for other things).
What has your experience been with transformational change? Do you have additional suggestions for achieving it? Do the guidelines for social-ecological transformation systems resonate with you?
Biography: Steve Waddell PhD is Lead Staff of the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Transformations Forum, which is growing systems of people, organizations and locales, who are developing transformations systems as key infrastructure to accelerate deep change. He connects diverse groups to take collaborative action and evolve strategic directions in the context of great challenges of paradox, complexity and scale.