How can we amplify impact to foster transformative change?

By David P. M. Lam

author-david-lam
David P. M. Lam (biography)

How can the impact of sustainability and other initiatives be scaled or amplified to achieve transformative change?

There are hundreds of promising sustainability initiatives emerging around the world. A sustainability initiative is, for example, a local food initiative from citizens and farmers who promote healthy and organic food production and consumption. Another example is the installation of solar panels by a community to support the use of renewable energies. Such initiatives provide potential solutions for urgent sustainability problems, for instance, biodiversity loss, climate change, social injustice, and poverty in rural areas or cities.

This blog post is based on a review of the literature to understand how sustainability transformations research is currently conceptualizing the scaling or amplifying of impact from initiatives. Although our focus was on sustainability, the processes are likely to also be pertinent for other initiatives.

We synthesized eight processes that describe how initiatives can purposively amplify their impact: stabilizing, speeding up, growing, replicating, transferring, spreading, scaling up, and scaling deep.

  1. Stabilizing involves strengthening and more deeply embedding initiatives in their context, making them more resilient to up-coming challenges and ensuring that they last longer. This means that initiatives employ actions that capitalize on existing opportunities, increase the number of members, supporters, or users, and also professionalize their practice to ensure a lean procedure and clear communication of purpose and mission.
  2. Speeding up involves increasing the pace by which initiatives create impact or are brought to fruition. The aim is that initiatives create change faster, for example, by increasing the efficiency of organisational or implementation procedures to have more impact over time.
  3. Growing entails the expansion of the impact range. Here, an initiative works in the same way across a geographical location, organization, or sector. As a result of a growing process, an initiative covers more of its potential impact range by reaching out with its program, product, solution or service, or by opening affiliates which are dependent on the existing initiative.
  4. Replicating involves the copying of an initiative to a dissimilar context.
  5. Transferring involves taking an initiative and implementing a similar but independent one in a different place, adapted to the new but similar local context. In comparison to the growing process, a similar but independent initiative emerges.
  6. Spreading involves disseminating core principles and approaches to other places with a dissimilar context. In comparison to replicating, a similar but independent initiative emerges, that is informed by principles or approaches from an existing initiative.
  7. Scaling up aims to impact higher institutional levels by changing the rules or logics of incumbent regimes. This means codifying the impact of initiatives into law, policy, or institutions by, for instance, advocacy, lobbying, networking, or supporting alternative visions and discourses.
  8. Scaling deep addresses the change of values and mind-sets. This process aims to change people’s values, norms, and beliefs through the work of the initiative by fostering new mind-sets, changing perceptions, and introducing new ways of relating and knowing as well as new value systems.

To reduce the complexity of amplification processes, we aggregated the eight processes in three categories based on their underlying rationale:

  • Amplifying within consists of processes that generally seek to increase the impact of one specific initiative.
  • Amplifying out consists of processes that generally seek to increase the impact of initiatives by involving more people and places through a greater impact range and an increased number of initiatives.
  • Amplifying beyond consists of processes that are different from the other categories in that they suggest a reconsideration of how initiatives create impact.

A typology combining the three categories and eight processes is illustrated in the figure below.

lam_amplification-processes-through-which-sustainability-initiatives-can-increase-their-impact
Amplification processes through which sustainability initiatives can increase their impact (source: Lam et al., 2020)

We hope that our typology of amplification processes will inform and encourage:

  • researchers to study and support sustainability initiatives (eg., in transdisciplinary research settings),
  • practitioners to use different strategies to increase their impact; and,
  • policy makers to create laws that support the increase of impact.

What is your experience in increasing the impact of sustainability and other initiatives? How successful were these initiatives? What supported and hindered them?

To find out more:
Lam, D. P. M., Martín-López, B., Wiek, A., Bennett, E. M., Frantzeskaki, N., Horcea-Milcu, A. I. and Lang. D. J. (2020). Scaling the impact of sustainability initiatives: A typology of amplification processes. Urban Transformations, 2: 3 (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1186/s42854-020-00007-9

Biography: David P. M. Lam is the Scientific Director of the research project “tdAcademy – Platform for Transdisciplinary Research and Studies”. He works at the Institute for Sustainable Development and Learning at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany. His research focuses on (1) amplification processes to scale the impact of local initiatives that foster sustainability transformations, and (2) the role of different knowledge systems in transformative transdisciplinary research, such as the ones pertaining to indigenous peoples and local communities.

12 thoughts on “How can we amplify impact to foster transformative change?”

  1. I appreciate the typology you present here! Especially the notion of stabilizing, or increasing the resilience of an initiative in the same context. This to me is one area where the science of implementation can tell us a lot about the activities that go in to stabilizing: Identifying who is supporting the effort over time (implementation team), identifying data to be used in an ongoing manner to understand the impact of the initiative and improvements to be made over time to ensure it is resilient (improvement cycles), and how we can continually monitor and ensure that funding for the initiative is established and sustained amidst shifting local and political climates (systemic change) – so much more to be said! You can take a peek at activeimplementation.org for all the ways in which the science of implementation, in practice, supports this resilience.

    Reply
    • Dear Amanda, Thank you so much for sharing your insights. From what I see on your website and understand from your comment, there is lots to learn from implementation science for the stabilization process. I think is theoretically interesting and practically very important as it is one of the key challenges of initiatives to “survive”. With our paper we tried to understand and visualize what amplification processes are currently discussed in literature concerning initiative impact and transformation. We could not go into detail of each process but wanted to provide more an overview. For each amplification process, we can learn from different disciplines and subject areas. I hope that I can do this in my future research.

      Reply
  2. Dear David, this is a wonderful classification of initiatives!

    However, I think that this classification of initiatives and processes is important for sustainability theory, but not important enough for sustainability practice.

    Imagine society as a human being. You can tell a lot about such a person. Such a person can be given many recommendations on initiatives and processes that support their sustainability. And all this will be correct. However, when it turns out that in reality this person is a child or an old man, some of the initiatives and processes will have to be canceled, some of them will need to be changed, and only a small part of them can be left unchanged. Therefore, to make these initiatives and processes practically useful, I suggest that you create a context. Simply put, by analogy with a person, answer the question: what age does modern society correspond to – young, adult, senile? Or maybe the society is similar to the family, in which there are countries-children, countries-adults and countries-old people? Or maybe modern society is currently at a transitional age, like a 14-year-old teenager?

    I believe that in order to achieve transformative changes, initiatives and processes need appropriate conceptual and methodological support (for example, systems transdisciplinarity), which will allow you to look at your classification in a new (practically useful) way. We all need to work closely together on this issue.

    If you are interested in this opinion, you can read some papers:
    – Mokiy, V. S. & Lukyanova T. A. (2019). The External and Internal Planet’s Limits to Growth: Transdisciplinary Rethinking. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 9, No. 9, September 2019, 134-144. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.30845/ijhss.v9n9a16
    – Mokiy, V. S. & Lukyanova T. A. (2019). World Social and Economic Development in the Theory of Ternary Counterpoints. European Scientific Journal. Vol. 15, no 23, ESJ August Edition, pp. 12-27. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.19044/esj.2019.v15n23p12
    – Mokiy, V. S. & Lukyanova, T. A. (2019). Imperatives of Sustainable Development from the Perspective of Systems Transdisciplinary Approach. Transdisciplinary Journal of Engineering & Science, 10. https://doi.org/10.22545/2019/0127
    – Mokiy, V. S. (2019). International standard of transdisciplinary education and transdisciplinary competence. Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, 22, 73-90. DOI: https://doi.org/10.28945/4480

    Reply
    • Dear Vladimir,
      Thank you very much for sharing your perspective. I completely agree that our typology helps more our conceptual thinking about the debate on scaling for transformations. This was also the aim of our paper, to review the most dominant frameworks in sustainability transformations literature that discuss scaling or amplification.

      We developed this typology during our transdisciplinary research in Southern Transylvania in Romania (see paper below). There we work since more than five years with local sustainability initiatives mostly from non-governmental organizations to foster sustainable landscape development. One key argument of our local stakeholders was always that there are so many vibrant initiatives in the region and that it is in their opinion a question of how to scale their impact. Based on discussions around this issue we decided in our transdisciplinary research team to first understand how scaling for transformations is actually discussed in literature. That is why we did the review. In a second step, we translated this knowledge into a practitioner’s book which shows how initiatives increase their impact. This book is available here in English and local language: https://leveragepoints.org/materials/outreach/

      We co-wrote this book together with the initiatives as you can see in the book and also launched it together at an event to which we invited important stakeholders such as politicians.
      I really like the papers you have recommended from your work. It seems that we are interested in a very similar kind of transdisciplinary research. I would like to stay in touch with you and have more in depths discussions, also concerning our new research project tdAcademy – Platform for transdisciplinary research and studies. I look forward to more discussions with you.

      Lam, D.P.M., Horcea-Milcu, A.I., Fischer, J. et al. Three principles for co-designing sustainability intervention strategies: Experiences from Southern Transylvania. Ambio 49, 1451–1465 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-019-01302-x

      Reply
      • Dear David, I apologize for the harsh assessment of the classification. This was my instant and vivid impression of the text! Therefore, please refer to this assessment as a “figure of speech”, but not as a “scientific review”.

        The value of a blog is that it plays the role of the backstage of a scientific conference. As you know, it is in a relaxed atmosphere of live communication with people you trust, during the breaks of the conference you can discuss topics of real cooperation on specific projects.
        Following your advice, I have familiarized myself with the main goals and themes of tdAcademy. Platform for Transdiscplinary Research and Studies. This is an interesting and practically useful project! But, in my opinion, such large-scale projects need serious justification for their effectiveness. I’ll explain.

        Some of the goals and themes of this project address fundamental problems of interdisciplinary interaction and transdisciplinarity that have not been solved in the past 50 years. If we leave the organization of communication of transdisciplinary specialists without radical changes, there is no reason to say that these problems will be solved in the next 50 years. Among these problems, there are subjective and objective problems. One of the objective problems is the “different horizons of the scientific worldview” that the participants of the transdisciplinary project have.

        Therefore, the main problem is not the integration of disciplinary knowledge in transdisciplinary research. The main problem is the problem of communication between specialists who are on different horizons of the scientific worldview. The level of scientific worldview gives the picture of the world, which is guided by the specialist. In each such picture of the world, the object of research looks different, its important qualities and properties are shown or obscured. Each level of scientific worldview corresponds to a scientific approach – from the classification of academic or systems approaches.

        In this case, new languages arise, and disciplinary languages in transdisciplinary projects significantly increase their semantic potential, which can be used in a team of specialists with a single horizon of scientific outlook. Therefore, the structure of communication, exchange of opinions and accumulation of practical experience in transdisciplinary research should be organized in the appropriate “boxes”. Those who wish to learn about this experience should first receive appropriate recommendations (interpretations) from the project organizers. Otherwise, it will be difficult to achieve the expected result. Such recommendations can be developed for each goal and topic of the project. My colleagues and I at the Institute of transdisciplinary technologies call it the “Transdisciplinary security of a complex social project”.

        We remember that it is easy to assert, but difficult to justify your claims. Therefore, we would be happy to cooperate in this project. First of all, at the stage of justifying the effectiveness of the goals and topics of the tdAcademy project. Platform for Transdiscplinary Research and Studies from the perspective of a systems transdisciplinary approach.

        Mokiy, V.S. (2019). Systems Transdisciplinary Approach in the General Classification of Scientific Approaches. European Scientific Journal. Vol. 15, no 19, ESJ July Edition, pp. 247-258. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.19044/esj.2019.v15n19p247

        Reply
  3. This is a very elegant typology. I particularly appreciate the excellent graphics. It triggers two thoughts, based on my experiences rather than any theoretical perspective. 1) Is there an implied sequence? There is a logic to thinking about amplifying within, then without and then beyond and I suppose that might work where initiatives are pushed at the grass roots. But when initiatives are pushed from the top — a government department, foreign donor or senior management, the conventional approach is to start at the ‘beyond’ stage by developing new rules and regulations, followed either by a national roll-out or a few pilots. 2) Should the typology also address the characteristics of impact? As an initiative is amplified through any of these processes, the impact will almost certainly change and frequently key characteristics of the initiative will change too. The change may be neutral, but more often the change results in (sometimes) an improved and more relevant initiative or (more often) a watered down and ineffective initiative. Is this dynamic the same for all processes in the typology or are some more prone to changing the initiative that is being amplified? More broadly, should a typology of how change occurs include the outcome of change?

    Reply
    • Dear Ann, Thank you very much for your thoughtful and positive feedback. Here are my thoughts to your first point: We did not intend to imply any sequence of these amplification processes. From our empirical work, we realize that initiatives often apply a set of amplification processes and that there is no rule which one should be done first or at the same time. It also depends a lot on the type of initiative and its focus (e.g., business vs. NGO, focus on food vs. energy). For example, initiatives that focus on awareness raising, knowledge integration, and education often focus on changing values and mind-sets (i.e., scaling deep) from the beginning. However, what I noticed from our empirical work is also that many initiatives try to stabilize their work independent from their age. Your point on pushing initiatives from the top is interesting. However, I would say before such a role-out happens there were pilot initiatives already that have proved the government to be good.

      Regarding your second point: Very interesting point! I agree that initiatives change if their impact gets amplified. There are many examples of initiatives that actually do not want to increase their impact or that got co-opted by the regime when they increased their impact. I think addressing the characteristics of impact is a challenging task. However, it could improve our understanding of how initiatives create impact and how to best support them. Are you working on this? It would be great to hear more about your experience on this.

      Reply
      • Perhaps this is outside the scope of your typology, but scaling up often requires government approval and/or funding. Here the limiting factor is often political opposition.

        Reply
        • Dear David, Thank you for responding. Yes, I agree with you. In our typology we focused on actions that initiatives can do to influence higher institutional levels, such as governments, municipalities or politicains via focused networking and lobbying.

          Reply

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